Staring at a braai, thinkingby Sean O'Toole / 08.01.2010
We’re standing around a burnt out fire laagered by 12 bits of brick and stone. We gaze at it forlornly. The fire offers no warmth. No matter, it’s summer, and it isn’t really a fire. It’s something else, a simulation: a bronze sculpture pretending to be a fire. The work is by London artist Gavin Turk. He is currently showing a group of self-described, “highly clichéd” works at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. The gallery has been specially wallpapered with silver foil for the occasion.
It’s Friday morning. Turk, who came to prominence in the early 1990s with work appropriating the signature styles of well-known artists, in particular Warhol, kicks off proceedings with a walkabout of his show. As he admits at one point, it is easy to confuse his solo show for a group show. Here’s why. The walls of the gallery include large-scale silkscreened self-portraits of Turk as Warhol’s Che Guevara, Joseph Beuys and Elvis Presley, also a series of abstracted canvases that unimaginatively riff on Warhol’s piss paintings. There are also a couple of works reinventing Robert Indiana’s famous stack of letters “LOVE”, here reassembled to read “TURK”.
It is however the burnt out fire that intrigues.
“This is a bronze cast of an urban fire,” explains Turk, his unfussy dress consisting of a T-shirt, open red button shirt, black jeans and pointy boots. “It is called Burn Out. It connects up with several other sculptures I have made, which are casts of real things painted to look like what they originally were.” He is referring to the apple caw, polystyrene cup and toilet roll, all bronze casts, at the entrance. “The things that I use are generally to do with waste, to do with something that is already finished its life.”
This last point, it turns out, is crucial. Turk, who recently launched a not-for-profit project called the House of Fairy Tales to make art less indecipherable to kids and their parents, unpretentiously explains that his work is about retrieving seemingly lost and exhausted things – familiar images, everyday objects – and making them appear new, fresh, relevant. It’s hardly a revolutionary proposition. Think Duchamp’s urinal. Think Warhol’s soup can. Think, think, think… don’t think, listen.
Shortly before Turk ushered his mute entourage of listeners to his fire that isn’t a fire, he showed us a silkscreen of him as Andy Warhol – the work directly quotes a late period self-portrait of Warhol in fright wig, partially obscured by camouflage. “You have to make something that is familiar enough for people to see it,” he says of his tack as an artist, “and then you have to make something original enough that there is something they haven’t seen before. If you make something that is too out there, for want of a better word, people don’t see it, don’t recognise it; and if you make something that is too familiar, it becomes boring, too known.”
Now seated, chatting one on one, Turk says this process involves, “a sense of attraction and disillusionment at the same time” – with the work itself, but arguably also with the intellectual output of the artist too. Anyway, this is all sounding too rarefied. Throughout his talk, Turk expresses doubt about the reliability of images, their slippery, smokescreen like qualities. “You can’t talk in a straightforward way about pictures, about representation, because they don’t stay still,” he said earlier during his walkabout. His doubt is not entirely unfounded. Turk’s career developed pretty much in tandem with Photoshop, which was released in 1990, one year before the artist’s tutors failed his graduate exhibition, which consisted solely of a heritage plaque with his name and the years spent at university on it.
The artist smiles at my reference to Photoshop. Yes, it implies, but how about this. It is 1989, Turk says. He is in Paris, at a show by the American artist James Turrell. After staring at some pictures of Roden Crater, he heads for the door. Wait, says an assistant, there is more, an installation in the other room. “I went into a black room and waited for something to come out of the darkness,” he says. Nothing happens.
After waiting a while, he starts feeling about in the dark. Turk realises he is in the antechamber to the installation. He pushes through to a huge room. “It had two lights shining on the walls,” he remembers. “I walked around. I thought I would like to touch the artwork. I gingerly walked up to it while looking around for cameras. I put my hand out to touch it and realised I wasn’t looking at a screen but into space which had become flattened by these lights. It felt for a second that I was bending time in my hand, then I realised I was in a room that was even bigger than the room I thought I was in, with this infinite purple colour.”
Here’s the point of the story: “It was a very nice, slow unravelling of my preconceptions. Once I saw the trick I could never go back and re-see it in the pure way I saw it before.”