Reviews PerformanceReviews Published 1 March 2012

David Shrigley: Brain Activity

Hayward Gallery ⋄ 1st February - 13th May 2012

An overdose of idiosyncrasy.

Carmel Doohan

Looking over people’s heads to see the so-so one liners and crudely drawn pictures already glimpsed in the greetings card shop was perhaps always going to be a disappointing experience. Yet initially, once one negotiates an epic queue that stretches all the way out the gallery, things seem more promising. A pair of waders – waist high wellies with braces – stand filled with foam sealant, petrified in mid stride like someone who has just made a very big mistake. Opposite these, bent and twisted with evil intent, a ladder prepares to advance. An over-sized iron key and a Rich Tea biscuit are nailed up on the wall and beside them stands a life-sized headless ostrich, a giant tooth, riddled with decay and a long, thin brass stick. This sculptural state-of-the-nation is clever, but not too clever; it enables the viewer to feel good about themselves for piecing it all together. Only on closer inspection does a delicate finger nail at the top the pole reveal that we are being given the finger.

Cowboy constructions, determined obliviousness and impending doom announce themselves with a burst of momentum. Yet this momentary rush is familiar from the Saatchi Gallery’s irreverent fibreglass sensations. As with the Chapman brothers’ penis-nosed children or even Damien Hirst’s latest extravaganza, while the colour, the gloss and the immediacy of ‘getting it’ intoxicate at first, this feeling soon wanes.

If his absurd installations are fun, Shrigley’s photographs are far more random and only vaguely witty: a balloon with a face drawn on it tucked up in bed; a ‘Lost Pet’ sign in search of a nameless grey pigeon; a Barbie doll with the body of  a pumpkin. There are also some rather arty-looking black and white photos of railings (caption: ‘bent railings’) and an alleyway (caption: ‘alleyway’). To say they are obvious is, obviously, stating the obvious (witness the dead dog wielding the sign proclaiming ‘I’m dead’). Screens show wobbly, roughly sketched animations, one of a headless man bashing away on a drum kit, another of a man sleeping and another that riffs on Martin Creed’s Turner Prize winning work: lights being switched on and off.

There are walls full of Shrigley’s now familiar folksy cartoons showing everyday objects with off-key platitudinous punchlines. It looks like art brut, but despite the idiosyncrasy of his doodling, Shrigley is a Glasgow School of Art alumnus whose illustrations regularly appear in The Guardian. Without the uneasy power endowed upon outsider art by its earnest naivety, these are just badly executed pictures of uninteresting things.

The show is nothing if not accessible, but it is unclear to what exactly this access is being provided. The mundane and the obvious are clearly the subject but, beyond that, what is being said? Despite the knowing tone, this lack of substance quickly becomes disheartening. Shrigley’s art is like a wacky image a friend uploads onto  Facebook, shared by so many, endlessly repeated and circulated, that any initial humour value is soon diluted. There’s only so much knowing quirkiness one can take before it gets boring.

Brain Activity is at the Hayward Gallery until 13th May 2012. David Shrigley’s opera, Pass the Spoon, is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 5th and 6th May 2012. For tickets and further information, visit the Southbank Centre website.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

David Shrigley: Brain Activity Show Info




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