Thursday, November 9, 2023

David Shrigley | Nineteen Eighty-Four

A friend of mine ran a used record store in Toronto where I would visit almost daily, in the late nineties. Behind the counter was a handwritten sign that read: 

Yes, We Have No Doubt1

It was not a message for those looking to purchase the multi-platinum Tragic Kingdom CD, but rather to dissuade anyone hoping to unload it.2 The recording sold sixteen million copies worldwide, but fell quickly out of fashion. 

An Oxfam shop in Swansea posted a similar sign in 2017, discouraging donations of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code. The manager of the charity shop, Phil Broadhurst, presented a pile of the paperbacks at the front counter, accompanied by a sign that read: 

Yeah you could give us another Da Vinci Code, but we would rather have your vinyl. We urgently need more records to keep our customers happy and to make more money for Oxfam!

An image of the display went viral and caught the eye of David Shrigley. 

"I read the story in the Telegraph and that sparked my imagination in the sense that I was like 'I want those. I don't know why, but I want them’,” he told the BBC last week. “So, I set about acquiring as many Da Vinci Codes as I could.”

He amassed six thousand copies of the 2003 thriller3, before knowing what he would do with them. I visited his home in Glasgow once and there were baskets of onions everywhere, dozens of them, on every floor, lining the staircases, in every corner. I asked if they were for a forthcoming project, and was told that that his partner had grown them on their allotment garden, and they didn’t know how to distribute them. I imagine copies of Dan Brown’s book piled similarly all over the house. 

Shrigley then had the realization that 2020 marked seventy years since author George Orwell’s death, finally releasing his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four into the public domain.

The artist had re-read Orwell’s classic during the pandemic and marvelled at how it topical it remained, particularly in regards to the way that language is subverted. And the threats to democracy. 

“It’s still a really resonant book,” he told The Art Newspaper, “it seemed even more relevant than when I first read it, when you were invited to see it as a parable of Soviet or Chinese communism”.

He decided to pulp his six thousand copies of The Da Vinci Code and use the resulting paper to print 1,250 copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, under the publishing name of Pulped Fiction. 

The self-funded project cost “well into six figures”, and featured several setbacks, including the paper mill they used burning down. 

“I’m in a position in my life now where I can actually afford to take risks and do things that I want to do, even though they don't necessarily really fit in my canon of work,” Shrigley says. “The really interesting thing about a work like this is that the conversation informs the work. It’s the conversations that you have which further its progress.”

At first glance the work would appear to share something in common with Richard Prince’s reprint of J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or Sherrie Levine’s Un Coeur Simple, by Gustave Flaubert. But those titles are both about authorship. Shrigley isn’t inserting himself into the title as author, but rather as publisher. His upcycling of one title whose supply exceeds its demand into another that doesn’t, shares more in common with Katie Paterson’s brilliant Future Library5

Shrigley's books were made available last week at the Swansea charity shop that inspired the project. They were priced at £495 for the first 250 customers, with the remaining thousand to be sold for £795 on the artist’s website.

"Four hundred and ninety five pounds seems like a kind of crazy price,” he admits, "However I have made an artwork, a signed print to go in it, which is based on a lot of the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four. So people are perhaps willing to pay that price for an original artwork of mine, where they might not be for the book, so I've sort of hedged my bets."

A 30-minute documentary about the project is forthcoming. 

1. The phrasing recalls Yes! We Have No Bananas, a novelty song that spent five weeks at the top of the charts in 1923. 

2. Sean McCarthy of PopMatters spent seven years trying to sell a copy of R.E.M.’s Monster to used record stores. Read his account here.

3. The Da Vinci Code sold 80 million copies worldwide and was the second best selling book the year it was released, outsold only by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Ron Howards 2006 cinematic adaptation earned over three-quarters of a billion dollars at the box office. 

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four entered the public domain on the 1st of January 2021, in most parts of the world. It remains protected by copyright laws in the United States until 2044. 

5. Paterson planted a forest in Norway in 2014. In a hundred years time the thousand trees will be cut down and used to print stories that are being written now. The first author commissioned was Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale was also partial inspiration for David Shrigley. He was struck by a comment Atwood made while promoting the 2017 television adaptation - that there wasn’t anything that happened in the book that hadn’t happened somewhere in the world. "From the removal of women’s rights to the removal of civil rights from the general population. These weren’t invented phenomena. They were things that were actually happening at the time,” Shrigley noted. 

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