Carrots is a colour photograph of a group of cactus plants growing in a gravely area of desert. In the image foreground, a photograph of a bunch of carrots is positioned incongruously. The cactus plants are evenly spaced in the rocky ground, like vegetables planted in a vegetable patch or a field. Enhancing the notion of cultivation, the picture of carrots is, on close inspection, the front of a seed packet carefully propped at an equal distance between the two cactuses behind it. The carrots were photographed lying on grass, visible between their root ends at the bottom of the package and contrasting with the dry gravel from which the cactuses grow. The mono-form cactuses sprout baby cactuses or flowers, emphasising the notion of crops and harvesting evoked by the packet of carrot seed. Shrigley has commented that: ‘in the work Carrots there is a dichotomy between growing carrots, which is boring, and growing cacti, which are inedible.’ (Shrigley quoted in Scherf, p.36.)
The coupling of carrots with cacti has a quirky, typically Shrigley-esque logic. Apart from the fact that they are both vegetables beginning with the letter ‘c’, carrots and cacti have more in common than might at first be expected. While cactus notoriously flourishes in conditions of extreme sandy aridity, carrots actually grow best in sandy soil too (according to the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/basics/techniques/growfruitandveg_growingcarrots2.shtml
, accessed 22 February 2008). Although in England, where carrots are common fare, cactus would normally be considered to be inedible as the artist states above, in Mexico edible cactus, also known as nopales, is grown and eaten. (The cacti in Shrigley’s picture look very like nopales.) Carrots are roots however and edible cactus is a stem, considered exotic in the countries where carrots are mundane. An earlier title for this photograph, Selección Especial – the Spanish term for ‘special selection’ appended to luxury wines and cigars – humourously suggests that the humble carrot may be the king of cactuses. The more recent title Carrots appears simply and prosaically to identify the picture, but has a subversive purpose as well. By using a picture of carrots, rather than the real thing, Shrigley draws attention to the processes of labelling and representation, which the title Carrots then expands on. It cannot simply refer to the objects as they are already at one remove in the photograph, but rather ambiguously implies that the cactuses may be read as representing carrots too. As in Shrigley’s photographs Fallen Tree (P79241) and Leisure Centre (P79243), a deceptively simple title may often lead to complex layers of meaning. The artist playfully questions how we read and identify images, a game that has become increasingly overt as a major theme in such recent images as Doors, 2002 (a diptych showing photographs of a rocky channel and a pair of old wooden doors, reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/doors.html
, accessed 7 February 2008), Ghosts, 2004 (a blurred photograph of bumps under sheets, reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/photos_04/ghosts.html
, accessed 7 February 2008) and A Giraffe, 2004 (a photograph of the middle section of a giraffe, reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/photos_04/a_griraffe.html
, accessed 7 February 2008).
Inversion and opposition are common strategies in Shrigley’s works, which include drawings, paintings, photographs and sculpture. Text is fundamental to his practice; where it is not included in the work itself, it functions in the title, as in Carrots. Humble kitchen vegetables, a traditional source of comedy in Britain in the works of such artists as Sarah Lucas (born 1962), feature in several of Shrigley’s photographic works. One of his best known images, the photograph Pumpkin, 1998 (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/pumpkin.html
, accessed 7 February 2008) shows a doll sitting on a bench, her torso comically swollen into a pumpkin. The title resolutely ignores the anthromorphic features of the image – the doll’s smiling face, her arms and legs – focusing instead on the vegetable that has become her body. In this way, Shrigley presents the subject of his image as being a vegetable with growths rather than a doll with a pumpkin body. In a similar way, Carrots
questions assumptions about visual priorities.
Carrots was commissioned in 1999 by BMW Financial Services for their 2000 calendar. The photograph was printed in an edition of two artists’ proofs, of which Tate’s copy is the first.
Amanda Cruz and Russell Ferguson, David Shrigley, exhibition catalogue, Center for Curatorial Studies Museum, Bard College, New York 2001.
Jone Elissa Scherf and George St. Andrews, Making Your Dreams Come True: Young British Photography, Ostfildern-Ruit 2001, pp.36-43, reproduced p.37.