Art's king of trash on plastic, protest, prison and canning his pee

Art's king of trash on plastic, protest, prison and canning his pee

Stuart Jeffries for The Guardian - 15 October 2019

The former YBA once put a plaque up to himself – but these days he’s more likely to be getting locked up with Extinction Rebellion. He’s even recycling his urine

‘I have a lot of piss,” says Gavin Turk. He’s going to need it. He shows me a drink can he’s made from silver bearing the label “artist’s piss” in several languages as we stand in his studio, fittingly located in Canning Town, London.

Turk is planning to fill as many cans like this with his own urine as necessary – in order to buy, well, a can of excrement made by his hero, the late Piero Manzoni. Before his untimely death aged 29 in 1961, Manzoni – or so art world orthodoxy has it – filled 90 tin cans with his own ordure, sealing and labelling it “Merda d’Artista”.

In 2012, Christie’s auctioned number 12 , expecting it to sell for £40-60,000. Instead, it went for £103,250. “They’d probably fetch £200,000 now,” says Turk. So you’d better get to work. “I already have,” he laughs. “I’m storing samples in plastic bottles upstairs.”

Turk has no idea how much each can will sell for, nor who might buy it, though he does have a roster of possible collectors, including fellow Young British Artist (YBA) Damien Hirst. Perhaps Deutsche Bank, who already have a collection of Turk’s drawings on display at their Frankfurt HQ, might like some Piscia d’Artista for the foyer.

“What I’m hoping to do,” sums up Turk, “is convert piss into shit.” The artist has, after all, been an alchemist for three decades now, making art from bin bags, apple cores, flat tyres, cardboard boxes, spent matches and other detritus cast in bronze and meticulously painted. He even made cufflinks in resin and 24-carat gold modelled on spat-out chewing gum. Then there was the crushed Transit Van that was the subject of last year’s A Brexit Portfolio and Other Transit Disasters, in which he produced silkscreen images riffing on Andy Warhol’s car crash canvases.

“We are what we throw away,” says the man the Financial Times recently called the laureate of waste. For his new exhibition, Letting Go, Turk has picked up around 500 bottles from the streets of London and put rows of them in plywood cases that will be displayed in the windows of the Reflex gallery in Amsterdam. Inside, visitors will be able to see watercolour paintings of crushed water bottles, a pair of bronze cast flattened bottles – one called Pet, the other Pete, both with an £8,500 asking price. “Someone posted on Instagram, ‘I’m not sure I’d spend £8,500 on a discarded bottle,’” laughs Turk. Naive: like much of Turk’s art, it’s likely to be a good investment.

But there is a political dimension to the work. As his gallery statement puts it: “The demand in the ironic symbolic purity of water is causing our oceans to be filled with microplastics. PET plastic is highly recyclable, yet big companies believe that consumers would not buy a slightly murky or imperfect bottle. So instead, 93% of all plastic water bottles are newly formed.”He tells me: “The thing about these bottles is that they’ve become so socially unacceptable they’re going to disappear. At which point, my collection will become valuable.” So how do you carry your water, if you’re so clever? “I have a method,” says Turk. “You see, I might drink some water before I go out, and when I get there, I might drink some more.” It could catch on.

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