Gavin Turk interview (2005)

A discussion with the London-based artist known for approaching issues of authorship, originality, influence and appropriation.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 3 January 2010
This interview first appeared in Sculpture, 24(3), pp. 20-1 in April 2005. In 2009, the interview was listed in the selected bibliography of Tate Modern’s Pop Life: Art in a material world exhibition catalogue.

Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk’s works are an art historian’s dream (or perhaps nightmare). You can often take your pick of forms and subjects direct from a star-studded history-of-art cast: Jacques-Louis David, Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, Jasper Johns, and more. In a contemporary British context, Turk’s works also help to fuel the insatiable desire for the latest vernacular art shock. He has cast himself in wax as a homeless man— after a fusion with Sid Vicious and Elvis— and created high art/low art bronzed sleeping and trash bags, not to mention a cardboard box that you might just trip over.

These works form part of Gavin Turk’s investigations into such themes as the value of things and originality / influence. Since his inclusion in the high-profile “Sensation” exhibition (1997) alongside other YBAs (such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Marc Quinn), Turk went on to “The Stuff Show” at South London Gallery (1998). More recently, he has had solo shows at the New Art Gallery in Walsall (2002), the New Art Centre Sculpture Park and Gallery, Salisbury (2003), and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York (2005).

R.J. Preece: Is it easy to balance your personal objectives in art-making and exhibition with your professional aspirations?

Gavin Turk: I often find it difficult to produce the right art at the right speed at the right time. Shows often come when I have little available work, and sometimes when I’ve got lots of work there isn’t a show. So the work doesn’t get released in a very good way. I find this balance quite complicated and difficult, maybe it improves with experience.

R.J. Preece: What sorts of challenges do you face at this point in your career?

Gavin Turk: I think that the main challenge I face is to concretize— or try to make clearer— some of the avenues in my work. Maybe it’s a case of taking certain ideas that seem to be moving apart and converging them. I think there’s a lot of work for me to do in terms of having a better showing profile as well. I’ve only done a handful of [solo] exhibitions really. I certainly haven’t done any high-audience exhibitions, like museum shows.

R.J. Preece: Authorship, originality, and influence are key issues in your work. Why do you choose to appropriate in so direct a manner?

Gavin Turk: When I first started using appropriation, it was obviously at a historical moment: artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were dealing with overt appropriation. I was surrounded by people making work with a kind of verisimilitude, which was actually “un-overt.” And I found it sort of like “cooking the books.” I think one of the best challenges to originality is when you appropriate in a literal, direct way. I found it a useful working method. I suppose it’s an obvious acknowledgment of influence, of what I’m looking at and around as I try to establish my language, my point of view.

R.J. Preece: Do you think that achieving “originality” is futile, or is it simply a construction based on a set of exponential, pick-and-choose criteria?

Gavin Turk: The notion of originality is not necessarily anything that motivates me, inasmuch as I think that it is a concept that has a cultural overlay. I don’t set out to be “original.” That’s a secondary situation.

R.J. Preece: What is the primary situation?

Gavin Turk: Simply to put forward, to be able to show, those things that excite and interest me.

R.J. Preece: What exactly do you mean about value?

Gavin Turk: I look at the notion of something’s value a lot— in relation to how I can proceed in thinking about the viability or importance of making things. I’m constantly brought to how valuable, or not valuable, such-and-such an experience is— economically, physically, and mentally.

R.J. Preece: How does this relate to your work Box (2002)?

Gavin Turk: Well, I see an obvious art historical reference to Andy Warhol— the Brillo sculptures. But the boxes have been de-branded. The box is for containing something else. In a way, what interested me was the point at which the sculpture becomes very difficult to see, because what you want to see is inside the box.

R.J. Preece: What issues arise when you reference homelessness, as in Bum (1998) and Nomad (2001–03)?

Gavin Turk: The main issue for me is the idea of the vagrant, or person with no fixed abode, being someone who defines social space or a societal edge. You could establish an “outside” point, and from there you could shine a light on what’s “inside.” I suppose it’s similar to the idea of a revolutionary character and the thing that defines the Other.

R.J. Preece: What do you aim to achieve socially with these works?

Gavin Turk: To deal with the notion of looking at something that isn’t seen. To deal with something that [perhaps] you don’t want to see. To see something again that you’d overlooked or that had gone out of your peripheral view.

R.J. Preece: When we see your completed works in a gallery, we often don’t know the ins and outs of your process. Were there particular challenges in designing/constructing Bum, for example?

Gavin Turk: With Bum, the head is modeled in clay and then cast in wax. The eyes of the sculpture are actually closing. It’s really hard to model your head when your eyes are closing— you can’t look at yourself, so you have to make it up a bit. You work from photographs, but it’s quite complicated.

People often ask me how Nomad was made, because it’s a cast figure inside a sleeping bag. They want to know if I was inside the bag while it was molded. But obviously the process takes a few days. It would have been impossible for me to be inside the sleeping bag. I wanted absolutely the highest detail, and the only material I know to use for that is silicon, which has a fairly slow catalyzing rate.

R.J. Preece: With “The Stuff Show,” the language of your work facilitated mediagenic descriptions and sexy headlines. What do you think about this?

Gavin Turk: Hopefully I’m talking to people who experience the work directly rather than hearing about it through other media— whether that be through newspapers or magazines. [Because my work includes] a kind of vernacular language, as well as a “being English” kind of thing, maybe that makes it more readable in some way.