Fallen Tree is a colour photograph showing the trunk or large branch of a tree lying over a tarmac surface in a park. Crudely painted on one side of the trunk, a pair of eyes stares blankly towards the viewer. The tree trunk is propped above ground level by the volume of its upper branches and twigs that crashed to the pathway during its fall. A heap of bronze-coloured leaves blown into the smashed branches and tangled twigs suggest that the tree fell some time ago; the remnants of security tape hanging from the furthermost twigs, just visible on the extreme right side of the image would appear to confirm that the tree was cordoned off by park workers some time before Shrigley’s photograph was taken. A light covering of snow on the landscape behind the tree and a few patches melting on the path underneath the trunk indicate a change in season from autumn to (early) winter. The eyes on the trunk are depicted with the extreme simplicity of a child’s drawing – the circles of white paint with black dots for pupils superficially resemble the patches of snow under the trunk, so that they are not immediately apparent.
Born in Macclesfield, England, Shrigley has lived in Glasgow, Scotland since he went there to study Sculpture and Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in 1988 (BA hons, 1991). He makes drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures that are whimsically absurd and darkly humorous. Text is fundamental to his practice: his drawings are usually combined with handwritten text as a more or less oblique commentary on the image (see T12358, T12363 and T12364), or unevenly written (but generally correctly spelt) text functions as the work itself (T12362 and T12366). Shrigley’s photographs likewise frequently feature text of various kinds, playing on the many ways in which the written word functions as a link between the private and the public spheres of life. This includes such forms as public signage on roads and buildings (P79243), graffiti, newspaper headlines and even the kind of notes that people put up in public places to advertise a lost pet. The relationship between private and public spheres is a central theme (T12368). Crudely sketched in black, Shrigley’s drawings resemble doodles. His textual commentaries are cloaked in a similar false naivety projecting a comic idiot persona – the literary equivalent of a clown. Shrigley uses this voice to satirise the details of everyday life as affected by the community – moral judgements, truisms, obsessions, insecurities and paranoias abound. The artist’s sympathies lie with the individual struggling against the social body; artists’ books are his preferred forum for exhibition as they constitute an art form that is accessible to everybody. Poignant and shrewd, as well as surreal and funny, Shrigley’s words and images tap into moments of solitary reflection and intimate confession common to us all.
Fallen Tree is one of many works in which Shrigley anthropomorphises objects of various sorts by giving them cartoon-like facial features. A related sculptural work entitled Stick (courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London) made in the same year is a hand-modelled branch, cast in cement and painted brown, bearing a similar pair of eyes. More recently, Shrigley painted the same eyes onto a hot dog sausage, encased in its traditional bread roll, and photographed it lying on a pillow tucked under a folded-back sheet and blanket on a bed in an image entitled Hot Dog, 2002 (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/hotdog.html, accessed 7 February 2008). Like his photographs Balloon, 2002 (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/balloon.html
, accessed 7 February 2008) – which shows a white balloon bearing the simplest possible ink demarcation of a face also lying in bed – and Teeth, 2002 (reproduced http://www.davidshrigley.com/photo_htmpgs/teeth.html
, accessed 7 February 2008) – three teeth into which simple features have been drilled – Fallen Tree has plainly descriptive title that draws attention to the process of anthropomorphising created by the addition of eyes and other features by ignoring them.
Fallen Tree was printed in an edition of twelve, of which Tate’s copy is the fourth.
Public Relations: New British Photography, exhibition catalogue, Stadthaus Ulm 1997, pp.26-7, reproduced p.8.
Michael Bracewell, ‘David Shrigley: Jesus Doesn’t Want me for a Sunbeam’, Frieze, issue 25, November-December 1995, pp.50-1.
Dave Beech, ‘David Shrigley’, Art Monthly, issue 204, March 1997, pp.29-30, p.30.