Gavin Turk is a British born, international artist. He works across installation, sculpture, painting, performance, print and photography and deals with issues of authorship, authenticity and identity. Concerned with the ‘myth’ of the artist and the ‘authorship’ of a work, Turk’s engagement with this modernist, avant-garde debate stretches back to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.
In support of his artistic practice Gavin also runs Livestock Market Ltd, an art production company based in Bow, East London, created primarily to manage the artist’s studio, and GT Ltd, a shop selling work by Gavin Turk and other selected artists offering limited editions, publications and t-shirts.
PSC met with Gavin to understand how the future sculpture Centre could best serve the needs of established artists such as himself. Gavin offered some fantastic insights into the artist’s practice, his studio and the wider art world, some of which are shared here, in abridged form.
Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre: What, if anything, is preventing today’s emerging sculptors from realising ambitious artworks and having sustainable careers?
Gavin Turk: You know, maybe a lack of ambition is a cultural problem on a wider level rather than a more specific problem about artists accessing materials or being given tools. It also begs the premise that we want everyone to be super ambitious. I mean, I think it would be good if people were ambitious because obviously, art is an enabler on a wider level. Art can be used to progress and make a difference and I hope to make better changes in society, and I think its a valuable language for people to use.
I think there is a question about what ambition is? How it is measured? Ambitious work is not just about making something really big or seen by ten million viewers. It could just be making something really good and strong. It could be making something profound. It could be making something totally world changing. It could be making something totally unique or totally original. Or it could just be making something really, really well. Its difficult to qualify and quantify. Because you know, on a personal level, I can spend a lot of time making something but then in an aside I go off and make something else in two seconds really glibly and quickly, which is actually far more successful than the work I spent a long time on. You know its not just about application. But no, to answer your question, I think that actually there are quite a lot of ambitious artists around. I teach at various universities and I see that there are a lot of ambitious students.
Ambition, if you want to think about how it translates into success, isn’t entirely straightforward though because we’ve got the added elements of luck and talent. And we’ve got time, being in the right place at the right time and also the context of a specific time, where certain things being said and done carry a specific resonance and importance. Ambition is just one of several important factors to success.
PSC: Something we’re thinking about is how works develop front to back and how artists differently approach practice. I wonder if you could give us an example of a process that you often engage in when producing an artwork?
GT: I make things in a very large palette, with many different ways of doing things. When someone asks me what kind of material I work in, I always stumble as I don’t really know. I’m not materially led. I don’t have any vested interest in material per se. Its a secondary concern. The primary concern is thinking about the right vehicle to carry an idea properly, for progressing a line of thought. But of course if you say to someone, ‘Oh I just work with ideas’ they look at you like you’re insane, which is probably the correct response . If you say, ‘I work with ideas’ it doesn’t really mean anything because you also always have to work with something physically as well. There’s no idea without any physicality. But for me it’s just that normally the idea comes first and the physical thing comes afterwards.
More often than not I get an invitation to show and afterwards I will try and figure out how to answer that invitation; to come to, or to deal with that situation. Sometimes its a case of going in the cupboard and finding work; rediscovering something I’ve made before or redefining something so that it’s suitable for that occasion. Other times it’s a case of using the excuse to make something specific. Once I’ve got a date and a time for the show and I’ve figured out what I’d like to include, I normally make a model and try and hang the work, try and visualise what the work will be like there.
Developing a work can be a kind of problem solving, quite reactionary. I want to think that my art isn’t reactionary at all, that I’m not necessarily very dependent on outside circumstances, that actually the art is a reaction more generally to the call to art. But in actual fact it is sometimes about trying to make the right things for a certain occasion, for a certain kind of context.
PSC: So for you it sounds like the exhibition and the works development go hand in hand. How much do you consider or take responsibility for a show’s PR or is that left entirely to the gallery?
GT: You do think about who’s going to come and see that show and what’s going to as a result. Are people going to write about it? Is someone going to buy it? Are people going to know about it?
I have a newsletter that I produce and normally do a mail out. Its not very big. I probably do a small ad-on specific mailing out. But most shows that I work with, lots of shows that I’m in, the organisations have their own PR departments. Because there’s always several public art projects I’m working on at any one time there’s always a traffic of press and publicity vehicles that are phoning up the studio. Because I’m doing enough work it happens on a a fairly frequent basis, at least every week.
PSC: Do you have a threshold of projects you can take on?
GT: It sort of ebbs and flows. This year I’ve actually done eight solo exhibitions. So its gone up a bit but you know it might well go down next year. And obviously in between that there’s a lot of group shows and works on loan. I’ve always got something on show in some place or other which keeps me busy.
