Gavin Turk’s eyes are red. It is the afternoon after the night before, and the artist is wearing the same T-shirt he had on at the opening of his latest exhibition, Me As Him. Monday blurred into Tuesday with a karaoke session to celebrate the fact that all but two of the works in the show had sold at £23,000 each (with another going on Wednesday morning). Not a bad return for a set of screenprints in which Turk pays “homage” to Warhol, putting his own face beneath the fright-wig of the Pop pioneer.
A few days later, I see Turk again, at the Art Car Boot Fair on Brick Lane; a kind of summer fete for Young British Artists, some of whom are younger than others. On one side of the old Truman Brewery car park, Peter Blake is selling inkjet prints for £25. Turk has been more ambitious. He has taken a literal interpretation of the theme, and is hawking signed “Art Car Boots” – the tailgates of wrecked vehicles – at £1000 a go. He sells 15 of these in little more than an hour, which is nice work, if you can get it.
His studio is an unprepossessing shed on a winding industrial road in East London, stuffed with artistic flotsam. There are silkscreens of Turk as Warhol’s Elvis, cabinets loaded with casts of the artist’s face, and a realist bronze, which looks exactly like a box of Boddington’s ale, until you lift it up. In a drawer, you may find chewing gum cufflinks, or bronze polystyrene cups. An almost-completed sculpture of Turk as a Buckingham Palace bandsman, with red tunic and beaver hat, lurks in a side-room, near the marionettes of Warhol, Beuys, Duchamp, and a tastleless art collector called Scratchi, used in his Beckett-inspired puppet show Waiting For Gavo. Scratchi, whose resemblance to any person living or dead is surely coincidental, arrived on stage with the line: “I would not associate with artists such as yourselves unless you were going to make me a great deal of money.”
Turk’s prominence among the YBAs, of course, was cemented by Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, which included his sculpture Pop (the artist as Sid Vicious) and Cave, the spoof English Heritage plaque he entered as his degree show at the Royal College of Art, reading “Borough of Kensington: Gavin Turk, Sculptor, Worked Here 1989-1991”. (He failed his degree).
Sensation came at the height of the YBA hype, and felt, Turk says, “like Charles Saatchi consolidating his project. It was a bit odd, actually, because it didn’t have anything to do with the art. At that apex moment, I felt absolutely distant from it.”
Since then, Turk has been in the slipstream of the YBA superstars Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, perhaps because he has been less adept at self-promotion. One of Turk’s works was a fake cover of Hello! “The suggestion was that you achieved fame and glory through art, and you’d become a celebrity, so you were inviting people in to look at photographs of you and your house. In a weird way this is more what people want to see – and not the thing that made you famous in the first place. So, it’s almost as if success breeds failure”.
He is quick to point out that he isn’t criticising Hirst or Emin. “They’re massive now. And they’re personalities – probably Tracey more than Damien. But Tracey’s personality and her work are synonymous. Her work is exposing her personality. My project is more distant. I make work which is about being an artist. It’s almost as if I’m not sure whether I am or not.”
It has been a good summer for this Turk. A fortnight ago, his Dumb Candle sculpture – a five-inch section of broom handle carved into the shape of an extinguished candle – won the £25000 Charles Wollaston Award at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, earning comparisons with Magritte and Duchamp. That win has boosted his profile and inflated his prices, at a time of astonishing activity in the London art market, headed by the crowning of Damien Hirst as the world’s most expensive living artist, with the sale of a pill cabinet for £9.6m. Over £400m was spent in a record-breaking week of London art auctions last month.
Turk is philosophical about the money which is sloshing around. “The value of Damien’s work is something that a lot of people have been working on, very hard, for many years. The value of an artwork is what people are prepared to pay for it. And yes, it’s all about financial confidence and futures and various kind of esoteric things. It seems fair enough. I’m shocked, but I can understand it.”
Certainly, Turk is smart enough to play the market. The value of those car boots is, if one is generous, in the concept. If one is cynical, it’s a lot of money for an autograph. Before I can frame this question, Turk has started answering it.
