This Untitled work is composed of text, written by hand in capital letters on a piece of A4 lined paper torn from a pad. The text comprises two sentences written over two lines and repeated seventeen times so that it fills the page. It reads: ‘Santa Claus is not evil. There is no need to defend myself against him’. The repetition of the lines has a double character. It recalls the old fashioned practice of punishing school children by setting them the task of ‘doing lines’ – writing the same line of text over and over again a large number of times to drive its message home in the unfortunate pupil’s head. The ruled lines on the page – characteristic of school books – emphasise this. But instead of affirming that the author should not do something viewed by school teachers as transgressive and anti-social (as ‘lines’ normally do), Shrigley’s text would appear to testify to a neurosis. Evoking a fictional personality (the author) so troubled by his fear of a parental fantasy figure (Santa Claus) that he has to write lines to counter his delusion with reassurance, it suggests a mantra chanted with the purpose of self-healing. Whether the lines are a punishment by a fictional second party or a private personal ritual is entirely ambiguous. Either possible scenario combines comedy with pathos. The effect of a neurosis is heightened when it becomes apparent (it is not noticeable at a first glance) that the artist ruled pencil lines over the lines printed on the paper.
Like all Shrigley’s text-based work, Untitled performs an author who both is and is not the artist. Its bizarre subject and humble composition stage a personality with an obsessive compulsion that leads him or her to identify the traditionally benevolent figure of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as malignant. The artist has commented: ‘As an artist, I am ... playing a part. The narrator in my work is somebody other than me. It’s some crazed person who either over- or undermoralizes everything, and naturally, I expect people to understand that.’ (Quoted in Muntendorf, p.17.) Shrigley’s exaggeration of moral codes in part stems from being brought up by Christian fundamentalist parents who influenced his formative years with a Biblical interpretation of the world. His work frequently satirises the kind of moral oversimplification inherent in the division of the world into good and bad, black and white. Typifying this kind of vision, an Untitled text work from 1998 (T12366) comprises a list of ‘little kids on the train, travelling long distances, across continents, alone’. The children are separated into two columns classified as ‘good’ and ‘naughty’. The fear of Santa Claus described in T12362 belongs to the same world – a world of defining moral judgements.
The simple format and naïve thoughts typical of Shrigley’s texts and drawings often recall the world of children – charts drawn in felt-tip on white paper reminiscent of the kinds of charts people learn to make at school – and the ostensible subject is usually in a situation of vulnerability, often suffering cruelty from another. Shrigely’s technique is extremely pared down – his pages contain the minimum of information necessary to communicate frequently complex layerings of humour, in the manner of a cartoon. He has commented: ‘holding back information works like a catalyst. Sometimes you only have to say a certain amount and it captures the imaginations of people. If you need to describe everything, tell the story in full, they you’re probably not telling it very well.’ (Quoted in Muntendorf, p.15.)
David Shrigley, Why We Got the Sack From the Museum, Bristol 1998, reproduced [p.53].
Caroline Muntendorf, ‘David Shrigley: Crooked Penmanship’, mono.kultur, no.9, December 2006/January 2007.
Neil Mulholland, ‘Interview with David Shrigley’, http://www.davidshrigley.com/articles/nm_interview.html
, accessed 22 April 2008.