YBA Gavin Turk: From blue plaques to bin bags

Gavin Turk: My work is quite traditional - I'm an object maker, although I'm still experimenting

Gavin Turk was born in Guildford in 1967. The Royal College of Art refused to award his MA when all he exhibited for his final show was a single blue plaque reading “Gavin Turk worked here, 1989-1991.” This did nothing to stop a meteoric rise culminating in his work being exhibited alongside other Young British Artists (including Damien Hirst, Christopher Ofili and Tracey Emin) in Charles Saatchi’s landmark “Sensation” exhibition in 1997.

Early in his career Turk was renowned for superimposing his own face on images of iconic figures including Sid Vicious, Che Guevara and Andy Warhol. More recently he won acclaim for a series of bronze trompe-l’œil sculptures of black bin-bags. City A.M. caught up with him ahead of the Macmillan De’Longhi Arts auction, to which he has donated a work.

What piece have you donated to the auction?
A print of a sculpture that I made of a blue neon door. The door seems to lead through to the other side of the frame. I’ve always like neon – it advertises, promotes, says “Come over here, come through this threshold.” With the door, the material and the message mean the same thing. It’s a kind of invitation, and this is fitting in a charity auction; it’s an entrance, come on in.

Was the refusal of the RCA to grant your MA a help or hindrance to your career?
It was a massive help [because it was a good story] but that was back in 1993, so I’d like to be known for other things now. A better work with a similar idea behind it is my black bin bags. In 2000 I made bin bags out of bronze and painted them black so it looked just like a real bin bag. It makes you reconsider the value of art and the labour that goes into making it.

Why do you put yourself in your art so much?
I often use my body or my face or my name in my artwork, almost as a stand in, as a negative. I’m not the person you think is going to be there. It’s the face of “not Sid Vicious” or “not Andy Warhol”. It’s the face of the unknown, almost an “unface”. Then – hopefully – the work becomes an instrument in making you consider the way you think about icons or cliches.

How confident are you that the public will engage with the work on that level?
I’m hopeful, but you also have to understand that the greatest artworks that have been made are great because they’ve been misunderstood by the widest number of people. People approach art in different ways; to help with problems, perhaps, or simply to think about things or to change their minds. As an artist I’m just adding to the conversation.

What did the YBAs do for British art?
There was a big shift in the general perception of art from the early 90s and there were a large number of artists who were important in spearheading a process of change. Something like Tate Modern wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a refreshed and renewed interest in art. The Tate Modern has brought tourists and inspired students; it’s a massive attraction that has made us culturally wealthier.

Have you been to Tracey Emin's latest exhibition at the White Cube? Do you like Emin's work?
Not yet, but I will. Tracey has an amazing ability to elicit subjective responses from people. I’ve been to many exhibitions that Tracey’s done and how I respond really depends on how I feel at the time. Sometimes I’ll be bowled over and adore it, and others I won’t really be bothered. I think her work is better when it is more off the page. I like her performances, her story telling, her more experiential work. I’m not sure her paintings, sculptures and drawings are her strength.

She went back to classical drawing and sculpture for the exhibition, can you imagine ever doing the same?
My work is quite traditional anyway – I’m an object maker, although I’m still trying to experiment and push the edges of how I see things, of what I think is my style, my signature.

What is the favourite piece of art you own?
I’ve got an old print by Edward Ruscha from 1971. It’s two colours, a brown stain on a white background and it just says “Hollywood” on it. It’s made with a vegetable material, like a gravy mixture, and at the moment I’m interested in the idea of art fading and being unstable. It’s a work that’s in progress, and I enjoy observing the change.

Do you buy a lot of art?
I’m not a great consumer but I realise that art has to occupy some economic space, whether you pick it up off the street, paying pennies for it, all the way through to priceless masterpieces. What I would prefer is a space where we can trade, swapping things with other artists. For me, that is a better kind of economy.

Gavin Turk has donated an artwork to the Macmillan De’Longhi Arts Programme, a seven day public art exhibition at Darren Baker Gallery beginning 21 October and culminating in a private VIP silent auction on 27 October.

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