Restaurateur Mark Hix reminisces with artist Gavin Turk about the glory days of the YBAs ahead of his upcoming show at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery

Mark Hix
Source: Greg Sigston

I’ve converted a couple of veggie artists over the years, tempting them with tasty cuts of rare beef – Tim Noble and Mat Collishaw spring to mind – but I suspect Gavin Turk is a lost cause. Gavin, one of the original YBAs, has been veggie for over five years and went full-vegan last year; he’s not the kind of bloke who does things by halves.

This presented me with something of a problem, given I’ll be putting on the food for the opening night of his upcoming show at Newport Street Gallery, where my restaurant Pharmacy 2 is also located. Gavin didn’t insist on it being an all-vegan affair but I figured, why not indulge the minority and surprise the majority. It’s going to be five-courses and there will be 50 guests, which is no small undertaking.

So we treated our lunch as a test-run for the big night. Fabrizio, my head chef, knocked out a Thai salad with green papaya, roasted whole penny buns with soft polenta – made with almond milk – an autumn vegetable broth with spelt and roasted squash. I went for absinth jelly for dessert, which Gavin said he’d tried many years ago at an art party I cooked for. I explained I’d upgraded it a tad these days, serving it in brain-shaped jelly moulds I bought from the pound shop in Portobello Market. I also suspend a plastic ear inside the jelly and light it from the base; very Van Gogh.

Mark Hix: You were my neighbour in Shoreditch some twenty-odd years ago, one of the many artists who migrated there to live and work; we certainly gave the local estate agents a good selling point – ‘Come and live amongst the YBAs in Shoreditch!’

Gavin Turk: Yeah, agents like the late James Goff from Stirling Ackroyd always made more money than the artists. There were certainly a lot of big nights out back in those days, they have become kind of notorious.

MH: You’re putting on a show at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street gallery; how did you guys first meet?

GT: We got to know each other when Damien rocked up to a small group show with the art dealer Jay Jopling. It was in a space called the Clove Gallery in an old spice warehouse behind the design museum, some time in ‘92. I had a piece in the show, a little black cast liquorice pipe, and Jay left his name at the desk to buy it. This was pre-White Cube St James’s, when Jay was working out of his house in Brixton, putting on small shows from there. Damien and I hit it off and we started to tag along to openings with Jay, where we’d become the entertainment at the after party. They were messy days, not that it’s got any tamer now; it’s just Damien gave up.

Credit: Greg Sigston

As restaurant fuck-ups go, it was a good one. Pharmacy made more money in bankruptcy than it did while it was running.

MH: Well, he’s got a lot of important things to worry about now, not least this gallery! I think what he’s done with the design of Pharmacy 2 is amazing.

GT: It really is. Do you get a lot of people coming in here just to take pictures? I’ve seen about eight people come in and take a picture of that divider with the pills in it.

MH: Yeah, it’s that kind of place. Damien made an original piece for Tramshed and that got photographed all the time; Tramshed was the most instagrammed restaurant in the world. Back then people were more wary of visitors taking photographs but we saw the potential as a way of getting free publicity.

GT: Well, not exactly free: if you put that divider with the pills in it up for auction, you could buy a house with the money. It would make a lovely shower screen. It’s quite heavy though. It’d tip my house into the Thames. And I live quite a long way from the Thames.

MH: Your upcoming show consists of around 60 pieces of your work, all owned by Damien, which he’s collected since you first met, from a tiny spent match, to a skip and an eight metre painting. Do you have a big collection of Damien’s work?

GT: No way, I couldn’t afford it. I can’t even afford my own work. I reckon if an artist can buy his own work then they’re selling it too cheap. I was wondering, were you involved in the original Pharmacy restaurant?

MH: I ate there once but I didn’t have anything to do with it financially. It was a disaster. It started out well – good food, good cocktails – but before you knew it there was a DJ, and things that really had no place in a restaurant. It started to believe its own hype.

GT: It should have been great: it had Liam Carson and Matthew Freud behind it, Damien doing the interior; how does that not work?

(Source: Greg Sigston)

MH: I know, it’s weird. I remember Damien’s manager Frank Dunphy got a call saying ‘Pharmacy’s folded and everything’s about to be trashed’. The site had been bought by M&S and they had four days to get in there and get the stuff out; after that it’s going to the dump. Frank’s biggest coup was sending for MOMA to ship out the fittings, which were all made by Damien – all the bar stools and the cutlery and plates. They put it up for auction and made £11m – with stuff they saved from a skip! That’s how tuned in with the moment they were. That was what set him up for doing his big auction at Sotheby’s. As restaurant fuck-ups go, it was a good one. Pharmacy made more money in bankruptcy than it did while it was running.

GT: Still, I’m sure he was gutted it didn’t work out. It’s not all about the money...

MH: You were on the judging team for my Hix Awards for young artists this year. What did you make of the quality of entrants?

GT: Really strong. Definitely the best work we’ve seen since it started four years ago.

MH: I agree, a lot of the work has already been pre-sold, which is encouraging. The purchasing of students’ art was a bit of a rarity when you were studying, right?

GT: Yeah, I didn’t sell anything for years.

MH: What else are you working on at the moment?

GT: Well, I sat next to the fashion designer Alice Temperley at a Groucho Club artists’ lunch recently and I agreed to design a new cider brandy label for her dad Julian. I have an apple sculpture I could use like an embossed image.

MH: Damien took about four years to do the last label for Julian, for this 20 year old limited edition bottle he did, and by that time he’d given up booze altogether.

GT: I’ll have to get the label done before the show, you guys can come up with a new Temperley-Turk cocktail.

Gavin Turk’s Who What When Where How and Why will run at Newport Street Gallery from 23 November–19 March

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