At the preview of Gavin Turk’s ‘The Stuff Show’, the works were entirely concealed in swathes of unbleached cotton duck. Relative indifference held those present in its iron grip: everyone briefly wondered whether there really was any work beneath the covers, registered the self-consciously ineffectual avant-garde gambit, then got on with the serious matter of socialising.
Next day, as promised, off came the wrappings. ‘The Stuff Show’ held out the promise of new work, but turned out to be a mini-retrospective. Amongst the exhibits were: a couple of pastiche Manzoni achromes, with Turk’s signature writ large; a ‘Magrittian’ photograph that grafted a Manzoni egg onto the shoulders of the artist; a waxwork version of David’s Death of Marat, with Turk in the lead role as defunct revolutionary; another wax self-portrait, this time attired in the rancid clothes used by the artist to masquerade as a vagrant at the ‘Sensation’ opening (the Baudelairean avant-gardist as ragpicker). Same themes, same borrowings – Turk is nothing if not consistent.
Two central, interrelated, claims might be advanced for the work: that it critiques both authorial originality and the avant-garde’s key transgressions against the art institution. Turk rejects the position of originator through his wholesale appropriation of other artists’ motifs. Further, his favoured borrowings are from those whose practices have investigated the validating function of the authorial signature: in particular, Klein, Warhol, Duchamp and Manzoni. Thus, Turk turns lack of originality into an original position, and crafts what the show’s catalogue describes as a ‘classically-authored body of work’ from a set of gestures that in principle should undermine that very possibility. A neatly topped-and-tailed rationale; but does this really give rise to a range of insightful or radical critiques?
Take the piece Font, for example. Installed in a key position in the gallery, Font features a white lavatory pan-cum-giant-eggcup sitting on a rough wooden block with an engraved plate attached. (Font is one of a series, and the plate on each bears the name of a different art gallery.) There are an assortment of references here – from Manzoni’s Magic Bases; to every avant-gardist from Breton to Broodthaers who has ever made use of an egg; to a series of works by Richard Hamilton; and most obviously, to Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917.
Fountain, as is well known, was bought at a plumber’s and is not signed ‘Marcel Duchamp’, but ‘R. Mutt’. Duchamp’s relationship to Richard Mutt (and to his other aliases – the vampish Mlle Sélavy, Messrs. Hooke, Lyon and Cinquer, et al) is complex, allusive and provocative. Moreover, Fountain, as a performative phenomenon, was the (voluntary and involuntary) work of a whole collection of individuals (Duchamp himself, Arensberg, Louise Norton, Stieglitz, Katherine S. Dreier, Beatrice Wood and others).
However, Turk’s (presumably commercially fabricated) Font is signed ‘Gavin Turk’. At a stroke, Duchamp’s elaborate project is reduced to its crudest possible formulation, to whit: the signature of the individual categorised as an ‘artist’ guarantees to the object it designates both cultural value and market value. (Unlike, say, Manzoni or Klein, Turk’s practice takes no critical position on the interrelation between these two.)
Arguably, Turk’s superficial borrowings amount less to a deconstructive testing-out of the old avant-garde myths, than to the imposition of another simplistic and highly conservative myth – that all avant-garde critiques of authorship (be they by Duchamp, Warhol, Manzoni, or whoever), are commensurate, and that despite their historical and intellectual specificities they can be boiled down to the following formula: creative practice amounts to nothing more than the assertion of the artist’s persona and the presence of the artist’s validatory signature within the (cultural) commodity system.
However, this account is reductive to the point of being reactionary ideology itself. Turk’s show does indeed have the ‘benumbed look’ that Barthes attributes to mythic speech. Jean Clair wrote that Duchamp’s work ‘is actually the only work which can fully satisfy without being seen’. This slick bon mot is quite simply wrong, but Turk is not the only contemporary British artist to have taken it at face value. His unrelentingly high-precision practice gives rise to peculiarly null, sterile objects: little is gained from viewing these pieces that could not be gleaned from looking at photos and reading descriptions. (Bum, the waxwork wearing Turk’s vagrant outfit, is supposed to smell horrible, but doesn’t.) ‘Benumbed’ might also be a good word to describe the experience of many of the show’s visitors; Turk’s shutting-down of the role of author seems to extend, insidiously, to the imaginative faculties of the viewer.
Gavin Turk: The Stuff Show was on view 10 September – 18 October 1998 at the South London Gallery
Text © Rachel Withers and Frieze, 1998