âI actually almost always have a nap at 2.30pm,â says David Shrigley, as we sit down in an upstairs room, a jug of water and a plate of chocolate digestives between us, at Graphica gallery in Brighton. I check my watch: itâs five to two. âItâs not going to work today,â he sighs. âBut this isnât really work, this is just blah blah blah, itâs easy. The hard thing is writing things in the studio and thinking of stuff thatâs interesting.â
An afternoon nap might sound indulgent, but it is hard to fault 49-year-old Shrigleyâs work ethic. An excellent new book is imminent: Fully Coherent Plan for a New and Better Society features 254 new illustrations, all drawn in his distinctive thick black pen on stark white paper, the naivety of the image offset by the scabrous, surreal or darkly comic text. Heâs also the guest director of the 2018 Brighton festival (he moved to Brighton three years ago with his wife, Kim, and miniature schnauzer Inka, after 27 years in Glasgow). Shrigley has been involved in selecting performers for the festival â which features everything from art to comedy to music to a lot that is indescribable â and will be making several appearances himself.
To that end, below us, in a large room that still has the stained-glass windows and pulpit from its days as a church, the finishing touches are being applied to Shrigleyâs installation Life Model II. The work, which revisits a piece he made when he was nominated for the Turner prize in 2013, is an imposing 9ft nude woman with a severe fringe and long eyelashes that blink every so often. Surrounding the model are easels, paper and drawing materials, and visitors are invited to make a âlifeâ drawing. These will then be tacked to the gallery walls and, in Shrigleyâs mind, become artwork just as interesting as his original sculpture, if not more so.
The show hasnât yet opened when we meet, so on the walls are some examples from the last time Life Model II was shown, in Vienna, which will act as a âgiddy-upâ to the people of Brighton. âSo they are drawings by Austrians,â says Shrigley, as though this fact might explain a lot.
The Austrians struggled with the feet, I note. âWell, of course hands and feet are always the hard things to draw,â Shrigley replies. âThe [modelâs] feet are an awkward size anyway, so Iâm giving you a get-out, but the hands are quite elegantly rendered, I suppose. Hands and feet â hard.â He points his long index finger at me: âForeshortening of the hand, oof, difficult!â
Life Model II is a just part of Shrigleyâs contribution to the festival. Whatâs really disrupting his sleep right now is a new work called Problem in Brighton, which is billed as âan alt-rock pantomimeâ starring Pauline Knowles and Gavin Mitchell. In some ways itâs a companion piece to Shrigleyâs 2011 âoperaâ, Pass the Spoon, but the truth is that even the artist is unsure what it will look and sound like.
âIâve always wanted to direct a performance on stage,â says Shrigley. âI did the opera thing a few years ago, but I didnât direct that, I just wrote the words. But the word âpantomimeâ suggests, âoh well, itâs a pantomime, itâs like a rubbish, funny play for childrenâ. Then you say itâs âalt-rockââ¦ I didnât say âavant-gardeâ, because thatâs pretentious. Basically Iâve set the bar really low, so I can do whatever I like and make a cacophonous noise.â
Doing something totally different clearly appeals to Shrigley. Alongside his best-known work â the books and merch; his 2012 solo show, Brain Activity, at Londonâs Hayward gallery; his huge bronze thumb, titled Really Good, which until last month sat on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square â he is also drawn to more esoteric commissions. In 2015, he designed a new mascot for the Scottish football club Partick Thistle; heâs called Kingsley and looks like a furious sun. Heâs made music videos for Blur and Bonnie Prince Billy, and hosted pop-up tattoo stations, at which he draws directly on to peopleâs bodies and, if they like the result, they can have it inked permanently.
Now, for the Observer, Shrigley is submitting himself to interrogation by our readers. At 6ft 5in, heâs not hard to spot â does he generally have pleasant interactions with the public? âThey give me the fear, if Iâm honest,â says Shrigley. âIn Glasgow it used to be, âYouâre that guy, arenât ye?â And Iâd be like, âAye, I am.â Then heâd say, âI thought you were, right, I think youâre that guy. All the best to ye.ââ
Shrigley laughs, âThe thing is, who was he talking about? Was he talking about me? Weâll never know.â
Famous fansâ questionsâ¦
What is your advice to a young artist?
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries
Donât listen to people like me. Or Hans-Ulrich. Thereâs that famous statement: every generation invents rockânâroll, or whatever it is, for itself. And every generation invents its art anew. So, donât find excuses not to do it. Iâm sure a lot of young people have more excuses than I did when I was in my early 20s: I was lucky, there were no fees to pay then. But yeah, if you want to do it, get on with it.
Given humour is so important in your work, whoâd be your comic hero?
