This Untitled work is a black and white photograph with a collaged addition. The photograph is a view looking up at a wooden bird house next to trees and bushes. It has a pyramidal structure, with small openings along each level where the birds can enter. Fourteen birds – dark, piebald and white pigeons or doves – stand on the levels of their house, grooming themselves or staring out at the world. Each wooden step is topped with a generous layer of guano. Over the centre of the image, Shrigley fixed a circle of white paper, divided in two in a pie chart. The small section of the pie is captioned ‘portion of birds’ lives that birds feel truly belongs to them’; the large section of the pie contains the words ‘portion of birds’ lives which birds feel is “public property”’.
Untitled recalls a photograph Shrigley created in 1996 entitled Lost, featuring a hand-written notice written on a page torn out of a notepad and taped to a tree. In a parody of the notices people put on trees and lampposts when they have lost their pets, the text reads: ‘Lost: grey and white pidgeon [sic] with black bits. Normal size. A bit mangy-looking. Does not have a name. Call 257 1964’. The pathos evoked by the idea that somebody might care for one of the millions of indistinguishable birds that live as vermin in urban areas is similar to that produced in T12368, where the work’s comic pathos arises from the suggestion that somebody is concerned about what the birds ‘feel’. By making this claim, it emphasises precisely the opposite – the fact that nobody cares about birds’ feelings; birds are not usually thought to have feelings at all. Beyond this, is the ridiculous idea of birds making claims for ownership of their lives (like aggrieved members of a social study), which brings to mind the idiom ‘as free as a bird’. The birds in this picture are clearly dependent on humans for part of their lives – their housing. Living with humans for centuries – if only as pests – urban pigeons have become dependent on humans for food as well as shelter. Shrigley’s words also reverberate back towards humans as subjects of the work, evoking questions about the privacy of certain individuals, such as celebrities, who live almost constantly under the public gaze.
The relationship between private and public spheres is a central theme in Shrigley’s work. 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, graffiti, newspaper headlines and the kinds of notes that individuals put up in public places. 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. He uses this voice to satirise the details of everyday life as affected by the community – moral judgements, truisms, obsessions, insecurities and paranoias abound. Town planning, urban regeneration and the social services are all targets of his humour, as in the untitled photograph made in 1992, P79243. Many of Shrigley’s works anthropomorphise inanimate objects or animals, like the birds in T12368, with powerful bathetic effect. A page in the artists’ book Let’s Wrestle shows a crudely-drawn apple bearing the words: ‘The ultimate destiny of the fruit is either to be eaten to go mouldy. It’s a terrible choice for the fruit to have to make.’ (Let’s Wrestle, London 2004, [p.137].)
David Shrigley, Why We Got the Sack from the Museum, London 1998
Amanda Cruz and Russell Ferguson, David Shrigley, exhibition catalogue, Center for Curatorial Studies Museum, Bard College, New York 2001.
Michael Bracewell, ‘David Shrigley: Jesus Doesn’t Want me for a Sunbeam’, Frieze, issue 25, November-December 1995, pp.50–1.