“Everyone’s obsessed with the idea of the Emperor’s new clothes, and because there’s this sense that you’re not able to see what it is that makes it art, then people are being cheated. To start with the Emperor’s new clothes: I find it annoying that the Emperor being naked can’t actually be OK. What’s wrong with the birthday suit? And what gets pointed out is that the king is deluded. But he’s perfectly happy in his delusion. Somehow, I don’t really care. If I see something and I’m motivated intellectually, that’s what counts. In that sense, it can’t be a con. It’s got to be good.”
He is not entirely glib about the vast fortunes which are being invested in art. “It’s a sign that there is an apex section of society that has lots of disposable income. That’s rather a scary thought, because as one section of society has all this money, there is a larger section of society which has nothing.”
Art, he says, “has an uneasy relationship to money. On some levels it just doesn’t exist in the same place. I don’t ever go into the situation of making an artwork because I’m going to sell it. I make artworks because I need to feel those things existed in the world for me. That’s on a spiritual level. But if you sell the work, people kind of respect it because it has a financial value.”
This must surely be the case with Turk’s bin bag sculptures, made of bronze, but designed to look exactly like bags of rubbish, with a price tag of £30,000. (Hirst’s agent, Frank Dunphy, keeps one of these at the foot of his stairs, and proclaims them to be “genius”).
“Obviously, in selling a filled bin bag that looks like a filled bin bag, it’s contained within the thing itself that intellectually you, go, ‘Oh, it’s just rubbish,’” says Turk. He compares the process to the Warhol pictures: if the viewer gets the joke straight away, then – he hopes – they will be free to divine some deeper meaning. It does seem to be a circular process, though, as Turk works within the reference points of art. And what is the deeper meaning of those car boots? You might decide that they are to do with the throwaway society, or the power of celebrity, or – and this seems most plausible with Turk’s work – the nature of art itself. Which is possibly more interesting to art students than the broader populace. When I suggest to Turk that his theories sound fuzzy, he replies: “But did you study art history?”
Last year, his contribution to the Art Car Boot Fair was signed Rich Tea biscuits, at £25 a dunk. When I ask him how a biscuit becomes art, he offers a lengthy explanation, to do with the cultural history of Britain as a tea-drinking nation, the landscape, Constable and Henry Moore, William Morris, and Ruskinian romanticism. Importantly, the biscuits had a bite out of them. “The bite was almost like the loss of innocence, it was the bite of the apple. And I liked the circularity of the biscuit.” Possibly noting my bafflement, he concludes: “It seemed to make sense at the time.”
By his own account, Turk became an artist by accident. At school (a grammar in Ashstead, Surrey, followed by Sixth Form college), he had to resit his O-levels. “I ended up with an art A-level and 14 O-levels. My CV’s a bit like I’ve done time.”
Turk’s uncertain journey through the educational process saw him progress through various levels of art school, before washing up in Shoreditch just as the YBA movement was bursting into life. He has happy memories of the time before the hype, when today’s celebrity artists were just students, putting on shows in makeshift galleries. With art prices in the stratosphere, and Shoreditch now operating as a trendy dormitory for the City, all of that seems far away.
“I feel very nostalgic about Shoreditch. I arrived in the mid-90s, and we got this very cheap warehouse apartment. Everything was for rent. The industry that was there had died and it hadn’t picked up. When we arrived, there was nothing there. There was The London Apprentice, which was a big dark weird pub on the corner of Old Street, which has become 333. That was open late. Opposite there was a takeaway pizza place called The Great American Success. There was the Bricklayers’ Arms, which was a little pub, where if you took a cassette in, the guy behind the bar would put it on. There was the Barley Mow. That was it, though. There was no Cantaloupe. No Cargo. No Rivington Bar and Grill.
“But the whole area picked up really fast. On a commercial level, with the bars and the night-time economy it’s become a second West End. I think that maybe it was inevitable – maybe it’s good. It couldn’t really stay as it was.
“Shoreditch was just too close to the City to be a bohemian ghetto. It’s just too convenient. It could never have survived. But London’s becoming one of the most expensive places to live. In the end, it’ll just be the few who can who end up living here. Everyone else will have to go away, to the countryside. But that’s all right. We can go and grow vegetables, and be self-sustained.”
With those vegetables in mind, he goes off to phone his agent.