A Life Without a Body: On David Shrigley
David Shrigley does not make monumental art. He scribbles little black line doodles while scrawling the doodle’s linguistic equivalent, cross-outs and all. His artistic production is not a matter of punctuated epiphanies, great works emerging now and then from the well of his genius. In fact, one might ask of Shrigley: where does a work begin and end?
The world of art has certainly seen the series, a production that expresses itself over several works, maybe even many works. And there are no doubt plenty of examples of work that have surprising physical and temporal borders. Think of Yoko Ono asking the audience to meet again years later to reconstitute an object it’s just disassembled.
Neither of these conditions qualify or explain Shrigley’s work. His production is not serial per se in that we cannot isolate unique trajectories stipulated by theme or motif, conceptual or aesthetic. Or, if we could, the task would be absurd at best and uninteresting at worst. This is not to say this his work is not of an ilk. On the contrary, his work is so much of an ilk that it forms neither discrete objects nor discrete series. His work is what we might call an open whole, a self-forging series; each piece is the body of the work, much as everything a person says is part and parcel of that person, extends the limits of that person.
A conspicuous component of Shrigley’s work is that it’s always talking, saying something. Now, perhaps we can say that all art is saying something, that even a Rothko is articulate. And, yes, this is true. But Shrigley’s art speaks in a different register, a surprising register for a work of art: it speaks like a person standing next to you might speak. His work not only has character; his work is character. It behaves like a person behaves; we laugh or pooh-pooh or snicker as we would if this were a person. Which is to say, we don’t listen to this work as though it were art, at least not initially, at least not solely. We may say: “O, that Shrigley! I love (or hate) his irreverence.” But that is an engagement that happens after the work and, perhaps, despite the work. We hear his work first and foremost as we hear a person. And yet this person is not Shrigley; this person is the work. Which is to say, this person is not a person at all.
It is certainly not Shrigley, then, who’s irreverent. On the contrary, Shrigley is like Dr. Frankenstein: he’s created a new life, a life born of line and paper and nothing else. His work is this strange adolescent, perhaps moronic, life of black lines. But it is a life—an odd life, yes, a life without a body, a life that is nothing but its expression. Shrigley has created a character utterly devoid of flesh. Maybe that’s why this character, like Frankenstein’s monster, is rather socially ill suited.
The work stays in character. It never points to a person who lurks behind or within or next to the work; Shrigley never peers around the back of the paper to wink or look at us knowingly. Shrigley’s work is not expressive; as viewers, we are not witness to the wealth of the artist’s sentiment or even to his worldview. This is not DuChampian prank-cum-commentary. Nor is it the punk politics of, say, the Situationists or jodi.org. In fact, Shrigley is nowhere to be found in his art. Shrigley puts forth a character, a character without a body other than the art itself. This work is pure character, severed from the biological, from the flesh as well as from the soul. All we’re left with is expression, an expression that does not express anything other than itself, a character and only a character—a most peculiar creation.
Of course, when we read books we seem to witness bodies without bodies, characters without flesh. And yet these characters who we only see and know through their words still have bodies, bodies that lurk before, above, behind, or after the text. The characters we hear talking and see doing things maintain their bodies even if we’re only privy to words. One way to say this is that literature tends to express life rather than being pure expression. In most literature, we are speaking to someone on the other side of the words. We read the book as a portal that opens onto real life, even if that real life is nothing but the feelings and worldview of the author.
There are exceptions. In Borges, for instance, or Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva and perhaps in Nabokov’s Ada and Lolita and Pale Fire. In these all-too-rare examples (there are no doubt many, many more but still, given the number of books, the number remains quite small), the language does not give way to a real body: all we have is the text, text so rich and complex and ripe with nuance and tics and smell that the text itself becomes the character. Lolita is not a person in the world; she is made of words, of nothing but words, a creature of language and only of language. She may be Nabokov’s creation but she does not express Nabokov’s feelings. Nor is she a concept or a symbol. She is an affect woven of words. (This is why any attempt to visualize her in a film fails; she is not made of light but of language.)
Shrigley’s work, like Lolita, is a character without biology. His work does not give way to anything but itself; it will not become the flesh of a person, not even the flesh of Shrigley. Nor will it ever become a concept or enunciation of universal human experience: it is not expressive of an experience. Rather, it is expression and nothing but expression. With a distinctly adolescent stubbornness, it persists where it is. No matter how many times you ask it, it will not get down off that paper.