Yinka Shonibare, artist
Tommy Cooper was funny. The thing about Tommy Cooper is that he walked on to the stage and people laughed. Thatâs magic, isnât it? If you can just look at people and they start laughing. Iâm not really a nostalgic person, but when I watch things from the 1970s, when I was a little kid, The Two Ronnies and Dadâs Army are still funny. I couldnât really say that about a lot of other things that have happened in the interim.
I like standup, but I donât go to it often. When itâs good, you always think: âWhy donât I do this more often?â Just laughing for a whole hour, itâs so therapeutic. But then you see something that isnât that funny and youâre like, âShall we go to the bar?â and you realise why you donât do it so often. Itâs very subjective as well. My wife and I went to see Stewart Lee and then we went to see an American guy whose name I canât remember. She really liked the American guy and didnât like Stewart Lee. And I was like: âHow can you not like Stewart Lee?â And she said, âI think itâs a man thing. Heâs just so bloody clever.â And thatâs a criticism. Thatâs part of the reason I like him: because he is so bloody clever. Anyway, subjective, innit?
The ghost of a famous artist has decided to haunt you over a bank holiday weekend. Who is it and how would you pass the time with them?
Jess Kidd, author
Right, a bank holiday weekend â because itâs bound to be raining, isnât it? So youâre indoors with this bloody ghost. Iâm actually reading Jess Kiddâs book at the moment, which is all about ghosts. Anyway, who would it be? It would have to be Duchamp, because he could perhaps teach me to play chess â he was one of the best chess players in France. People have taught me to play chess before but itâs never stuck, so Iâd like to go over it with him. And I could sit there in the park playing and tell people: âWell, Marcel Duchamp taught me to playâ¦â Actually no: âThe ghost of Marcel Duchamp taught me to play chess.â That would be cool.
It would probably take longer than a weekend. Obviously thereâd be a lot of questions Iâd want to ask him: Duchamp is a kind of god, or a touchstone. And if Duchamp wasnât available then Andy Warhol, but Duchamp would be my first choice.
What makes Brighton such a special festival for you?
Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England
Well, I live in Brighton, so thatâs really handy. And part of the reason they need a guest director as a marketing figurehead is because it is so disparate in terms of the things that are on. Itâs very difficult to pull them all together into one unified blurb, other than: itâs here and thereâs lots of really good things on. My programming was basically sending a list by email to somebody and, fortunately for me, a lot of the things came to be. So Deerhoof and Ezra Furman and Bridget Christie among others: Deerhoof are one of my favourite bands, Ezra Furman Iâve never seen before and Bridget Christie, I missed her show as well. So it was a way of filling in the gaps and not having to go to London and get the vomit express back at the end of the evening.
Who let the dogs out?
Emma Jane Unsworth, author
Who! Who! Who! I let the dog out at 6am, and I donât know why she wakes up at 6am but itâs always me that has to take her out. And itâs only when weâre in Brighton. We spend part of our time in Devon and she gets up at 8am when weâre in Devon. I think itâs the seagulls that wake her up here. Anyway, Iâve taken to wearing shorts in bed, so I donât have to take my pyjamas off, I just go out in shorts and a coat and wander like a zombie around the block. She does what she has to do and then we go back to bed for another two hours.
What animal, bird or insect frightens you the most and why?
Evie Wyld, novelist
I donât like frogs and toads very much. They look, particularly toads, like dirt when you see them from a distance. I saw one on the doorstep the other day and I thought it was dog shit. I wish them well, toads, I wish them long, healthy lives, but if you said, âWould you like me to put a toad on your bare chest right now?â Iâd say: âAbsolutely not.â
Do you feel the artworks you do must be done? Or are they some kind of unsolicited whimsical volunteer service? Perhaps even a public nuisance?
Ezra Furman, musician
I think theyâre both. For some people they can be quite annoying, if you look at them too much. Iâm aware of that. As an artist, you have to do what youâve gotta do. There is some cathartic thing about making art: if you donât get it out, itâll fester inside and damage you somehow. I do feel a bit like that. So itâs healthy for me to make art; whether itâs healthy for other people to look at it, I donât know.
Part of the reason Iâm so into football is that it takes me away from art. I go to see a football team in Brighton called Whitehawk, who are in the sixth tier currently; they are going to be in the seventh tier next season unfortunately. But thatâs really good fun. You can take your dog and drink a pint while you watch. Also they are very progressive: theyâre anti-homophobia, anti-sexism, anti-racism and no bad language, so itâs an interesting club and I really appreciate a Saturday afternoon there. Like tomorrow, Iâll go and I wonât have to think about this bloody performance [Problem in Brighton].
Why did you sell out and put that dumb thumb in Trafalgar Square?
Will Self, author
I seem to remember him interviewing me when I got nominated for the Turner prize, and he was like: âOh yeah, man, youâre like part of the establishment now youâve been nominated for the Turner prize, itâs really disappointing for me.â And I felt like, itâs not like Iâm running for office for the Conservative party, or Iâve bought a tweed jacket or anything. I thought it [the fourth plinth] was a great opportunity to make a massive bit of work and put it in a public space. If thatâs selling out then so be it.