PSC: You were commissioned in 2011 to produce a new work for the St Paul’s area of London, a 12 metre high nail made of bronze. What was the process for the commission?
GT: The process was quite standard, really. They created a long-list and I gave a very broad slide cv. That then got shortlisted down to six and those people were given a small budget to develop their idea. And then there was an interview and they liked my submission so they wanted to take that through to be made.
PSC: How did you find that process? Is that the best way of doing it?
GT: Well, its a way of doing it. It obviously worked out for me. I think the interesting thing for me is that it probably hasn’t been that long, and is the reason I’m able to do eight shows a year now, that I’ve been able to design art and projects before making them in this way. I think before, a lot of my work had to be made before I felt I wanted to show it. It was almost like I was making things before deciding what I was going to do with them, in a way, and I think now that’s changing.
I mean, I’ve always worked relatively architecturally, not necessarily that intuitively, but I just don’t think I’ve been that organised in the past in terms of my working method to kind of prepare or make presentations. I’ve now made a few presentations of things that haven’t actually gone through and they are quite useful aswell because you’re progressing thought through to quite a sophisticated level and you can then employ that sophistication somewhere else. You can leapfrog it off onto something else. If another similar sort of opportunity arrives you can say, ‘Oh what about if I just subvert this and I take that energy from this work and put it into that’, so it means that you’ve parked relatively conveniently these ideas that you can then reinstigate if you need to.
PSC: As an established and successful artist with so many projects on the go, you must have a great deal to manage and to get done. Can you describe how your studio is organised to support this?
GT: As an artist you get bogged down with local colour, with detail. You get caught up in small moments and obviously when you’re trying to run through a programme and carry out a series of shows and make shows happen you need to be able to get a bigger picture and be able to get the full picture ahead of you. You need to go from quite high level thinking to minutae details. So really the studio is set up on various levels to kind of project manage, from planning through to the millimetre finish, the paint finish, whatever is the actual aesthetic quality and actually the sign off, getting to, ‘I can’t make it any better. This is a as good as it’s going to be’.
Meri and Dominic work in the office. Dominic deals with the studio but mainly the way the studio interfaces with the world. Mary does internal studio stuff. So between those two they do the studio management. Yana comes and does two days per week but that’s mainly admin, database and book keeping. And then there’s Kate, Chris, Tom, Matt, none of them work full-time. They all work part-time and do their own work as well, or freelance.
We’ve been in this studio now for 12 years and its slowly now built up to a relatively organised kind of environment. Because my work goes in lots of different directions, whether its sculpture, or painting, or printing, or photos, or films or performances, I needed the studio to reflect that and I wanted to keep as much in-house so I’d have a bit of a way of controlling it. You know, I don’t bronze cast here. I don’t have that facility but the foundry I use is like a mile down the road. Its really close. So the studio has lots of different areas where different kinds of work can take place. And I’ve managed to find people who are very skilled at certain kinds of work and so I try and make sure you match up the job with the person with the skills to do the job. Though sometimes, actually, you’ve got to get the person whose doing that job to do another one of the jobs a bit too or otherwise they go a bit insane. And obviously my assistants like to stretch themselves and space has to be created for that too.
PSC: Your studio is called Live Stock Market Ltd. So it is set up as a separate entity to yourself. Why was that?
GT: It’s a little bit complicated. I created a production company that is basically the studio and so the company is my production company. So I’m a free agent who is commissioning the studio to make my work for me. But at the moment the studio not only makes my work for me but also does invoicing and makes consignments for me which gets a bit complicated in terms of ownership levels.
PSC: The ‘business’ of art is something that often gets washed over, especially in art schools. Can you talk about the artist-gallery relationship, in particular about sales and commission?
GT: The gallerists do the sales. I don’t really sell art. Though its not impossible. If I were the gallery, in my paperwork then I would write that I pay commission to Gavin Turk’s Studio in the process of selling this art. But in reality, with galleries, that isn’t actually what happens. They don’t pay me a commission. I pay them a commission. Its a battle because galleries want to write that they pay me a commission but I want to write that I pay them a commission on the sale, as I produced the work. But it becomes tricky as they’re the one that generates the invoice, because they don’t want me to necessarily know who their client is, because quite often its a personal relationship between the client and the gallery. So it’s the gallery that is in effect writing the invoice but ultimately they shouldn’t really write the invoice because they can’t, on the basis that they are the principle and I am simply a manufacturer. As I’m not. I haven’t actually been commissioned to make that artwork. I’ve made that artwork off my own back and its in effect still my artwork. So how to correctly articulate the true situation in paperwork is an ongoing battle.
