My work is much about statements that are a bit like concrete poetry
“I think one of the principal things about going to Reims is to learn how to pronounce the name of the place!” With his irreverent sense of humour, David Shrigley could be described as a compulsive draftsman or an analyst of daily life. The British artist, who lives and works in Brighton, has been chosen by Ruinart for its annual carte blanche entrusted to a contemporary artist. After Vik Muniz, Liu Bolin and Jaume Plensa, David Shrigley is the twelfth artist to deliver his artistic interpretation of the first established house of champagne. The result? “Unconventional Bubbles” (Bulles singulières), a series of 36 drawings (but also sculptures, installations and neon lights) that retrace the artist’s discoveries and amazement with not only the making of exceptional wines, but also the awe of nature itself. The project was unveiled in a hidden room at the Opéra Bastille with an itinerary recreating the artist’s experience in the “crayères” – where he left his mark in the form of various “graffiti”. Say Who met up with David Shrigley just before his train back to the UK to discuss his experience in Reims (and how to pronounce it!), the consequences of Brexit on his work, and the idea of sophistication… and this, always with his own wit.
How did you meet Ruinart and start working on this new carte blanche?
Ruinart is a brand that is very visible in the art world because they sponsor the art fairs. Art fairs are a big part of most artists’ lives in that it is how we make a living, selling the works. I was already very aware of the brand (I’ve worked with a lot of brands over the years) and I realized it is quite important to work with a brand which product you like. And it’s not difficult to like that champagne! The nature of the proposition was to make an exhibition, which is going to be shown at the art fairs. It’s a context I’m very familiar with, albeit the artwork is about a subject that I don’t normally make art about. It felt comfortable, like it was a good thing to do. I think the inspiration is more about the learning, the acquiring of knowledge and going somewhere different than you wouldn’t otherwise go. To have a conversation that you wouldn’t otherwise have. That was really exciting. So I think it was quite an attractive offer… and I get lots of free champagne!
The learning experience seems to be at the core of the work. Was this didactical approach a conscious process?
No, not really. The didactic nature came from the other side. I wasn’t attempting to teach anybody anything. I guess, now that you mention it, there is a lot about the process in there. But the way I approached to project was just to write a list of all the things we were talking about. My work is much about statements that are a bit like concrete poetry. We’ve looked at the history of Ruinart, the archives. Ruinart is the first champagne brand in existence, it was an unconventional wine at the time, and we don’t really know exactly how it came about. Then there’s the process of making it: the microorganisms, the riddling, the disgorgement, the growing of the grapes, the nature of the farming and how delicate that is. There’s also the tasting of the champagne with the Cellar Master, the cuvées, understanding all of it. Finally there’s the marketing side which is about messages, about a luxury brand. So there was a lot to write down – and I’m always writing notes on my phone. When I got back into the studio, I wrote little poems about everything, made lists, and that’s basically the way I work. I drew the caves, the bottle, the grapes, the vine, the bees, the birds, the weather, the frost, the rain, the sunshine, the air, the soil, the worms in the soil… It’s a big list, and that pleases me because I sometimes feel like I have drawn everything there is in the world – which I haven’t, obviously. The only thing I find difficult about making art is the starting point. Once you start, the work sorts of makes itself.
Did you feel your usual process changed in this context of collaboration ?
Definitely. There’s always a compromise, a conversation to be had. But you’ve got to embrace that this is going to be slightly different from what you normally do. In lots of ways. Because of the way I work, I tend to only really keep thirty percent of what I do. With this, I was making statements about the brand, the process, and then Ruinart chose which ones they wanted to use. So that was quite interesting.
You’ve created quite a lot of pieces for this carte blanche, and not only the 36 final drawings.
Yes, there are the 36 drawings, the two ceramic sculptural works, the installation piece with the doorway, three neons… I’ve also redrawn the Ruinart typeface. It’s significantly different, slightly odd. I’m glad they took it on board, there’s something I really like about typefaces. I’ve also made some carvings in the “crayères”, sort of like graffiti, as something extra.