When you hear songs, do you ever see little movies or images in your head that need to accompany the music?
Amanda Palmer, singer
I guess so, but sometimes I misunderstand lyrics. Thereâs a famous old blues song called Heâs a Mighty Good Leader; Beck did a version of it on one of his early albums. I really liked it, but I always thought the lyric was, âIs the monarch a leader?â and it was only fairly recently that the Beck album was reissued on vinyl and I realised, Ooohâ¦ yeah: is the monarch a leader? And a picture of the royal family: are they a leader? Or is it just a token office?
Iâve made a couple of pop promos in my life. Iâd do it for Beck but not for anybody else. Now Mark E Smith is dead, Beck is probably the only one Iâd do it for. But not this year, Iâm too busy.
Whatâs your favourite and least favourite thing about living in Brighton?
Matt Haig, novelist (who lives in Brighton)
I love it. It was hard to leave Glasgow and Brighton was probably the one other place Iâve always felt really at home. Itâs my kind of people in Brighton, itâs by the sea, and the weatherâs better than Glasgow.
But it depends where you live as well. Iâve never actually met Matt but we have a friend in common, so doubtless I will soon. I think he lives in Hove, while Iâm in Kemptown. The bad thing about Kemptown is that itâs full of dogshit and lunatics. And I suspect Hove isnât. Iâm not talking about homeless people, Iâm just talking about genuinely mad people, barking at the moon, who live in houses and who are mad. To wit, the day after we moved in, Iâd parked the car on the pavement and I was unloading it. Some guy was walking down the street and he was wearing a pair of shorts, flip-flops, a cowboy hat and a pair of sunglasses, and he had âGet Highâ written in lipstick on his chest. This was about 8.30am and he was smoking a joint and he said: âYou canât park like that, mate. Iâm just telling ya.â
Now, I like that, but Iâd like to be like the people who come from a different part of town just to visit, to look at Mr Get High.
My mum lives with nine David Shrigleys. How many does your mum live with?
Ed Vaizey, Conservative MP for Wantage
Oh yeah, I know your mum. My mum lives with maybe two and they are both ceramic pieces, because she threw away all the rest. She and my dad between them discarded all of my work, probably shortly after I left home for art school. Iâd say theyâve come to appreciate it a bit more over time. There was a watershed moment where there was some documentary about me on TV and overnight they went from knowing nothing to everything about what I did for a living. Thatâs not to say my parents havenât been supportive, because they have; they just didnât really have any interest in art.
Also, to be fair to them, Iâm slightly less bothered about them throwing the artwork away than I was about them throwing away all my football programmes. I had the programme to the 1979 European Cup final, Nottingham Forestâs moment of glory. Donât know where that is. Gone.
What are the questions that Google cannot answer?
Peter Jenkinson, co-founder of Culture+Conflict
Well, it canât always tell you which artworks are mine and which works just look like mine, for example. On Google image search there are works that are erroneously attributed to me, and then people invite you to participate in something that theyâre curating and they say: âWe love your work! Could we reproduce this image on the brochure?â And itâs not one of your images. Then you have to say: âYou donât like my work as much as you think you do.â So Google image search â problem.
What is not art?
Dan Guthrie, Stroud, Gloucs
The difficult thing about answering any question about what is or isnât art is that even before youâve finished making the statement as to what art is or what art isnât, you think of an exception, a contradiction to what youâve just said. You realise youâre wrong even before youâve finished saying it.
But, just for the sake of argument: stuff thatâs in hotel rooms. Authorless, inkjet prints on canvas, you have to say that isnât really art. It just looks like art but it isnât art.
As a Glaswegian, Iâve felt a real connection to your work for many years, which seems to me to capture what was a great creative period for the city. There is a dark humour in your work that feels very Glaswegian. How do you feel the many years you lived in the city influenced your work?
Ally Ferguson, Glasgow
Itâs very difficult to say. When I was looking for somewhere to study, I found Glasgow really exciting and different and mysterious. It was everything the suburbs of Leicester, where I grew up, werenât. It probably took about 12 years for that to wear off and then suddenly I realised I was sort of a Glaswegian. This was my home. I canât really remember my childhood in the East Midlands that well, but Glasgow is still very vivid. I lived there from when I was 19 to when I was 47 â teenage to middle age â and it was only three years ago that I left â itâs the biggest part of my life.
Glasgow does have a certain mordant humour thatâs peculiar to the west of Scotland. If you watch [the BBC One sitcom] Still Game or [the BBC Two show] Two Doors Down â which is really great â the comedy and the speech is very Glaswegian. Itâs a shame it doesnât travel that well, because thereâs something very poetic and special about it.
