“David Shrigley is very, very British. He does everything with his tongue firmly in his cheek”
As has been tradition since 1841, when an intended statue of William IV failed to materialise due to lack of funds, a new contemporary art piece has arrived to fill the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Really Good, a seven-metre-high thumbs up by David Shrigley, was unveiled last week to take pride of place in one of London’s busiest Squares.
Despite being cast in matching bronze, the piece did little else to blend in with the three other statues in Trafalgar Square, instead thrusting quite the silhouette against the National Gallery, challenging viewers to pass by leaving it unnoticed.
Unveiling the ostensibly cheery gesture to a bleak, grey, London sky, the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, spoke passionately about the sculpture, which for him represented “optimism, positivity, the best of us,” particularly poignant in post-Brexit Britain. “This sculpture is so so important – showing Londoners, visitors, tourists, EU citizens and immigrants that #Londonisopen.”
Indeed, David’s own introductory words about the Square’s new addition invited the audience to approach the work philosophically: “I guess Really Good is about making the world a better place. Or even purports to actually make the world a better place,” he told Trafalgar Square. “Which of course is a ridiculous proposition. Artworks on their own are inanimate objects – it’s only us that can make the world a better place. We have to think how we can do that.”
But as anyone familiar with David Shrigley (if only from receiving the odd off-the-wall greetings card) will well know, earnest optimism rarely features in his illustrations, which are far more taken with wit, sarcasm and absurdity. With that in mind, it seemed simplistic – if not naive – to take his thumbs up at face value, if only because it would be so uncharacteristic of his work, which often not only pokes fun at modern day society but at art itself.
With Sadiq highlighting that in the case of public art, everyone can be an art critic, there seemed no better way to garner reactions on the sculpture than speak with the crowd gathered in front of it.
“What is more universal and positive than a thumbs up?” said one passer by. “It has a lot of humour and joy,” said another. “Of course it’s positive, what else?” said a Polish tourist, particularly touched by Sadiq’s words: “After Brexit, that message is very important – that London is open.”
But some were hesitant to point out that a Shrigley piece was much sooner likely to be laced with irony than be a shiny beacon of smiles: “David Shrigley is very, very British. He does everything with his tongue firmly in his cheek,” a university student said. “To create something called ‘Really Good’ when the country is in complete turmoil is really interesting. But in that sense I do like it – it’s funny and fun but also poignant.”
“I think it can have a multitude of meanings – it can definitely be positive,” said a Londoner. “But it is also very large, very black, very looming – so could be cast as having a more ironic message…”
A big Shrigley fan hinted at its questionable innocence: “It’s classic Shrigley – anarchic, suggestive, in the great tradition of British naughtiness.”
But others were less convinced by the choice: “I think it’s a bit misplaced in a Square full of history. It doesn’t really go to me,” said one guy, disagreeing with his girlfriend. One young exchange student saw it as “a bit strange among all these other old statues.”
But as with any art, its meaning is in the eye of the beholder, or as one woman aptly put it: “Art is so subjective, noone ever really agrees.” But whether ironic or not, many did seem to reach consensus on one thing: “You can’t help but smile when you look at it.”
With its surrealist disproportionality, it was difficult to take it seriously – not to feel that really the joke was on us, Shrigley’s words merely a way of casting a more positive light on the dark reality that the economy, society and politics are not really good, in fact far from it. The giant impossible-to-ignore gesture of goodwill becoming a desperate attempt to spin-doctor positivity where there is none – like a fake, forced smile, a shameless piss-take of our underlying misery, the ultimate deadpan joke. It may as well as have been a stuck-up middle finger.
But if Shrigley does something particularly well, it is certainly to satirise and produce social commentary through the medium of the simplest of images. And whether a fun, happy gesture, a symbol of hope and aspiration for a better future, or even more firmly in Shrigley’s typical black comedy style, David’s piece does what all artwork should and that is resist easy labelling and provoke a reaction and discussion. And with its prime location and unmissable profile, it will no doubt continue to do just that.
By Sarah Bradbury. David Shrigley’s Really Good was unveiled at Trafalgar Square on 29th September by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. For more information, check out their web page.