When I invited a friend to accompany me she asked, ‘oh is that the one with the dead dog?’, referring to the exhibition posters featuring one of Shrigley’s iconic taxidermy models. An eclectic mix of drawings, photographs, objects, sculptures, and animated films, there is much more to Shrigley’s work than stuffed dead animals. The Hayward Gallery hosted a variety of the David Shrigley’s works in all these media, spanning his career from the mid-1990s to the present.
The exhibition’s title ‘Brain Activity’ refers as much to the inspiration behind Shrigley’s work as to its subjective effects on the viewer. Each of Shrigley’s pieces cannot fail to elicit some form of emotional and mental stimulation on varying levels; amusement, laughter, confusion, shock, and deeper contemplation of what it could all mean.
A headless Ostrich stood in the corner of one room, so proud and erect that you could almost believe it never had a head in the first place. Opposite, a very tall bronze finger; pointing at what, I wondered, and which I later found out is exactly the same height as the artist. This is the kind of trivial detail which renders his work more comprehensive than it at first seems. Next, a rich tea biscuit was pinned to the wall by a large nail. Shrigley’s presentation of everyday objects in obscure contexts such as this instantly allows them to take on a whole new meaning. I have to concede that I was somewhat disgusted by a collection of toenail clippings displayed in a glass bowl but guess that the point here is that it is just a part of our everyday existence which we would not usually stop to contemplate.
In another room a collection of 50 sketched drawings had a line of visitors chuckling, exclaiming with amusement, and one rather exuberant woman was quite shamelessly bent almost double and laughing out loud as she made her way along the wall display. These 50 are a mere minutiae representation of over 7,000 drawings published in the artist’s career so far. Each doodle is a wry statement or observation which parodies the kind of thoughts and reflections that occur in the context of the everyday mind-frame and are made immediately accessible and identifiable by a few sketch strokes of a pen. You cannot help being instantly amused by something so honestly straightforward.
In another medium, a number of animated sketches projected onto the gallery walls offered a graphic portrayal of the minds strange activities. A mysterious finger obsessed with flicking a light switch on and off, on and off… and another hand continually rolling a dice in a lonely game of ‘sixes’ make for disturbingly compelling viewing rendering the viewer almost as compulsive as the disembodied owner of those hands.
I thought the exhibition layout was well curated in collaboration with the ecclectic style of Shrigley’s art to keep the visitor’s mind active. Even outside the window you could spot a lone metal stick figure hanging out by itself on the gallery roof, and as I went to exit one room was asked by the warden if I had ‘spotted the rat?’ so promptly had to double back until I indeed found another stuffed body lying half hidden under a hanging wall. A somewhat post-apocolyptic display of metal sculptures in the form of insects had a handy escape hole in the wall next to it in case any visitor should need to make a quick get-away.
Not just a sarcastic humorist, some of Shrigley’s work does deal with ‘darker’ themes of violence and death, yet it comes almost as an afterthought and not to be regarded with fear. The immediate and straightforward forms of his art leave ample space for the ideas and themes they represent to be objectified and trivialised as we stand back and consider, and wonder, and bemuse, and take nothing too seriously at all. I left the gallery with a great sense of satisfaction; from a combination of visual stimulation, inspired thoughts, and most importantly – and rare for an art exhibition – genuine laughter.