Gavin Turk: art's king of trash on plastic, protest, prison and canning his pee

The former YBA once put a plaque up to himself – but these days he’s more likely to be getting locked up with Extinction Rebellion. He’s even recycling his urine

‘I have a lot of piss,” says Gavin Turk. He’s going to need it. He shows me a drink can he’s made from silver bearing the label “artist’s piss” in several languages as we stand in his studio, fittingly located in Canning Town, London.

Turk is planning to fill as many cans like this with his own urine as necessary – in order to buy, well, a can of excrement made by his hero, the late Piero Manzoni. Before his untimely death aged 29 in 1961, Manzoni – or so art world orthodoxy has it – filled 90 tin cans with his own ordure, sealing and labelling it “Merda d’Artista”.

A facsimile of Merda d’Artista by 1960s Italian artist Piero Manzoni.
A facsimile of Merda d’Artista by 1960s Italian artist Piero Manzoni. Photograph: Mazzoleni Art

In 2012, Christie’s auctioned number 12 , expecting it to sell for £40-60,000. Instead, it went for £103,250. “They’d probably fetch £200,000 now,” says Turk. So you’d better get to work. “I already have,” he laughs. “I’m storing samples in plastic bottles upstairs.”

Turk has no idea how much each can will sell for, nor who might buy it, though he does have a roster of possible collectors, including fellow Young British Artist (YBA) Damien Hirst. Perhaps Deutsche Bank, who already have a collection of Turk’s drawings on display at their Frankfurt HQ, might like some Piscia d’Artista for the foyer.

“What I’m hoping to do,” sums up Turk, “is convert piss into shit.” The artist has, after all, been an alchemist for three decades now, making art from bin bags, apple cores, flat tyres, cardboard boxes, spent matches and other detritus cast in bronze and meticulously painted. He even made cufflinks in resin and 24-carat gold modelled on spat-out chewing gum. Then there was the crushed Transit Van that was the subject of last year’s A Brexit Portfolio and Other Transit Disasters, in which he produced silkscreen images riffing on Andy Warhol’s car crash canvases.

“We are what we throw away,” says the man the Financial Times recently called the laureate of waste. For his new exhibition, Letting Go, Turk has picked up around 500 bottles from the streets of London and put rows of them in plywood cases that will be displayed in the windows of the Reflex gallery in Amsterdam. Inside, visitors will be able to see watercolour paintings of crushed water bottles, a pair of bronze cast flattened bottles – one called Pet, the other Pete, both with an £8,500 asking price. “Someone posted on Instagram, ‘I’m not sure I’d spend £8,500 on a discarded bottle,’” laughs Turk. Naive: like much of Turk’s art, it’s likely to be a good investment.

Water Bottle Bottle by Gavin Turk.
Water Bottle Bottle by Gavin Turk. Photograph: Gavin Turk/

But there is a political dimension to the work. As his gallery statement puts it: “The demand in the ironic symbolic purity of water is causing our oceans to be filled with microplastics. PET plastic is highly recyclable, yet big companies believe that consumers would not buy a slightly murky or imperfect bottle. So instead, 93% of all plastic water bottles are newly formed.”

He tells me: “The thing about these bottles is that they’ve become so socially unacceptable they’re going to disappear. At which point, my collection will become valuable.” So how do you carry your water, if you’re so clever? “I have a method,” says Turk. “You see, I might drink some water before I go out, and when I get there, I might drink some more.” It could catch on.

The 52-year-old has long been an artist of nothing. His 1991 MA show at the Royal College of Art was called Cave, and consisted of a room empty except for an English Heritage-style blue plaque mounted in a case. It read: “Borough of Kensington, Gavin Turk. Sculptor, Worked Here 1989-1991.” Turk believes the RCA’s then rector – Jocelyn Stevens, who was soon to become chairman of English Heritage – took offence, and he thinks that’s why he didn’t get a degree.

“I had no idea he was up for that job, so Cave had nothing to do with him. But as he was touring the show with his politician friends like David Mellor, they teased him about the blue plaque and his face went like that shot in Jaws when the shark’s mouth opens really, really wide.” Turk demonstrates and I see right down his throat.

Pop, 1993 … Gavin Turk as Sid Vicious.
Pop, 1993 … Gavin Turk as Sid Vicious. Photograph: Gavin Turk, Live Stock Market.

But failure allowed Turk to burnish his credentials as what the mild-mannered Guildford-born artist never was really: a YBA bad boy, the Sid Vicious of conceptual art. He actually depicted himself as Vicious in a life-sized waxwork and went on to cast himself in further roles, including French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat stabbed in his bathtub. He even made a waxwork of himself as Che Guevara, complete with military fatigues. It was due to be displayed in Zaha Hadid’s Mind Zone at the Millennium Dome but it was pulled due to worries of upsetting its sponsor, arms manufacturer BAe-Marconi.

Turk insists, however, that he had no wider agenda, saying: “I just wanted a sculpture of Che in the Dome!” But don’t recent protests - for example, Antony Gormley speaking out against BP-sponsored exhibitions – show the art world is compromised by what some might call dirty money? “I do worry about this, especially because art can be used to sanction space and detoxify brands. And art stands for values that business doesn’t: it’s opposed to hierarchies, for instance. But it’s difficult for me because I want to keep the channels of access open, make art available as much as possible.”

