David Shrigley is known for his simple but oddly philosophical artworks, the kind beloved on Instagram and frequently ripped off on Etsy. (See: a shark captioned with the text, “I try to be friendly but I’m not very good at it,” or a piece that advises, “When life gives you a lemon, you must eat the lemon, all of it, including the skin.”)
But those drawings aren’t all the British artist creates. One of his most famous works is a seven-metre-high thumbs-up statue, titled Really Good, now on display in the forecourt of the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the NGV triennial. He says it’s the biggest thing he’s ever done – literally and “in terms of my career”.
Given his line of work, it’s not surprising Shrigley is a stationery nerd. Here he tells us about the desk drawer items he can’t create without, as well as the story of the “entire exhibition” he once lost – and still mourns.
What I’d save from my house in a fire
The thing that’s really important to me is my notebooks. In them I make cursory notes and lists of things to draw, plus phrases, text and very small drawings. I feel like the things that come into your head are really valuable. And while they don’t always make it into artworks, I still want that record of them. I’ve got boxes of these notebooks now.
Before the iPhone, I used to use a Filofax. And because I like stationery, and I have this obsessive nature, my Filofax was a really valuable thing as well. Once my Filofax got a bit tattered and I bought a new one. I didn’t know what to do with the old one – you can’t really throw your Filofax away, it’s like throwing away a diary. So I made a kind of public artwork where I took all references to myself out of it, and then I left it in the street with a note that said, “Please do not return this to me as I do not want it back.” And weirdly, it did come back to me. Somebody had done a lot of research and decided that it was mine.
There are things you really don’t want to lose and don’t want to get rid of. But then there are also things that you can’t get rid of – that are really impossible to throw away. In my case, they’re the same thing.
My most useful object
I’m a stationery person. I’m pretty obsessed with stationery. And I know it sounds lame but I’m really into rulers.
I have a collection of rulers that’s enormous – I’ve got hundreds. Pens and stuff can be replaced but there are two rulers I’ve had since I was in art school that I’d be heartbroken if I lost. These two rulers have interacted with probably 50% of all the artworks I’ve ever made, so they bear the residue of everything that’s come before. Plus, being able to draw straight lines is really important.
It’s like how professional snooker players are really attached to their cue. If they lose their cue, they feel they’re never going to win the championship. I’m a bit like that with my rulers. I carry them around in my briefcase – yes, I have a briefcase. Again, it’s all tied in with my nature.
The item I most regret losing
I lost an entire exhibition once, which is really quite traumatic. In the late 90s I did an exhibition in Portugal. It was one of the first exhibitions that I’d done outside the UK. And I’d made a bunch of small drawings – I think there were maybe 60. I’d spent a couple of weeks making the drawings and was really pleased with them. Then everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
My flight home was cancelled, I lost my camera, my luggage went missing and then, at the end of the exhibition, no artwork came back. It was just gone. Forever. It was in the days before I’d scan or photograph drawings, so there was no record of them. I wasn’t a famous person at that time so I don’t think anybody had placed any value on these drawings. I think they were probably just thrown in the bin.
Artwork gets damaged and artwork get stolen occasionally. I’ve had lots of artworks stolen – I consider it a form of flattery, even more than plagiarism. But this was worse. I’d like it if somebody had stolen it – that would be good, because then it would still exist. But I think it’s actually just in the garbage.
David Shrigley’s sculpture Really Good is at the NGV Triennial, which runs until 7 April