Matchstick Neon by Gavin Turk

Born in 1967, one of the Young British Artists, Gavin Turk has pioneered many forms of contemporary British sculpture, including painted bronze, waxwork, recycled art-historical icon and use of rubbish in art. Turk’s installations and sculptures deal with issues of authorship, authenticity and identity. Concerned with the ‘myth’ of the artist and the ‘authorship’ of a work, Turk’s engagement with this modernist, avant-garde debate stretches back to the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp.

In 1991, the Royal College of Art refused Turk a degree on the basis that his final show, ‘Cave’, consisted of a whitewashed studio space containing only a blue heritage plaque commemorating his presence ‘Gavin Turk worked here 1989-91'.  Instantly gaining notoriety through this installation, Turk was spotted by Charles Saatchi and has since been exhibited by many major galleries and museums throughout the world.  Turk has recently been commissioned to make several public sculptures including Nail, a 12-metre sculpture at One New Change, next to St Paul’s cathedral, London, England. In 2013, Prestel published Turk’s first major monograph, showcasing more than two decades of his work.

This exhibition brings together for the first time all of Turk’s neon works – signature pieces made between 1995 and 2014 that examine the evolution of Turk’s practice, quite literally, up in lights; their effervescent glow the epiphany aura of consumer fetish, celebrity and glamour. Quintessentially a modernist medium – now rendered obsolete by digital LED – neon is the vaporous stuff of retro-futuristic glory, of Hollywood optimism and capitalist spectacle, and of history’s malleability and forgetfulness: neon light’s inventor, French chemist Georges Claude, envisioned their use for fascist propaganda.

Gavin Turk, Observing Eye, 2011 © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk, Observing Eye, 2011 © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk

Set within a darkened chamber, his luminous symbols beacon with occultish effect: an egg, a banana, a lobster – the spirit-presence of Magritte, Warhol, Duchamp, art’s magical essence distilled as channelled gas, hyper-efficiently packaged as Turk’s own-brand logos. Visually reduced to minimal typographies, they offer communication in its barest form: a seeing eye, a flickering flame, primordial hieroglyphs, with their ancient mysteries and secrets, evolved to modern day usage. Each wall adorned with one of Turk’s trademark doors accentuates this infinite dimensionality of authorship and perception: the ownership of images, their genuine expression and shifting interpretation, is experienced only as quasi-spiritual hypnotic effulgence.

Gavin Turk, Still Life with Lobster, 1995 © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk, Still Life with Lobster, 1995 © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk

Curated by Greville Worthington, former Turner Prize judge, whose past exhibitions at the Museum have included Damien Hirst Print Maker, and Tim Walker Dreamscapes, the fashion photographer well remembered for his blockbuster exhibition Storyteller at Somerset House, this exhibition of contemporary British sculpture features thought provoking themes such as those raised in that of YBA Keith Coventry’s Black Bronze White Slaves curated by Worthington in Summer 2012. 

Port (Blue) Gavin Turk 2012 © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk, Port (Blue), 2012 © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk

The title of the exhibition, Seven Billion Two Hundred and One Million Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four Thousand and Two Hundred and Thirty-Eight reflects Turk’s fascination with world population and, calculating the number of people alive the moment his first solo show opened at The Bowes Museum, inspired him to create the largest neon work of his career to date. ‘We are One’, is an eight and a half metre wide piece designed to broadcast the world’s population from the Museum’s French façade for the duration of the exhibition. Whilst, inside the exhibition another of Turk’s new works for the show, presents the size of the human race a notional 25 minutes after the larger neon on the Museum exterior. Deborah Curtis, Turk’s wife writes in the exhibition catalogue: 

“Like a forensic scientist presuming the length of time taken to meander through the building, the artist has moved the luminous population counter on by several thousand births (and a few deaths).
The significance is our insignificance as we place ourselves amongst these numbers as the solitary prime number 13 (unlucky for some). A unique number passed and lost as the species multiplies faster than its digits can be snuffed out.” 

The Bowes Museum with We Are One on its facade

Gavin Turk, We Are One, 2014 © Syd Neville

Two pieces in this exhibition hold special significance, puncturing Turk’s public image with intimate disclosure. A red star, made in conjunction with his Che Guevara series, is a replica of the actual signage on the façade of Turk’s London studio, the point of origin for his entire artistic output, the bustling workshop producing his celebrity. 

Gavin in front of his studio

Gavin Turk outside his London Studio © Greville Worthington

This is juxtaposed with an eight pointed Maltese cross – a symbol dating back to the First Crusade and a subject of intrigue for the artist Yves Klein. Turk wore this cross when he got married, in a ceremonial wedding within The House of Fairy Tales, a cult of storytelling and cultural deconstruction for the young at heart, that was a partial re-enactment of Klein’s own wedding. The cross’ points represent the eight lands of origin, the origin of languages, and the values of truth, sincerity and faith – the shared provenance of humanity, each of the 7,201,964,238 of us.

The show is going on to New Art Centre, Roche Court in East Winterslow, Salisbury and Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool.

Gallery Talk
8 February, 22 March & 17 April 1.00, Free with admission

Join curator Greville Worthington for an introduction to Gavin Turk’s exhibition Seven Billion Two Hundred and One Million Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four Thousand and Two Hundred and Thirty-Eight.

7,201,964,238 + 16,186,091: Population Growth and Global Sustainability
6 April, 2.15 - 3.45, Free with admission

The title of Gavin Turk’s current exhibition uses the World’s population as its title. However, the global population has increased by over 16 million people since the exhibition opened in January. At this event, Stephen Bown from the charity Population Matters invites you to learn more about the environmental concerns related to overpopulation, overconsumption and climate change, and to join in a discussion about what we can all do ensure a sustainable future.