For the private view of Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, Turk arrived dressed as a tramp. “Something amazing happened as I walked through Soho,” he says. “I suddenly had this space around me.” Was this because of the smell? “It wasn’t just that. I’d become socially undesirable.”

Gavin Turk in his London studio.
Gavin Turk in his London studio. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

He felt something similar one day last year when he got tapped on the shoulder by a police officer. He was lying on the street near Lambeth Bridge as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest when he was arrested. “Probably because I was on the edge of the protesters, so easy to get to. I got asked to move. I said, ‘I don’t see anyone else moving.’ The officer said, ‘I’m going to have to arrest you’. And I said, ‘Well OK.’

“They took me to Savile Row where there’s a police station.” I glance at Turk, admiring his three-piece suit and trilby. Handy for your tailor. “So they put me in a cell for four hours and then this inspector comes in and says, ‘You all right, sir?’ I said, ‘I’m excruciatingly bored, but it’s getting kind of interesting without anything to read or having my phone.’ He said, ‘Have you counted the tiles yet?’ It was only then that I noticed his name was Inspector Wall! As soon as he closed the door on me, I started counting tiles. Of course.”

Is your art getting more political? “Art is bound to get caught up in what’s happening in the wider world. What’s happening is that for a long time there were two Gavin Turks: one the artist, the other the private me. But now the private me who got involved in Extinction Rebellion and who doesn’t fly and who doesn’t feel he ought to have a car, is putting a lot of pressure on Gavin Turk the artist.” Do you fear your art will become reductively political, even ephemeral as a result? “Everything’s ephemeral. And art was always something that reflects the times and becomes obsolete. Well, my art at least.”

Sky TV is currently considering commissioning Turk to build a life-size steel blue whale to draw attention to the plastic crisis afflicting oceans. I wonder what private Gavin makes of artist Gavin doing that. Can such art change the world? “Probably only incrementally, if at all.”

Perhaps you should stop making things, I say. There’s already too much stuff in the world. “Maybe I should. I know young artists working on social media. That’s where their art is - in the cloud, not the real world.” But now the YBA has become a MABA (Middle Aged British Artist), he can’t quite make that leap into cyberspace. “I’m too weirded out by the idea that it’s going to be lost in a power cut or something. Maybe I should stop, but I don’t think I can.”

Gavin Turk’s Letting Go is at Reflex Gallery, Amsterdam, from 19 October to 6 December


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
From foil-wrapped glaciers to the Alpine storm cyclist: the artists fighting climate change
After too long a silence, art is finally tackling global warming. Here are the big players – including the photographer who’s lighting up Alaska

Oliver Krug

20, Feb, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Gavin Turk: the analyst will unmask you now
He has impersonated tramps, punks, Pollock and Che. But who is the real Gavin Turk? As a major retrospective opens, we challenged psychoanalyst Darian Leader to find the man behind his many masks

Darian Leader

16, Nov, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Artist Gavin Turk arrested in London climate change protest
Turk held for obstructing public highway and has no regrets in taking part in mass civil disobedience

Sandra Laville

18, Nov, 2018 @3:56 PM

Article image
Wallop our EU punchbag! Artists talk us through their Brexit creations
Marina Abramović, Elmgreen & Dragset and Bernard-Henri Lévy are just some of the big names involved in United Artists for Europe. Here’s why they’re taking a stand

Interviews by Stuart Jeffries

20, May, 2019 @3:41 PM

Article image
'Damn, I'm good at this!' Is Travis Alabanza the future of theatre?
When someone threw a burger at Travis Alabanza, the trans performer turned it into a hit show. Next goal? Playing Juliet

Bridget Minamore

27, Mar, 2019 @3:19 PM

Article image
If you like salmon, don't read this: the art duo exposing a booming £1bn market
Farmed salmon can end up deformed, blind, riddled with sea lice and driven to eat each other. Eco art activists Cooking Sections are highlighting their plight – and getting Tate to change its menus

Andrew Dickson

04, Apr, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Gavin Turk, Ellen Gallagher, Site Festival: the week's art shows in pictures

From a Gavin Turk retrospective in London to the Site Festival in Stroud, find out what's happening in art around the country

Skye Sherwin and Robert Clark

26, Apr, 2013 @12:00 PM

Article image
Manifesta 12 review – plant sex, puppets and a dial-a-spy booth
The migratory European art biennale takes over churches, palazzos and gardens with some of its most provocative political statements yet

Adrian Searle

20, Jun, 2018 @12:38 PM

Article image
Atomic 50 review – hammer away in a ghost factory for metalheads
This craft-based installation celebrates a London borough’s history of metalwork – and the wonder of tin

Chris Wiegand

10, Apr, 2019 @8:02 PM

Article image
Three lions on a beach: a sculpture for the age of Brexit
What are three decrepit beasts doing washed up on Dover sands? Sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor reveals why The Pride of Brexit protests the ‘most unpatriotic events’ Britain has ever seen

Stuart Jeffries

17, Nov, 2019 @3:00 PM