Did you look at the previous collaborations Ruinart did with other artists to get a sense of what was expected of you?
Yes, out of interest! They’re all very different, and the last two collaborations were very much about photography. I don’t really use photography that much so I made objects and drawings. I guess there’s a certain lyricism, a bit more craft albeit quite clumsy and crude.
Did you have a prior knowledge of champagne and champagne-making? Did you already know Reims and French culture before collaborating with Ruinart?
I love France and the French culture. Wine, food, the weather! I think a lot of British people pretend not to like France but they’re actually sort of in love with it. We don’t really make good wine in the UK, we’re only starting to make it now. There’s always that love affair with the South of France, with Paris as well. I’ve spent many holidays in Languedoc or Var. I studied French when I was a kid, which doesn’t really equip you to speak the language. I’ve revisited it over the years but I guess you only ever going to learn if you live in France. Obviously Brexit has made it far more unlikely.
Has Brexit affected your work ?
I think it’s symptomatic of a giant political problem we have in the UK. It’s just maddening and disappointing that we would seriously damage our economy by leaving the EU. And people just believe so many lies! When we had the referendum, everybody was asked this question of whether we should leave the EU, and everybody responded “I don’t know, what’s the EU?” My understanding of the EU at that time, in 2016, was that it was a trading organisation (even though it’s also a federal government), but nobody really seemed to even know that. I knew vastly more about the EU than most people, and I really didn’t know that much about it! And I considered who was on the other side of the argument: Donald Trump, Putin… so I thought “OK, I think we should stay!” Everyone was thinking “oh, Germany and France are telling us what to do, we shouldn’t stand for that!” But we created the EU along with everyone else in Europe. The UK was the principal architect of what the EU is now. It’s ridiculous what we’ve done. How people can believe these lies is perplexing to the extreme to me.
In 2016, your sculpture “Really Good” was exhibited on Trafalgar Square in London. Was this work about Brexit at the time?
No, I created that work in 2013, so there was no talking about Brexit at that time. And then come 2016, the work took a completely different meaning. But it was certainly interesting times… Don’t get me started!
Let’s go back to Reims. What about that first time you walked into the “crayères”? It felt like the exhibition at Opéra Bastille was mirroring that unique experience.
Ruinart didn’t identify the Opéra Bastille as the venue for the launch until quite late on. But it was nice that it had that reference to the “crayères”. It was concrete rather than chalk but it had the same temperature, the same color. You don’t want to kneel down with black trousers on, in there! I think one of the principal things about going to Reims is to learn how to pronounce the name of the place! I even had to look up how to pronounce “Reims” on YouTube. It happens to be in the top ten of most difficult French places to pronounce for English people…
“Elegance and sophistication” are at the center of your work produced with Ruinart. You even presented an interactive installation called “The door of elegance” (which you had to kneel down to go through), can you explain its meaning ?
The idea of this piece is that it can be shown at an art fair, something fun that people can interact with. Obviously the word “elegance” is a word Ruinart defines their brand by. When you start to think about the meanings of words, to analyse them, they start to mean something quite different. There’s an assumption that elegance means refinement, something that is very graceful. That the opposite of elegance is clumsy, badly made. Here, we’re talking about something that is well made, cultivated over many many years to achieve a certain level of excellence.
Would you say “sophistication and elegance” are notion you usually look for in your work?
No. My work is very inelegant, I suppose. It’s a deliberate absence of craft, of refinement. It’s almost trying to provide less information than is required to deliver a message. But I suppose at the same time there’s a certain poetry to it. Poetry is an elegant thing. In a way, you’d have to ask Ruinart why they wanted me to create the works for this project. You can’t always define your own work. You don’t see it as other people see it, because you don’t see yourself as other people see you.
Growing up, did you have ultimate references in art?
Not really. I’m not from an artistic or an intellectual background. Of course my parents have always been supportive of everything I’ve done, but they were quite perplexed that I wanted to study art. None of my entire extended family have ever been to university before so I’m the intellectual pinnacle of my entire family line!
Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian
Photos: Jean Picon