In his landmark book The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin argues that a cluster of playwrights from the 1960s dramatized the theories of Camus and Sartre more coherently than they had expounded them themselves. Beckett, Ionesco and Genet didn’t just describe the absurdities of the human condition, they made them palpable, evacuating characters of mappable personalities, blasting the landscapes through which they moved and mashing up plot until it resembled scrambled eggs. Rather than endeavouring to sound out the void using Flaubertian sentences replete with mots justes, the Absurdists sounded it out using silence, barking laughter, hashed phrases and tautological questions. Instead of portraying man’s alienation from himself in novels, they put flesh-and-blood actors through real pain, squashing them into urns, rhino heads and dustbins. Yet the Absurdists’ work was never quite taken up in the visual arts arena, which turned its attentions elsewhere.
David Shrigley might just be the Absurdists’ long-awaited continuator in the visual arts world. Best known for his flat, morose little drawings, Shrigley rose to prominence in the 2000s with weekly cartoons for the Guardian. In 2012, he held a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, to fervent public and critical acclaim. The iconic image of the show – a stuffed Jack Russell standing on its hind legs, holding a placard reading ‘I’m dead’ – became ubiquitous. You couldn’t take the tube without seeing the dog and his sign, staring placidly out of a Hayward Gallery advert – and yet the image managed to retain much of its freshness, remaining grim, witty, disturbing and outlandish despite its omnipresence.
I first discovered Shrigley’s works in a museum shop in Spain, when I chanced upon a collection of his postcards. Some featured human beings in jolting conversation; others showed inanimate objects or pared down landscapes. All were intriguing and most witty; provoking if not a belly laugh, then a flashed ‘Ha!’ I was hooked and bought the lot, cherishing them far too much to send to friends.
Shrigley’s style has been diversely described as “childlike”, “naïve”, “intentionally crap”. Such definitions are hard to counter – for he is indeed, by classical standards, a bad draughtsman. His black marker line is fragile and faltering, with erratically spelled words scribbled and then crossed out. His human figures too are unrealistic and disproportionate, even for cartoons. Heads are bigger, hands smaller, eyes tiniest of all. Shrigley’s is the world of the potbellied, in which the human form is not exalted as divine, but shown rather bashfully for what it is – bulging and bizarre.
Though Shrigley trained as a fine artist in Glasgow, he always had trouble with photorealist techniques and was frustrated by the negative feedback he received at art school. His contribution to the Turner Prize last year was, he said, his ‘revenge’ against those early naysayers – he provided a large sculpture of a naked man who intermittently blinked and peed into a bucket. Easels were arranged around the ‘life-model’ and visitors were encouraged to draw it before sticking their interpretations onto the surrounding walls. But the figure was so improbably proportioned that realism could only aspire to the grotesque. When asked what the piece meant, Shrigley replied “It’s about taking part”.—above all, the work offered a golden ticket into his own worldview, an immensely enlightening crash-course on how to “Shriglify” the everyday.
Much to his fans’ displeasure, Shrigley is now mainstream, a familiar sight on magazine covers and recognisable voice on Radio 4. Though he missed out on the Turner Prize, he won the competition for the much coveted space on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. His brass sculpture, Really Good, will be placed on the podium sometime next year and represents an enormous thumbs-up sign whose thumb has been comi-phallically extended in a wry mirroring of Nelson’s Column. Different interviewers get different answers when they ask the artist what the sculpture represents – which is in itself a clue, for at the heart of Shrigley’s work is a reluctance to subscribe to easily-identifiable “points”.
What is it, then, that makes Shrigley so powerful? Humour certainly comes into it. All his best works, whether three-dimensional or flat, are funny, in a deadpan sort of way. They have the Alice-in-Wonderland about them; they force viewers to remove their specs and see things differently. Yet Shrigley’s mastery lies less in the fact that he can make us smile, than in what our smile covers up. The nature of that, I would argue, is similar to the truths gestured towards by Absurdist dramatists – namely, a godless, brittle universe in which relationships crystallise and shatter with darkly humorous banality. By stuffing a dog and making him speak, Shrigley summarises in one sweep whole swathes of Beckettian chitchat. For the more you think about it, the more the terrier captures mortality in a post-God, post-ideological universe. In death, Shrigley quietly suggests, we become ventriloquists’ dummies, living on in perverse forms in the memories of others, outperforming ourselves or being ridiculed by our upholsterers at one and the same time.
If Shrigley’s art has been criticised as lightweight and banal, it is precisely because it exposes that “unbearable lightness of being” anatomised in Kundera’s novel in which love is presented as haphazard and ungainly. Shrigley’s art spins its nest in a world in which good and evil are separated by a cigarette paper, and in which relations are as feather-light and shaky as the cack-handed line of his pen. His is truly the art of the absurd, as life-destroying and life-affirming as the best Absurdist plays.