And what’s even stranger than this character without a body who keeps talking is that it’s talking to someone—but not to the viewer. It may at times seem like it’s speaking to us. But any sense of direct address is readily dispelled as we’re told we haven’t paid a phone bill or something to that effect. While we stand in front of this work, it speaks right over our shoulder, to someone who is at once always absent and always present.
It is an odd experience to look at art that is not looking at, or even talking to, you. I think of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. When we first approach it, it seems as though we are its vanishing point as the painter peeks from behind his canvas to survey us. And then, in the same instant, we see the mirror and in it the reflection of the king and queen, sitting precisely where we’re standing. Our position as viewer shifts from being the object of the painting’s gaze to being absolutely excluded. What makes this experience so peculiar is that it is not temporal; these two positions are not sequential, even if our realization of them is. What’s so strange is that both vanishing points exist at the same time while remaining thoroughly disjunctive. It is quite uncanny.
Shrigley’s work is of another order all together. We will never have been included. Nor is there any implicit comment on the viewing of art, as Velasquez’s work seems to offer. We are not voyeurs for that would suggest a mode of our inclusion as well as a desired privacy by the work; neither happens here. In Shrigley’s work, what we get is much stranger: a conversation between disembodied characters, a conversation that goes right over our heads (or next to them or below them), a conversation without conversers: the conversing and nothing but the conversing.
Shrigley’s work casts quite a peculiar relationship between artist, art, and viewer. For Shrigley, art will never have been a question of the artist expressing himself. Rather than the artist turning inward in order to create, this artist looks nowhere but outward. This art is not an excavation put an extroversion, a reaching to see what will come, to see what might happen, to see what might be born. This is not an attempt to use art as a vehicle of expression, this is not a conduit between artist and viewer. We do not learn anything about Shrigley per se because he’s not telling us anything about himself. The artwork is not the communion of artist and viewer.
In fact, neither artist nor viewer can be found at the site of the art. When we come to it, we find a life already in progress, a life that does not speak to us, a life that makes no effort to communicate directly with us and yet is not withdrawn, solipsistic, introverted. We don’t identify with this character as in, “Oh, how true! That’s just like I am or I was or I want to be.” This character is, as they say, an other. We are always on the outside of this work, an outside that does not allow for a looking in because there’s no in in there. This is expression, always on the outside, happening with or without us.
This is not to say we cannot enjoy it. I, for one, love this work. Our enjoyment, however, stems not from consumption and its attending realizations but from a non-voyeuristic witnessing. This work does not reverberate with the resonance of truth, whether it’s the truth of life or the truth of the art world. And, as we’ve said, this is not irreverent art, as if Shrigley were challenging the status of art or flipping the bird to the art world. Nor is it beautiful, even if at times it is truly beautiful—this character is full of surprises. But this work does not work, if you will, based in its beauty. It works by constantly working, just as we live by constantly living.
Shrigley’s work is pure expression. It exists in and of the expression and nowhere else. Hence, when we open a Shrigley book, we don’t see records of the art that exists elsewhere. These are not monographs. In fact, it is impossible to create a monograph of his work: how can you capture an expression without in turn becoming an expression? That is to say, as the work is expression, every expression of his work is his work; any attempt to make a monograph necessarily becomes the work working. This is why his web site (www.davidshrigley.com), a veritable expressive explosion, overflows with work—because it is the work. His work does not need a gallery, a museum, a wall; it happens in its expression, wherever and whenever that takes place.
But this is not Keith Haring’s graffiti-art on-the-fly, happening wherever it happens. Haring’s familiar dancing figures have character but they are not a character. This is what makes Shrigley’s work so strange: all these different pieces conspire, work together, to forge a more or less coherent whole. And this whole does not behave as those other artistic wholes behave—this is not just a style or an oeuvre (even if it is both of those as well): it is a character, a life without a body, a life that exists in its expression, in its conversation with someone who’s not you.
What, then, are the limits of Shrigley’s work? They are the limits of a life. Each piece is distinct, sure, but each piece is this strange character happening, on the wall, on the web, in the book, in a slide show in a classroom. Perhaps, then, I was wrong to say that his work is not monumental. In fact, this may be the most monumental art of all: life freed from the flesh.