Interview: Gavin Turk

Longer stuff
October 30, 2019

A generation of artists and musicians and filmmakers are starting to engage with climate change in the way creators in the mid-1960s engaged with the anti-war movement.

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You couldn’t move during this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, for instance, without falling over an oblique reference to the planet dying. But in the case of Gavin Turk, the 52-year-old still widely referred to as a Young British Artist, the climate protests have lent a new urgency to themes he’s explored for decades.

“I’m obsessed with waste and recycling,” he says, staring at a row of hulking diggers hauling metal through the scrap yards outside his Canning Town studio. “It’s quite inspirational watching them, creating and destroying at the same time. Sometimes you see new stuff being crushed – the life of things now is so short. Sometimes I want to phone them up and say ‘I have this big public sculpture to do, how much for the pile over there?’”

His studio is a white-washed oasis at the end of an aggressively potholed road on a grey industrial estate. He and his staff are the only people around who aren’t wearing hard hats and high-vis vests.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Turk’s studio is that it’s filled with rubbish. There are plastic bottles everywhere, part of a collection he’s been building for years. He seems genuinely excited to show me some of his favourites: “This one originated in Poland,” he says, brandishing a mangled one litre bottle that appears to have been run over. “The design excites me,” he says, pointing out the dimpled, geometric design spiralling down the neck. “The shapes and patterns – they have this magic about them.”

But, like much of Turk’s work, all is not what it seems. While many of the bottles are indeed discarded bits of plastic, some are cast bronze sculptures painted to look like the real thing, fine art masquerading as trash.

“With the casts, I’m painting an invisibility, which is impossible. It’s kind of an optical illusion. I was trying every trick in the book to simulate transparency and depth. It’s about forcing people to question their preconceptions. They will go into an exhibition and some art will exist in their head, and then they see a crappy plastic bottle. You can see nobody wanted it – it’s been crushed and it’s dirty. Then you realise it’s not a plastic bottle – it’s a fake. So now they’re wondering why someone would do that. It’s a question of how we value things.”

Turk values them at £8,500 each, according to the guide for Amsterdam’s Reflex gallery, where they went on display last month, although he tells me he has no idea how he’s going to price the genuine plastic bottles that will reside in purpose-built cases in the exhibition window. 

This isn’t the first time Turk has explored the artistic potential of discarded things. He’s famous for his trompe-l’œil bronze castings of grubby sleeping bags and crisp packets and bulging bin bags. He’s cast cigarette butts and balls of gum in solid gold (there’s giant version of the gum stuck to the wall in his studio).

He shows me two identical crushed paint cans, one real, the other a meticulously recreated copy. In the toilet, I notice a can of “artist’s piss” signed ‘Gavin Turk’, inspired by Piero Manzoni’s famous “Merda d’Artista”. The rubbish even spills outside, where he shows me a decrepit old caravan covered in graffiti. “It’s actually quite beautiful. I want to put the whole thing in a big glass cabinet and show it as a sculpture.”

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Turk exploded onto the art scene alongside Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, gaining notoriety for his Royal College of Art degree show – an empty room with a blue plaque reading “Borough of Kensington, Gavin Turk. Sculptor, Worked Here 1989-1991”. He failed the course, but the publicity was priceless. His reputation as the trickster prince of British art was cemented when he attended Charles Saatchi’s glitzy Sensation show dressed as a homeless man. It was brilliant: the tramp being welcomed into the exclusive party because he called himself an artist. 

I thought of that story when Turk was arrested at an Extinction Rebellion rally last year, although he says he was protesting as himself rather than an artist. “Getting arrested was easy. They were very gentle,” he says, almost wistfully. “There was something quite profound about it, spending a few hours without a phone or anything. You realise there’s very little time in your life when you have to just sit and be with yourself. I started thinking quite lucidly.”

His new show isn’t a direct response to climate change, he says (“I’ve never wanted to make art that just says one thing”), but the future of the planet takes up an increasingly large part of his mental landscape. Take the bottles: “I started out being interested in glass – I was fascinated by the idea of them being created from sand and water. Then plastic started being used to contain the water, and that plastic goes on to contaminate the water…”

So does he think we’re all a bit screwed? “Well, when I was born, there were 3.5bn people in the world – today there are almost 8bn. In 50 years we’ve doubled as a species. There are still possible futures but my youngest child is 18 and he’s at a point where he’s probably going to see some serious environmental issues, and if my kids have any kids they will definitely see some stuff. But I’m naturally quite optimistic. I’m not at the point where I think it’s useless to change our behaviour. I do think we can start living by different measures.

“My wife is always saying ‘the planet is dying’ but I’m not sure it can die. It might lose some of the organisms that are here but something else will come along. Strictly speaking, we’re too close to the sun to work anyway. When they are looking for other planets that might sustain life, it’s the equivalent of Mars they’re looking for rather than earth. In the Goldilocks scenario, earth is too close to the sun.”

I’m not sure this scenario is quite as cheerful as Turk makes it sound, but he’s infectiously upbeat. He a natural performer, which is unsurprising for a man who’s spent his career placing himself into his work. Dozens of his pieces feature either his likeness or his signature, among them a life size waxwork of Gavin Turk dressed as Sid Vicious dressed as Elvis Prestley. 

He bounds around the studio, bouncing from topic to topic. During our photoshoot he needs no direction to twiddle his voluminous moustache for the camera (“it was supposed to be totally Dali but it got too big and now it’s more Phileas Fogg”).

When we ask to take pictures in front of a giant canvas from his Fright Wig series, featuring him wearing an Andy Warhol wig, he insists on drilling new brackets into the wall to hang it on. Later, when we’re shooting by the caravan – in the pouring rain – he gamely pushes a broken-down transit van (presumably a casualty from last year’s A Brexit Portfolio and Other Transit Disasters exhibition) out of the way so we can get a better angle.

Later I ask if he feels conflicted about being a part of an art scene that’s largely supported by the super-rich – hardly natural bedfellows with the Extinction Rebellion crowd. “Lots of artists are left wing people who want to make art for a large audience,” he says. “They don’t just want to make art for the fancy bedrooms of people with private jets, although inevitably that’s where it ends up. 

“I’m not in a position to audit the collectors of my work. My biggest collector is Damien Hirst, which is an interesting one because he’s sold his work to the most wealthy people around the world. He’s created a kind of elite decor. But he’s an artist and he’s spending his money buying my art. He’s probably the best collector you could have.”

Speaking of Hirst, I wonder if the YBA label has ever felt like a millstone? “It’s an odd grouping. They are very different artists making very different work for very different reasons. It’s not like the surrealists who all believed in a certain way of thinking about the world. There’s no manifesto, just this bagging together of artists. It almost stopped people from thinking more deeply about what we were trying to say. But it’s still commercially viable.”

He says the people the YBA label really hurt were the next generations of artists, who never got the same adrenaline shot of exposure. He sounds genuinely humble when he says he’s just thankful to have the means to carry on creating. “As an artist I get to do what I like and that freedom is hard to beat. It’s a bit indulgent, I must admit. I’d do something else if I could think of something better.” 

I don’t believe him for a second. He’s in his element in his studio, surrounded by his bottles and his bin bags, coming up with mad new ideas. And if he can help save the world at the same time, all the better.