PSC: Wow that’s fascinating…
GT: If you think about this across all the transactions that take place across the artworld, even just across Frieze Art Fair, I think that is quite fascinating. You’ll find the gallery has replaced the patron and obviously this approach is a historical hangover. What basically used to happen is that the patron used to buy all the artwork from an artist or generally would keep the artist, would pay the artists money, and so then everything the artist produced was the property of the patron. What’s happened is that galleries have taken their historical place in society, this replacement for the patron. So there is a kind of legal loop hole where what they do is they invoice for, they have a facility to generate an invoice on the artist’s behalf. I’m now in a situation where the gallery and I agree to differ. They send an invoice to the client and they then, in their books, say they’re paying me a commission. But I too send an invoice to them saying that I’m paying their commission. Sometimes I also just invoice for the % that I’ve agreed that I’m going to take and I offer them a discount, I call it a discount, which is their bit.
When I consign a work its consigned with a retail amount, a retail figure and this becomes easier for me because I work with several galleries internationally. If I’ve got the same work, or similar work with different galleries, it is important that the work has an equivalence, that one gallery is not essentially offering the work at a different price to another gallery because then the galleries get upset with each other.
Also the percent terms can differ for different situations. You kind of have to try and argue it out again each time. Galleries assume they can take 50%. That’s their default button and I think quite often artists generally default to thinking that the galleries know best but, they don’t have to. They don’t have to do that. It depends how much the gallery wants them.
PSC: Can you talk about the international aspect of being a successful international artist?
GT: I find the international thing is interesting. On an international level people might want to see, want to look, want to even consume the art because its seen to be popular in the country where its come from. i.e. they don’t fully understand it. They like the foreigness of it. They’re appreciating the strange foreign feelings they get from it. So it’s a kind of tourism. It’s a kind of strange cultural tourism. So it requires a certain something to appeal to that touristic aspect, to that kind of foreign investor. That’s one way of thinking about internationalism.
There is a perhaps a more intellectual side to looking at internationalism, the international language of art, where certain artists share an intellectual platform, or an aesthetic more closely related to someone in another country rather than to someone in the studio next door. That said, I have had work in the Venice Biennial and Istanbul Biennial but I haven’t really had much work in many biennials or survey shows where you get this more culturally driven approach to exhibition.
PSC: Was there a moment when you’re really felt I’ve sort of quote unquote ‘made it’ or I’m in a different space, that you felt that things had changed?
GT: I think there was probably a moment when I stopped working with White Cube Gallery which is probably one of the most sought after and important galleries in the UK, and I felt pretty much that I had made it, in as much as I was able to stop working with them and feel good about it. If there was a kind of a moment for me it was probably the moment when I felt confident enough, and secure enough in my work, that I felt that I was able to benefit from – personally benefit from – not working with a big gallery.
PSC: With all your experience, what advice can you give to those artists just starting out on their career?
GT: People who don’t have a gallery want a gallery, so one piece of advice is to say that perhaps you don’t necessarily need a gallery – but obviously its easy to say when you’ve got one. When you’ve got one you don’t want one and when you haven’t got one you want one.
The main thing when you leave college is don’t work in a vacuum. Keep talking. Keep talking to your peer group, keep talking to practitioners, try and keep the conversations going with other artists. Make sure you keep the door open for communication with other artists. When I left college it was very much that we were always putting on exhibitions, trying things out, even though the audience was mainly just us lot. We’d just go round and see each others shows. But it gave us a kind of identity. It gave us our own – invented really – kind of context and I think that was a really positive thing. And that can happen anywhere. You can do that in Wiltshire. You can do that in Bath Spa. You can do that anywhere. It doesn’t have to be London centric.
The final piece of advice is try not to get too fixed an idea in your head about what a career in art will be because a) it won’t be like that and b) that fixed idea will be preventing you from moving and being flexible in your ideas. People might think it’s giving them structure and something to kick off against but on the whole it can be quite unhelpful. It seems too easy to, you know, to go to some private view, or go to galleries, or go to Frieze – let’s call it ‘visiting the artworld’ – getting a collection of experiences and saying: ‘Oh, they all share this and therefore that’s it, that’s the end of it. It can’t change.’ Because I actually think it does change quite a lot. For me it feels different from year to year. You know I think that’s the thing, try and keep an element of flexibility.