As a Londoner I often feel obliged or at least a responsibility to enjoy all that the city has to offer – staying in the shadows of Zone 2 on a wet Saturday afternoon being a bit of no-no. Thus in this guilt-induced you-should-be-doing-something mindset, I found myself visiting the David Shrigley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – culture box ticked. However, examining Shrigley’s work is not that easy, and it was “Brain Activity” by nature as well as by exhibit, as Shrigley tested his audience’s appreciation of modern art, alongside their IQs.
As one of the capital’s supposed “cultured, young things”, I left feeling perplexed and rather pitiful – rather than indulging his critics with wow pieces reflective of Britain’s best, Shrigley toys with his audience’s intellect with the effect that I was determined to make sense of a painted-on door, and struck with a bizarre longing to ring a bell marked with “when Jesus returns”. With hindsight, there is no sense or answer to Shrigley’s work – only that it makes a mockery of what we know and assume. All this contributes towards writing a challenging blog post – the wordy outcome to fits of nervous laughter (made nervous because you were never sure if you were meant to be laughing) the odd ‘eureka moment’ and a spot of human self-questioning. Ultimately, Shrigley was the pupeteer of my emotions and the gallery space was carefully curated to maximise my sense of intrigue, surprise and confusion.
At this point, it is probably best to describe what “Brain Activity” entailed – a sort of blogger social plug-in for the Hayward Gallery, but unfortunately this is where my appointed role as an ‘art critic’ fails me. I remained largely ignorant to the subversive messaging and witty allusions that Shrigley’s stick men and child-like scrawls conjured. The knowledge I retained is this – our society is rather odd. From inviting viewers to step through a gate emblazoned with the words “do not linger”, to a cartoon of a man sleeping (in reference to the famous Andy Warhol film); Shrigley questions ‘typical’ human behaviour – his subversive opinions and humour wrapped up as art. In fact, so much was this the case that on approaching an assortment of hundred of mishapen metal insects, the alarm that went off was assumed as part of the exhibition, until the guard’s appearance suggested otherwise. Similarly, a glass jar filled with the remnants of the artist’s toenails had me questioning why I was there at all, at the same time as recoiling with a paradoxical mix of curiousity and horror.
Ultimately, Shrigley succeeds in provoking a reaction. His minimalist drawing style of comical smiley faces and handprints transform under the duress that they are often presenting quite dark and startling concepts. The mouldy giant tooth infront of the mirror for example, making a mockery of society’s quest to stay beautiful; or the animation entitled “New Friends” telling a slightly brutal morality tale of social conformity, but to the tune of some upbeat music. Thus, while Shrigley communicates his ideas as simply and directly as possible, reading into these is a lot more challenging – to refer slightly unimaginatively to Shrigley’s animation “Light Switch“, I recommend being switched on when enjoying this exhibit.
Brain Activity runs at the Hayward Gallery until 13th May 2012.