Gavin Turk Both A Trickster And A Culture Hero By Edward Lucie-Smith

Gavin Turk

Damien Hirst has become a major patron, in addition to being a celebrated artist. When he stages a show at his Great Newport Street Gallery, which is one of the most handsome art spaces in London, though not alas one blessed with good links to public transport, pretty well everything you see will be items that belong to him. This is the case with the aptly entitled Who What When How & Why, a solo show for his fellow YBA Gavin Turk. It’s a significant alliance in more ways than one.

Turk isn’t exactly an unknown. Though the Royal College of art refused him a degree because his graduate show consisted solely of a blue heritage plaque stating that ‘Gavin Turk worked here 1989-91, the refusal immediately made him more celebrated than his fellow students who did graduate. He was present in the Sensation! exhibition that launched the YBA phenomenon in a big way internationally, first at the Royal Academy, later at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Since then Turk has had solo exhibitions in London, New York. Istanbul, Vienna, Paris, Cape Town, Vienna and The Hague, and has participated in numerous major group shows.

He has also been responsible for public sculptures in London: one close to the Press Centre Building in the Olympic Park, another right next to St Paul’s cathedral. He has received a couple of awards from the R.A. and an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of East London. He is currently Professor of Art and Design at Bath Spa University.

In today’s terms, his track record could hardly be more thoroughly Establishment.

Yet the title of his show is apt because it is, in fact, a succession of expressions of unease about the place of contemporary art and the contemporary artist in the context provided for them by today’s society. It asks a lot of questions, not so much directly about what these are, but what the audience thinks art is supposed to do, and what art actually does. It isn’t entirely a surprise to find The Guardian newspaper, which tends to be a cheerleader for all things YBA (just so long as they stick to some kind of conceptualist party line), celebrating the show with a long interview. Not however with a serving art critic – much more sensibly the interview is with a psychoanalyst.

Darian Leader, the psychoanalyst in question, also has some remarks to make of his own about the shifting yet ego-centered nature of Turk’s artistic personality: “Adopting a mask,” he notes, “is perhaps the most logical way of operating with the fact that we can’t control the labels that are assigned to us.”

He adds further: “There is also another current, dealing less with what psychoanalysis calls separation. Separation doesn’t mean separation from a person or from something dear to us, but separating from discourse. It refers to the process of extracting oneself from the many labels and identities that are imposed on us.”

Gavin Turk seems to me both a trickster and a culture hero, sure enough. But one infected with a good dose of contemporary angst.

It may seem insulting if I say that Turk’s show at the Newport Street Gallery struck me as one long wriggle, but in fact, I mean it as a compliment. Here is the work of an artist who is never going to be completely comfortable in his own skin, and who has the courage needed to show us this. It’s a show about vulnerability, not about self-love or self-possession. When Sensation opened its doors, Turk made an appearance dressed as a tramp. This reappears in the current show as a Mme Tussaud’s style waxwork image of the artist, entitled The Last Bum. In the same room, there is another waxwork of Turk, now disguised as Sid Vicious, and this time safely enclosed in a glass vitrine. It is entitled Pop. Pop star, or Pop-father-of-us-all-in-a-modern-society? It could be either or both.

Here is nothing quite as it seems. The Warhols are not Warhols. The Lucio Fontanas are not by Lucio Fontana. The Jackson Pollocks – very convincing these – are not by Jackson Pollock. In fact, the Pollocks are made up of the scribbled signature ‘Gavin Turk’, repeated over and over. The rubbish bags, cardboard boxes, and discarded apple cores are trompe l’oeil. They are made of cast and painted bronze, and seem more likely to be permanent in the long run than you are.

I venture to quote here from Wikipedia, concerning the near universal myth of the Trickster:

‘Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures… The Trickster crosses both physical and often breaks societal rules. Tricksters “…violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis.”

Often, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both. The Trickster openly questions and mocks authority. They are usually male characters and are fond of breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods.

All cultures have tales of the Trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths, Hermes plays the Trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined.

Gavin Turk seems to me both a trickster and a culture hero, sure enough. But one infected with a good dose of contemporary angst.

Words/Photo: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2016

Visit the exhibition: Gavin Turk: Who What When How & Why, Newport Street Gallery 23 November 2016 – 19 March 2017


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