ART REVIEW – David Shrigley’s “Brain Activity” at the Hayward


At the entrance to David Shrigley’s first major show in London at the Hayward, there’s a full-sized taxidermy stuffed headless ostrich. Clearly he’s buried his head in the sand and can’t find it, because I’d assume, his head is buried in the sand. Indeed, the piece is called ‘Headlessness”, which is both just a funny play on the cliché of burying your head in the sand and a nice physical expression of “mindlessness”. A nice way to ‘start’ and exhibition.

We then walk through some wrought iron gates, in which the words, “Do not linger at the gate” have been carved. The words of course transform the object from a gate (there to keep people out) to an invitation (“do not linger…”) to a piece of everyday life re-imagined into something resembling sculpture (the way Jasper John’s painting of flags resembled flags and the way Andy Warhol’s Brillo box resembled a Brillo box). But here, we don’t have a piece of art resembling everyday reality (the Brillo box), but everyday reality resembling a piece of art.

The image shown here is that of a hanging sign that say’s “hanging sign”. This – like the gate discussed above – is of course a semiotician’s dream. It’s also a nicely sly discussion about the extent to which we need an artist’s words or explanations to understand his/her intent. Do we need the words, “hanging sign” to know that what we’re looking at is a hanging sign? But of course, the fact that it’s in a gallery has transformed it as a signifier of some sort of art, since hanging signs are meant to signify things other than themselves (hairdressers or banks or whatever the sign should be advertising). Only art can be thus self-referential as a route to leading viewers beyond their own insular world views.

And so it goes throughout the exhibition. The crudely executed cluster of drawings/doodles that follow are really just blips of Shrigley’s train of thought – a series of random associations that seem to have no organizing principle… other than the fact that they’re his train of thought. It’s as though he is trying to externalize consciousness, and by so doing, displaying a self-portrait which is as accurate (more accurate?) than the painterly idea of a portrait, which, of course is some sort of image of a face.

Pretty much everything in the show (which is a mix of sculpture, drawings, stuffed animals, video animations and – bizarrely – a glass globe filled with his clipped toenails – I guess all artists put so much of themselves into their art, that the subject becomes its own object.) twists and re-invents ‘convention’ in ways that are at times laugh out loud, funny.

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