Dorian Leader for The Guardian - 16 November 2016
He has impersonated tramps, punks, Pollock and Che. But who is the real Gavin Turk? As a major retrospective opens, we challenged psychoanalyst Darian Leader to find the man behind his many masks.
Who is Gavin Turk? The title of his major new retrospective consists of a string of questions – Who What When Where How and Why - but it is no accident that the “Who” comes first. Turk’s explorations of artistic identity and authenticity have been as witty as they have been profound, from his early invention of an artist called “Gavin Turk” to his casting of himself as Jackson Pollock to create drip paintings with his own signature.
“Do you have to be an artist to make art?” he asks. “Or are you constituted as an artist by the work?” Turk had seen Robert Morris’s mirror cubes as a child, and would later consider them not simply as reflecting surfaces but as symbols of the artistic establishment itself: if you had these, he thought, you could set up a museum anywhere in the world. They incarnated an authority that sanctioned “art” as “art”. Turk’s later fashioning of corroded mirror cubes both contested this and conceded to it, and Morris’s works have remained an important touchstone.
In his work Cave, a heritage blue plaque stated that Gavin Turk sculptor had worked here, 1989-1991. With no other works in the room, the story goes that the Royal College refused Turk his degree, but at the same moment he was transformed into a recognised artist. It was a moment of authentication, as if he had emerged out of nothing from this single artwork. The artist who works on the question of how art and artists are produced is himself subject to a myth about his own creation!
Like Duchamp, Turk constantly sidesteps the labels that are assigned him, while still operating within them. “I am trying to move away from anything that would be a quintessentially Gavin Turk piece,” he says. But this process is recursive, as every new work will be appropriated by the media, by art history, by culture, and a whole set of works explores this recursiveness: Turk as Pollock or Manzoni or Fontana; Turk as punk or revolutionary; Turk as Hello cover celebrity; Turk hosting A Night out with Gavin Turk.
Turk’s name is ever-present in his work. He has called it “a found object”, to be treated and operated with like a material. He paints, chisels, sculpts, atomises and inverts it, contracts it to “Gav” or “GT”. He blurs it, wobbles it, writes it in eggshells. Where some artists become buried in their name, Turk constantly challenges the space between himself and his, using its apparent constraints to create an emancipation. The name is his clay or paint.
If identity is always being imposed on us, the many masks that Turk wears – from the revolutionary to the punk to the sailor – can be understood as uniforms to don within this space. Adopting a mask is perhaps the most logical way of operating with the fact that we can’t control the labels that are assigned to us. If what is imposed is by definition not us, if it brings with it an inherent artificiality, what better way to reside there than by accentuating this artificiality. If being Gavin Turk involves how Gavin Turk is constituted for the art world, the media etc, why not just go one step further and actually don a disguise, a mask that symbolises, in part, the fact that identity is given to us, whether we like it or not?
But there is also another current, dealing less with masks and disguise than 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. If identity tells us what we are supposed to be, separation elects its imagery from the margins of what can be represented, in waste, in detritus, in whatever is foreign or excluded from ready and received representation.
Turk’s focus on waste products is a crucial counterpoint to his works that treat disguise and masks. He casts apple cores, cigarette butts, burnt matches and all manner of waste in bronze. The more he interrogates how we are formed by discourse, the more he deals with the artist known as “Gavin Turk”, the more that separation demands some kind of staging. The apple cores, used tyres, loo rolls and junk incarnate this aspect of existence, and they are just as much self-portraits as any of the signature works.
When Turk dressed as a tramp and attended the opening of Sensation, his act was situated within this logic. He was there as a waste product, as what would normally be excluded from this high-end art world gathering. The opposite, in fact, of a blue plaque. He was there as an apple core or a skip or a polystyrene cup or an oil stain or a burnt match.
Darian Leader When you were at the Royal College of Art in the late 1980s, you decided to invent an artist called “Gavin Turk”. Why?
Gavin Turk I spent a lot of time trying to think about what name I could choose to start my career as an artist. After about a year, I realised I could just use the name I actually had, that there were interesting and useful parts to it. I wanted to be able to sustain a critical distance from my art. I would look at other artists and see that here was the work and here was the artist and there was sometimes not an obvious correlation. I realised that there was a separation between the person who’s making the art and the art itself. But I was interested in putting the artist’s name or signature or brand into the actual place of the artwork.