Heads and nails

In Gavin Turk’s east London studio, Gavin Turks are everywhere, in painted and sculptural form. With the real one still on his way, I poke about, taking in a large monochrome screen-print variant on “Pop” – the 1993 sculpture of Turk as Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s “Elvis”, which was shown in the Sensation exhibition and remains his best-known work – and what looks like a shelf of sculpted Turk heads. Crossing the room to take a better look, I realise that, rather than the eight clay heads I’d registered, there are seven heads – and a very large penis. For an artist whose work frequently builds on his own name or image, what’s the significance of that, I wonder.

Then the artist bounces in, smiling and apologetic – and ready to discuss his first piece of public art. A 12m bronze sculpture of a rusty nail, it will sit opposite St Paul’s cathedral at the entrance to the Jean Nouvel-designed One New Change shopping centre, in the City of London. Commissioned by the site’s developer, Land Securities, the mighty piece is due to be unveiled on Wednesday.

“In a way, the ‘Nail’ pins the building to the pavement,” explains Turk. “A nail is almost a monument in itself. A nail coming out of a wall seems to suggest a missing painting. I liked the idea of a rusty nail suggesting absence, the missing bit of wood or whatever was pinned by the nail. I was trying to engage with the idea of absence as well as presence.”

The sculpture grew out of Turk’s fascination with found objects, which he believes can embody a memory or freeze a moment in time. But he arrived at the finished idea via a train of thought that led him through Giorgio de Chirico’s shadowy metaphysical paintings. “For me, it is also a monument to a previous architecture,” he continues. “I don’t think there is one nail in the new building. The nail has become fully redundant.”

The sculpture commission is quite separate from the architectural commission, but Turk did go to Paris to meet Jean Nouvel. Though the sculpture has Nouvel’s blessing, one senses that the very idea of a rusty nail might have surprised the architect noted for his clean modernism. “I know if Jean had done it, he’d have done something different,” Turk says. “I think I was responding to the very modern elements of his work, trying to make something that could have a nostalgic element. My work has to work, if you like, against his art.”

Part of the YBA (Young British Artist) scene in the 1990s, Turk, 43, has created a diverse body of work. Dipping into the discourse of art history, his painting and sculpture blend Duchampian wit with solid craftsmanship. Magritte’s “This Is Not a Pipe” is a recurring touchstone. Back in 1991, for his degree show at the Royal College of Art, Turk presented a blue plaque in memory of himself – “Borough of Kensington, Gavin Turk, Sculptor, Worked Here 1989-1991” – in an otherwise empty room. Jocelyn Stevens, rector of the RCA, but soon to become chair of English Heritage, famously failed to see the joke (or the Magrittian notion of simultaneous being and not being that underpinned it) and refused Turk an MA.

The debacle clearly still distresses him. “I was quite upset not to be given my degree,” he says quietly. “But with hindsight, it’s probably important that it happened.” He felt he’d been given a glimpse of how barriers can work in the art world. Better still, Jay Jopling and Charles Saatchi spotted him and he didn’t have to spend “four or five years in the wilderness” as he’d been expecting.

An exhibition of Turk’s work which opened in Brussels last week gives a flavour of his oeuvre. Besides the Warholesque screen-prints and bronze sculptures (including a brick similar to the one that someone lifted from a south London gallery in 2009, having replaced it with a regular brick), the show includes less familiar works such as a video of a chess-playing automaton called the “Mechanical Turk” and a reconstruction of a puppet play called “Waiting for Gavo”, in which Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon re-emerge as Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, chatting away about art. “All the puppets are mini-mes,” says Turk.

All these Gavin Turk images should not, I learn, be confused with the man sitting opposite me. They are manifestations of a persona Turk invented around the time of the blue plaque. “I was trying to think of a name to give the artist I was about to create,” he says. “And suddenly I thought I can use my own name – almost as if it was a found object.”

Turk uses “Gavin Turk” to throw up questions about how the art world works. Why does a painting become valuable? “I have always wanted to be critical of the process of attaching value,” he says. But it’s getting harder. As an unknown he could point up the absurdity by blowing up his signature and putting it in a frame; today people recognise his signature.

Turk made his first bronze piece – a tiny painted replica of a liquorice sweet – back in 1992. Since 2000, he has used the medium more seriously, sculpting a host of everyday objects from bin bags to sleeping bags, hamburger trays to a pile of ashes. Turk clearly delights in the process of casting in bronze, relishing the fact that minute details such as, say, the quilted surface of a sleeping bag can be rendered so perfectly. He’s no less excited about the process of making the “Nail”.

“The actual surface is quite moulded, quite active,” he explains. “I used bronze, rather than iron or steel, and patinated it, because I wanted the rust to be enlarged rust – rather than rust on the scale of real rust, if you see what I mean. I just enjoyed the idea that you might be quite close to it and it might feel more like a tree trunk, then from further away you’d be able to get a sense of what it is as a whole object.”

So that’s the “Nail”, what about the penis? Having refused to be sidetracked into discussing it during the interview, he presents me with a book and proceeds to explain all. Last year, for a project in Venice called Distortion, Turk made a number of wet-clay “Gavin Turk” heads and at the opening of the show, invited guests to “work on them a bit”. “They tore them apart,” he explains, with a big laugh. “We ended up bringing about 12 of them back. Then we had what we called the Bust Party.” Again, “friends” went to work on more wet-clay heads. The result was more than 70 deliciously inventive variations on Turk that went on show at Malaga’s Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, last September. “It was a show of sculpture I couldn’t have made, or even thought of,” he says. “Oh, and here’s the girls making the penis ... ” he adds casually, turning a page in the catalogue. They’re making it out of your head? “Exactly, yeah,” he says – and grins.

‘Gavin Turk Jack Shit!’ is at Aeroplastics Contemporary, Brussels, until June 11; www.aeroplastics.net

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