I really enjoyed your Life Model sculpture. Was the intention to make the visitors drawings look cartoony? It was really funny anyway.
Emma Richardson, Bedford
Glad you enjoyed it. I guess when you make something that you invite somebody to draw, itâs going to look like what youâve made. But their drawings can also be a critique of the work, perhaps, and itâs an acknowledgement that everybody sees an artwork differently â on a metaphorical level as well as a literal level. What I like about it is that itâs a nice inclusive work. I tend to hate all the big sculptures Iâve made after a while. But I like this one because I donât look at it any more, I look at the peopleâs drawings, so itâs like going to a different exhibition every time. I just ignore the big person.
As somebody who makes music, I find one of the biggest problems is knowing when something is finished or if something is any good. Do you have this problem?
Matt Wilson, Madrid/Leighton Buzzard
Yeah, the most difficult thing is to know whether itâs any good. That tends to change depending on what mood youâre in. Knowing whether itâs finished? Well, with a drawing, it has to be because all of the paper is covered. Then itâs definitely finished.
With the new book, I made a couple of thousand drawings in order to acquire 250. So thereâs a success rate of perhaps 15%. The rest generally get thrown away. Then, even within the 15%, you have to produce many, many more, so they can be edited into a book thatâs nominally about sociology. That they are relevant in some way. So Iâll have quite a large pool of drawings in a big box and I go through them: yes, no, no, no, yesâ¦ Iâm very aware that if somebody else were to do it, theyâd edit it completely differently. But thatâs the nature of work; the editing is part of the work.
Do you intend to update Kingsley if Partick Thistle get relegated?
William Tallan, Ayrshire
No. We are not getting relegated, first of all. At the time of writing, weâve got to play Ross County and weâve got to play Hamilton. Win both of those games, we could feasibly be out of the shit weâre in. So first of all letâs think positive. Second of all, no. Iâm not going to update Kingsley. Kingsley will be as he is and he will be there next season if we have to achieve promotion again.
Why does your work have to be so ugly? Rows of capital letters are difficult to read. I suppose you think it is clever. I have seen people picking up the programme and putting it down again. As a result I will not be attending any of the events at the Brighton festival this year, but hope for something better next year.
Selma Montford , honorary secretary of the Brighton Society 1973-2016
I donât think itâs clever, for the record. And itâs my handwriting, right, so what youâre objecting to is my handwriting. Itâs like youâre basically objecting to me and thereâs nothing I can do about that. I accept that. Thatâs why I donât correspond by social media. Itâs transmit only, Iâm afraid, with social media. Because otherwise youâre just opening yourself â itâs a conduit to everyone in the world, some of whom are going to be really nasty to you.
Do you keep a notebook of ideas?
Sion Williams, Ruthin, north Wales
Yes, I do have a Moleskine notebook, as you might imagine, as every other note-taker does. I was in Glasgow one day, before we left, in the Botanic Gardens near where we lived, and I was making a little drawing, sitting on a bench. I overheard two guys walking past and they went: âPolice.â How far from the truth can you be?
I like your work very much: it makes me smile. Where do you get your confidence from?
Stefano Turato, Edinburgh
Self-delusion probably. Iâve come to realise that self-delusion is quite important if you want to be an artist: âOh, that doesnât tally with my view of myselfâ â just ignore it. Thatâs the way my brain works. If you want to do something, youâve got to ignore things that are unhelpful and thatâs what I do.
I have a signed photo by you entitled Pointing, dated 2007. Itâs a closeup of a foreshortened index finger with the rest of the hand out of focus in the background. Could you tell me more about it? Is it your finger? Is it referring to Kitchenerâs âYour country needs youâ? Were you working more as a photographer at that time?
Mike Abbott, Limoges, France
It is my finger, yes. I think itâs my left hand because Iâve got a wonky nail on my left hand where my school friends trod on my finger when I was 10. Does it reference Lord Kitchener? In a sense the image functions in the same way as that famous recruitment poster but it isnât a direct reference to that image.
I donât really make photographs any more â I stopped after the changeover to digital. Though that might be a digital picture actually, but I mostly stopped making photographic art in the early 2000s. I just stopped being interested in physical paper photographs. You start taking pictures on your phone and now thereâs Instagram and that somehow seems to be enough: to make digital images and stick them on there.
Iâm thinking of getting âToeâ tattooed on my toe. Is this a bad idea?
Yeah, itâs a bad idea; itâs been done. Weâve all got to be unique. Get âFingerâ tattooed on your toe, thatâs my advice. As far as I know that hasnât been done and Iâll happily provide the text.
Fully Coherent Plan for a New and Better Society is out on Thursday (Canongate, Â£14.99). To order a copy for Â£12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99. The 2018 Brighton festival runs from 5-27 May