You cannot know before it breaks

You cannot know before it breaks - An interview with Gavin Turk in Vienna by Helmuts Caune - 03 May 2018

About a month ago, at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna, I had a chance to meet Gavin Turk (1967), one of the most prominent contemporary British artists. Having studien at the Royal College of Art in late 1980ies, Turk first caught the public eye when the College refused to present him with his postgraduate degree for his work Cave: it consisted only of a whitewashed, empty studio, with a heritage plaque in one corner that stated: “Gavin Turk worked here, 1989-1991”. Soon after that, art collector Charles Saatchi started including Turk's works in his collection. Saatchi was one of the biggest collectors of works by “Young British Artists” (YBA) – a loosely defined group of artists that Turk is a prominent member of. They came into the scene in late 80ies and early 90ies and quickly caught public attention with original, controversial and often outrageous works that, at least at the beginning, were more often shown in warehouses and factories than at galleries. Some of the most notorious of these early exhibitions include FreezeEast Country Yard Show and Progress by Degree, and they featured classics like Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Mat Collishaw's Bullet Hole and Tracey Emin's My Bed. YBA's works and activities revitalization of the rather stale British art scene of the time, invoking a discussion about authenticity and genuinity of contemporary art. They did and still continue to receive polarized reception, from awe and admiration to disgust and denial. Besides Turk, Hirst, Emina and Collishaw the group also included Angus Fairhurst, Anya Gallaccio, Abigail Lane and others. Many of their works were featured in the exhibition of Saatchi's collection titled Sensation that toured the world in late 90ies. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Gavin Turk arrived to the private viewing dressed as a homeless person.

Turk is a thinker and a commentator almost as much as he is an artist. Most of his work revolves around questions about authenticity, authorship, identity and representation of an artwork and artist him/herself. Being hugely influenced by Duchamp and Warhol, he is constantly engaged in the debates about modernist “myth” of the artist – both through his works and his words. Listening to him talk leaves an impression of a constant intensity of thought, doubt and reflection – one so constantly present that it may sometimes become a burden to the thinker himself.

Some of Turk's best known works include sculptures of wax and bronze. The former often feature the author's likeness in various forms: as Sid Vicious, as Che Gueavara, or, again, as a homeless person. The latter include such famous works as “Bag” (2000) (a bronze sculpture of a black rubbish bag) and “Nomad” (2002) (a bronze sculpture of a dirty sleeping bag). In 2011, Turk's 12-meter high sculpture titled “Nail” (and depicting one) was unveiled in One New Change City mall in London and at St Paul's Cathedral.

Beside sculpture, Turk works in various techniques, including painting and installation. He often employs trash as a part of his works and is one of the most prominent artists in this regard. Since 2012, Turk holds a position of Professor of Art and Design at Bath Spa University.

From March 15 to April 19, Turk's solo exhibition titled “God is Gone” was hosted by Galerie Krinzinger, one of the most important private galleries in Vienna. The show was built mainly of two parts, one consisting of various conceptual paintings and installations, such as a painting of a word “it” titled “This is it”, a large painting of a wooden floor placed on the floor and two similar paintings of a marble-patterned background, in one of them a word “GOD” being painted in capital letters and in the other it being gone. The other part of the show consisted of sculptures of different sizes and configurations, made out mainly of various pieces of trash and protected by walls of coloured glass.

By the kindness and hospitality of Galerie Krinzinger, Arterritory was given a chance to meet with Turk for a brief interview.

Let me start with a very basic question. Are you an artist?

This is an essential question... I might as well be… However, I think if I say I am an artist, then that might close some of the possibilities that I had if I were not. One of the things about contemporary art is the dialogue of “that's not art”.  You know, the question of what is art is an important question in the dialogue that surrounds the art itself. So maybe that question is levelled also at the producer of the art. Sometimes I'm an artist because it's important for art to have an author. So in these cases I am, but then, in other ways, I would like to say that sometimes I'm not – I'm not even an audience. I'm like an anti-artist. I'm someone who hasn't got anything to do with it. And then also there's the other category where I am the audience: I go and visit a lot of galleries and see other artists’ work, and I complete their work by “audiencing”.  Art is about audience – art is a cultural activity which requires audience. If I was alone on a desert island, I don't think I would make art. I would maybe do some fiddling around, and if people came on a boat they might say – oh, there's art on this island! There's a culture on this island. But it would be imposed from the outside, not something I would be doing.

I understand about audience, but why is it necessary for an artwork to have an author? There's a lot of absolutely legitimate art with no author. With no known author.

Yeah, it could be anonymous. In terms of the authorship... I think it's possibly because with our contemporary and even modern art, the period where the idea is that making art is communicating with an audience, and when the audience sees an artwork, they come to understand it...they sort of get into a dialogue with the artist, with the author. In the case of art, there's always a question of authenticity. Working with art or thinking about art quite often revolves around thinking about reality or what it means to be, like the project of thinking about being. It's almost necessary to have this idea of the author...I mean, you may be right – it may be great if we could get rid of this idea of authorship, but I think that things are not seen in isolation; everything is seen in a context, and probably one of the first contexts within which you would see an artwork is the author. It’s about oeuvre – a body of work. You look at all these works now displayed here, at Galerie Krinzinger, and it's also about other works I've made, which aren't here, which are, like, invisible. It's stuff that's part of the context...

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