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"I've almost got Warhol out of my system"
An Interview with Gavin Turk

Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Marcel Broodthaers, and again and again Andy Warhol – no modernist hero is safe from Gavin Turk. Turk, one of the Young British Artists, appropriates his subjects with laconic wit in order to radically question mythically charged concepts such as "artist" and "authenticity." Ossian Ward met with Gavin Turk in his inventive hive of a studio in an East London warehouse.

Gavin Turk,Cave 1991-97, © the artist
Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London)

The Gavin Turk legend always begins with his degree show submission, titled Cave, which was nothing but a blue English Heritage plaque stuck on his otherwise empty studio wall and bearing the words: "Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991." He became the first student at the Royal College of Art to be refused his Masters for not adequately showing his artistic progression at the art school. A witty, sparing approach to producing art has characterized Turk's career ever since.

Gavin Turk, Bagotropic, 2006
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Courtesy Galerie Krinzinger, Wien

In addition to his fascination with adding value to overlooked objects such as crumpled plastic cups or dustbin bags – this motif also appears in two paper works that were purchased at the last Frieze Art Fair for the Deutsche Bank Collection – by alchemically turning them into bronze, Turk has always been attached to his own fugitive identity.

Gavin Turk, Pop, 1993
© the artist
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London)

His distinctive signature has appeared on clothing labels, surveillance mirrors, biscuits, and eggs as well as the more traditional paintings and sculptures, not only as a seal of originality or value, but as a logo – the artist as brand-name product. Turk's own face also appears in photographic or life-sized waxwork self-portraits, not to mention on miniature Oscar-style art awards and an entire troupe of performing puppets.

Gavin Turk, Pink Beuys (Nappy Pin), 2005
Courtesy Galerie Krinzinger, Wien

He consistently and consciously confuses his image with those of his artistic heroes, which range from Duchamp, Beuys, and Warhol to Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. Turk further probes the impossibility of distilling the artist's true being into a work of art in his latest works, a series of Piss Paintings based on Warhol's similar Oxidation Paintings, themselves made in response to Jackson Pollock's admission that he pissed on paintings being sent to dealers he didn't like.

Gavin Turk, Study for unorignal Signature, 1996
Deutsche Bank Collection

Ossian Ward: How did you work out the process for making your Piss Paintings?

Gavin Turk: Just trial and error, really. The pictures change all the time; they start off all fluffy and begin to harden up later, but even then they still have moisture in them. In most books that mention Warhol's Oxidation Paintings, the references state that they are made of "mixed media." I add the chemical ammonium chloride in order to patinate the pictures, which is not only the main constituent of urine, but also produces copper sulphate, which is the blue color emerging on the surface.

Gavin Turk, Piss Painting, 2007,
Courtesy the artist

Why did you start pissing on pictures in the first place?

I was making camouflage portraits of myself as Andy Warhol, complete with fright wig, for an exhibition called Me as Him (at Riflemaker Gallery), and I was asked to contribute to one of the gallery's Monday night events. I tried to think of something that would bring people into the process rather than having someone from Warhol's Factory reading his poetry. My first idea was to make a lake of the screen ink used in the printing. People would come in and get hit by the toxic fumes, get a bit nauseous, and that'd be their Monday night! I know from doing graffiti, for example, that if you do a big "piece" on a wall you get quite high from the spray paint. So people would see the pictures and then get an aroma that evokes a different attitude or a way of thinking.

Then I had another idea to create this other dimension for the event. So we stretched some canvases the same size as the self-portraits, covered them with bronze or copper paint, and got everyone to piss on them after they had a beer at the opening. It was a sort of actionist performance, which is funny because now my gallery in Austria (Krinzinger), who actually shows Hermann Nitsch, wants to show these in Vienna (at the end of February). Suddenly the piss works spin into that whole European history of abstraction and gesture, they become part of a tradition of bodily excretions and unpalatable, abject art.

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