© David M. Benett

Art

Gavin Turk: ‘Artists hold up a wonky mirror to society’

He’s quite possibly the only artist in the world who’s reluctant to talk about himself. Ahead of a charity sale featuring his work, Gavin Turk discusses environmentalism, non-violent protest and the uneasy relationship between art and money

For a man who was refused a degree by the Royal College Of Art for the sheer ballsiness of his degree piece – a commemorative blue plaque in his studio that simply read “Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991” – Gavin Turk is surprisingly equivocal on what he thinks art and artists should do. Case in point: Turk was arrested last year for blockading Lambeth Bridge with Extinction Rebellion. Does he consider himself an activist? “I don’t know,” he ruminates. “I really don’t know.” At its wittiest, his work has mocked the idea of the heroic, genius artist-as-individual; so, do money and celebrity have a negative impact on art? “It’s a really interesting and difficult question.” Maybe not the strident responses you might expect from the Tracey Emins or the Damien Hirsts of the world, but then Turk was always one of the more self-effacing of the Young British Artists catapulted to fame by Charles Saatchi in the late Nineties.

Plus, the questions have been sprung on him. The real reason we’re talking is because a painting of Turk’s, a lilac-and-mint portrait of Elvis Presley entitled “Rock Gunslinger Pale Green And Ochre”, has been put up for auction in aid of Willow, a charity set up by former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson. Along with works by Sir Antony Gormley, Rankin, Mark Wallinger, Chantal Joffe and others, his painting will be sold at an event held by private bank Coutts to fund “special days” for the severely ill – one-off, uplifting experiences that mark a break from the dreariness of illness. Turk is a friend of Wilson’s son, the radio DJ John Wilson, and so has a personal connection to the charity. Although he has been involved in charity auctions before, this is the first time he has worked with Willow. Turk chose to include “Gunslinger” because it has “a certain youth, arrogance... It appeared in my hands at the moment when the talk of the auction came up. It was a happy accident.” With luck, it will make something in the region of £30,000.

Gavin Turk, “Rock Gunslinger Pale Green and Ochre”, 2012

And so we come back to the subject of money in art. Turk famously dressed as a homeless man to attend the opening of Saatchi’s groundbreaking Sensation exhibition in 1997 and has cast sleeping bags of the type seen on London street corners in bronze. Did he worry about selling his work at a private bank? “Art has to have an audience. It has to also possibly enter into a marketplace in some way. The amount of zeroes on the end of a price tag? That’s the kind of thing that makes people look – even if they’re not looking in the right way!” he says, laughing.

For all his dissembling, Turk is good at getting people to look, in particular, at the issues he thinks are important. In a piece for the Guardian after his Lambeth Bridge arrest, he branded climate activism a “moral imperative”. He is now preparing an exhibition, Letting Go, that will open midway through October in Amsterdam, and which is partially dedicated to that “ubiquitous” global scourge, the plastic bottle. But Turk is sceptical of the melding of activism and artistic expression. “Artists hold up a kind of wonky mirror to society,” he says. “There is that problematic element of the artist’s ego.” He’s keen to emphasise that the persona of “Gavin Turk” itself is an alter-ego, that while artists such as Grayson Perry use their work to consciously agitate for change, he still sees a “mild schizophrenia” between Turk “the artist” and Turk “the person”. “There is a point at which I see myself as an artist from a distance,” he says. “I don’t think sitting on a bridge and being active – the Extinction Rebellion cause – is an artwork. I think that’s me ‘the person’.”

Whether Willow has Turk-the-artist or Turk-the-person to thank, £30,000 is £30,000. And Turk is perfectly comfortable rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful while pointing out their hypocrisies. He may even tap Coutts up for funding for his own children’s charity, The House Of Fairy Tales, he confides, half-joking. “Artists definitely have a role to give a visual form to some of the political issues of the day. Art is a fantastic way of giving images, forms and shapes – and money – to a charity. It's a win-win thing.”

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