Tom Hodgkinson visits surrealist Gavin Turk in his east London studio to discuss eggs and why photography has become so central to existence
Gavin Turk’s studio lurks behind a metal garage door on an industrial estate in Canning Town, served by the Docklands Light Railway. It’s the kind of place that Iain Sinclair might call a “liminal edgescape”. The visitor walks past giant scrapyards loaded with towering piles of metal. Through the door there is a yard with various vehicles including an electric car made by Vauxhall and a caravan. Inside the building are three studios and a vast office upstairs, which Gavin shares with his partner Deborah Curtis.
Certainly for an artist obsessed by rubbish this seems an appropriate location. As well as eggs and candles, Gavin has a fondness for bulging black bin liners, squashed plastic water bottles and old beer cans. His latest project is an egg installation at Somerset House. Turk sees himself as a Magrittian surrealist and has an abiding interest in eggs. This new one has been made with Instagram in mind, as he explains.
Tom Hodgkinson: Why eggs?
Gavin Turk: What would get me going as an artist was the idea of surrealism, of going into dreams or parallel universes. It’s the obvious fake, the obvious trick. We know it’s a scenario we haven’t actually experienced but we get it in this picture of this frame. Suddenly this idea of surrealism with its attendant psychoanalytical framework became really crucial for me. I found myself going towards this idea of ultimates, of irreducible things, and the most irreducible thing I got to was something from Brâncusi, the egg form. The egg form then slipped into a psychoanalytical dream space, a question of existence: ‘Which came first?’ So, first I got an egg and signed it. Just from the supermarket, a battery farmed egg. For me, art had to have a human interactivity. So then it was like, maybe it was about husbandry or farming, or making this egg or the chicken that made that egg. At that time, I was still deciding if I was an artist or if I was playing with the idea of being an artist and so by signing it I was asserting the identity of an unknown artist. I was only just out of college. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I photographed it. It’s lost now.
TH: Don’t they rot inside and then explode?
GT: I’ve got some whole eggs which stink, even though they aren’t broken. There’s this wonderful thing where it permeates. There is a relationship between the inside world and the outside world. It’s a bit like your lungs with the air. At some point there’s a gap where the molecules pass from the outside world into your body and into your blood. So I signed the egg and I thought the egg could be a logo, or a mark or a signature, even. If I played it right I could make it a publishing mark. It’s like a shield.
TH: And how did this new project come about?
GT: I was invited to take part in Photo London, which is similar to Frieze but specialises in photographs. Obviously photography has become so important and relevant and has almost taken the place of the painting. Art photographs are amongst the most expensive artworks that exist. Like Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall or Thomas Struth. And as I stand in a museum now, someone runs in front of me and takes a picture of something and runs off. That’s the way that people see things now. They have to use the photograph as proof, and almost as a theory of the fact that it happened. It’s theory and proof, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everything has to go through a photographic channel. Everyone carries around a camera that is also a phone. A camera that can communicate with the rest of the world. So institutions come to me and ask if I have anything that is Instagrammable.
With the egg, I felt as a form and object it could become this floating signifier. People could access it from lots of different angles. So for Photo London I said I’d show my sculpture and organise an online campaign to try and get people to upload their photographs of eggs, called Portrait of an Egg. All the portraits will be projected as part of the exhibition in a space downstairs. The idea of projecting was fascinating – it reminded me of slides of holiday photos, like a memory on film. Then, in January, we came across a post about an egg which has had the most likes on Instagram. It’s a very sterile image of a brown egg on a white background. It’s the most-liked post on Instagram, ever. And because it’s the most-liked post, people will look at it and like it. It’s continued. It has achieved notoriety and become even more liked. It might be that I’m so on the ball with it that I’ve actually gone off the ball. s an artist, you know that there’s a point where I’m not about to be discovered, and yet at the same time, no-one knows what the hell I do. They need to discover me. I suppose I could get rediscovered.
A longer version of this interview appears in Idler 66, May/June 2019.