I imagine that as you’ve sauntered down through Trafalgar Square recently you would have noticed that the Fourth Plinth is now occupied by a seven-metre high, slightly sinister thumbs up sculpture. Done by Turner Prize-nominated artist, author and football club mascot-maker, David Shrigley, it’s called Really Good and will be on display there for a year and a half.
Have you seen an increase in people giving you the thumbs up?
To be honest, I think I’m the one who’s been giving people the thumbs up. It’s become an automatic mannerism; the default pose for photographs. I had a lot of fan attention when I was recently in Seoul and we were all asking for a thumbs up so, yeah, it’s probably me more than anyone else! It also means I found a use for the dark brown thumb emoji – I never thought I’d have a use for that. I never thought it would be particularly appropriate to send that to someone but now it is. I suddenly have a use for the dark brown thumb, which is interesting…
Is it a weird feeling unveiling a piece and everyone has known what it will look like for four years?
There is something slightly curious about the Fourth Plinth in that everybody knows what the work will look like but they somehow seem to collectively forget, even though there are pictures of the proposal all over the internet. It’s an odd one – I was quite stressed out about it because it’s such a big piece and it weighs so much and you get worried about the technical aspects of getting it there and installed. I didn’t have anything to do with the actual installation of it, I could have gone along and seen it but it was early in the morning and I was a bit tired. There wasn’t much I could do, as long as it was the right way around, that’s all I can really help with.
Are you happy it’ll become an Instagram tourist attraction, like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago?
I don’t think it’s something you can object to. I use Instagram and I’ve taken pictures of that Anish Kapoor piece – I call it the Sky Bean. I think it’s a way of sharing images and if it’s shared and talked about then I guess that’s probably a good thing; that’s just the way we consume stuff. The interesting thing about making a work in Trafalgar Square is that so many people from so many places see it and all those people will have different ideas of what it is and what it means and they project their own meaning on to it. Social media is just a reflection of those different responses. I think it’s a good thing – I like Instagram, I like the random craziness to it.
Why is it seven metres high? Is eight-metres the tipping point when high winds cause a massive thumb to fall over?
It’s well within the tolerance; I think maybe it could have gone another metre but not much more than that. It’s based on the original maquette and you don’t really think about things like that when you’re doing the drawing and making the model. I think if you suddenly decide to make it a lot bigger, you might have a problem with the people who commissioned you.
The Telegraph ran a readers pole to see if they thought Really Good was ‘phallic’. Are you a bit like “you see what you want to see mate”?
Is it phallic? I don’t know, I don’t care. Is it silly season? Maybe they didn’t have anything else to write about. Maybe nobody else said it so they felt they had to step in.
You could be totally described as a street artist now…
Maybe! I think the thing about street art with the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey is that the motivation for street art was really about bravado, where you could make your mark in the most conspicuous way and dangerous place, which is on the wrong side of the law. I think the thing with me is that I’m not really brave enough to be a street artist. I don’t have the cajones to do it. Having a piece of work in Trafalgar Square means it’ll get seen by a lot of people but with street art you don’t have the mayor there to unveil it! It’s a guerrilla activity whereas this is completely the opposite. I’d like to have that presence, all the art that I used to make were very small that were documented in photographs. It was kind of guerrilla art but were so transient and occupied so little space that I was never going to get into any trouble. Maybe part of it is that I think that art shouldn’t be offensive to people. You don’t want it to be a dog turd where people are annoyed that you put it there and is ruining things for other people. Art should enhance the world and be a positive intervention. I do think it’s good if art is transient and temporary, which the Fourth Plinth is. I don’t feel I have the right to make a big turdy, permanent sculpture. I think you’ve got to be an architect to want to ruin the world in that way.
I remember when your prints first started being sold through POW and were an instant hit. Have you always viewed yourself as an artist who would be creating enormous sculptures and being Turner-prize nominated?
I never really had any ambition anything in particular. My only real ambition is to avoid having a job, to be honest. Having done two public art projects in the last month, both of which are quite large and have a certain presence and have discussion around them and are very much larger than making a work in a gallery space has been quite an eye-opener. It is quite exciting. I tend to ignore all of the publicity aspects of it because it’s not really very helpful, it doesn’t really help you whether it’s good or bad. Other people’s commentary is kind of up to them. The thing that really excited me about Fourth Plinth was that the place has such a real, physical presence and very little that I’d done up until now had really occupied a space like that. I think maybe at that point I’d made the Life Model piece that was shown in the Turner Prize exhibition and I guess it’s opened my eyes to scale and occupying spaces. As I’ve gone on as an artist and people talk to me about the sculpture I make versus the drawings, I think it’s all about occupying a space. That’s what I talk about my work and I talk about the starting point for making any work for me is just to occupy a space. If you want to occupy a space like a large museum then you have to put something bigger in it, if you just put little drawing in it then there’s no point in being in that space. Maybe my things are just getting bigger because I’m being offered bigger spaces to show them? It could be as simple as that.
You do seem to mock the futility of human existence with your work – creating balloons with Imbecile on and inventing a stall where you knock an anvil over with ping pong balls at Dismaland for instance. Does that side of human nature fascinate you?
I think so. I got interviewed when I was in San Francisco a few years ago and some guy from whatever the main newspaper is there came up to me and said “So, granted you’ve got this whole dude ranch zen thing going on with your stuff.” And I was like “What? Dude ranch zen? Yeah, yeah that, definitely I like that.” That’s my thing now, dude ranch zen. Quite what that means I don’t know. I guess it’s a certain loose philosophy of life that accepts the futility of life and embraces that in a zen kind of way. Saying that life is futile is, to some extent, a progression of your ego – you’re saying that you don’t want it to be futile and you want to be at the centre of that. But in reality it is. You are a little ant wandering around a giant rock until you eventually cease to exist. Is that futile? It is not for us to know. It’s both incredibly meaningful and incredibly futile simultaneously. I try to go for the zen and just accept it, sitting in my dude ranch, drinking a sasparillo and smoking a joint.