This Untitled work is made of text, written by hand in capital letters on a piece of white paper. The page takes the form of a comparative list, divided into two halves by a vertical line ruled down the approximate centre of the paper. It is headed with the words: ‘little kids on the train, travelling long distances, across continents, alone’. The children are divided into ‘good’, heading the left column, and ‘naughty’, heading the right column. Five ‘good’ children are listed as ‘Keith (London – India)/ Wee Bruce (Toronto – Mexico City)/ Solène (Paris – Jerusalem)/ Ali (Durban – Hyderabad)/ Donald (Santiago – Anchorage)’. The ‘naughty’ children on Shrigley’s list are ‘Sarah (Johannesburg – Copenhagen)/ Nick (Lima – New York City)/ Ingrid (Marseille – Bangkok)/ Muara (Rotterdam – Colombo)/ and others’.
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 and classify children according to their behaviour. 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 repeatedly satirises the kind of moral oversimplification inherent in the division of the world into good and bad, black and white. Although the simple format and naïve thoughts typical of Shrigley’s texts and drawings 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 – the moral concerns they voice are not. An Untitled text work from 1996 (T12362) comprises a single page of ruled paper on which Shrigley has written lines. But the words repeated down the page – ‘Santa Claus is not evil. There is no need to defend myself against him.’ – combine comedy with pathos by evoking a personality (the author) so troubled by his fear of a benevolent parental fantasy figure (Santa Claus) that he has to write lines to counter his delusion with reassurance. A more recent Untitled work, T12361 (2003), shows a figure sitting in a podium under a huge area of blackness that fills more than half the upper part of the page, obliterating the words in his speech bubble. A black snake crawls up the steps towards the man above the quasi-Biblical caption: ‘The time cometh’.
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). His assumption of Scottish culture is manifest in Untitled in his use of the word ‘wee’, an archaic word meaning ‘small’ still used in Scotland but very rarely in England. Shrigley usually focuses on vulnerable members of the community as the ostensible subject of his work, engaging the viewer’s sympathy as well as his sense of humour. He has commented:
In a philosophical sense, my art is very fatalistic but hopefully the humour redeems it slightly from being just depressing. And when it comes to death – well, I prefer to see the humorous side of it as you can’t change anything about it anyway. Also, I think if you try to make some sort of fine gesture about the portrayal of God or the state of the world, you will inevitably fail. The only profundity you should ever achieve is in the particular, in very specific and personal things.
(Quoted in Muntendorf, p.22.)
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 15 February 2008.