“Portrait of a Place”: An Interview with David Shillinglaw

Shillinglaw adapts elements of what he discovers and learns from his artistic expeditions and incorporates them into his own practice, creating a fresh expression of the bizarre mechanics of human nature. His most recent collection of work ‘Human Soup’ is an embodiment of this principle whereby the artist plays with connotations of travelling medicine shows involving potions and cures for poison among other themes, internationally relevant as both a temptation and threat, this subject matter is applicable to all audiences as one which will equally intrigue and unsettle, collectively enthralling any viewer. This solo exhibition was curated by Turner Barnes Gallery in collaboration with That Art Gallery.

As an advocate of celebrating the dynamic nature of travel and everything it entails, I wanted to know what destinations have played a significant role in terms of influence in David Shillinglaw’s work to which he told me “each place I go has its own merit or its own value.” He explained, “the more remote the place the less familiar it is to me because I grew up in London, but then cities can also really inspire me, for example, I’ve been to Tokyo and that blew my mind because I don’t speak or read Japanese, so sometimes it’s just being in a place that’s not your comfort zone that can change the way you see something.”

The unfamiliar is probably the richest source from which a person can learn, most notably an artist as is evident in the meanderings of their work, both visually and in terms of subject matter. Through interaction with a new place and the creation of a mural, David believes an exchange is taking place whereby a contribution is being made, he is adding something new to the space which in return is equally gifting him with something new that can be taken from the experience. This touches on his understanding of psychogeography, a term he’s been interested in since university. It refers to the emotional response a particular place elicits, this is a major part of David’s practice, it relates to the discussion of navigation within his work and how we as individuals navigate ourselves through a physical place and the relationship of that action to our instinctive emotional and mental navigation, as the two go hand in hand. Stemming from this, the creation and use of maps in his work is distinctly dominant. Sketching maps for himself as practical things, but then revisiting the drawings with a fresh approach and seeing something else in them, appreciating the words and lines and shapes that constructs them forms the premise for many of his paintings. He describes it in relation to a painting, ‘The Overview Effect’ from a show called ‘You are Here’ as “a poetic map, it’s not a functional map, you can’t carry that painting to Cape Town and find your way about, but there are parts of Cape Town in that painting, so in a way it’s like a portrait of a place, like a personification or my relationship to that place.”

In conversation with David he refers to the ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which the character possesses an alter ego as a metaphorical portrayal of London itself, as a city, London is supposedly one person or thing by day and another by night, “when the sun goes down it has a much darker underbelly to it.” This highlights the very ability of a location to possess a personality, just like any human. As with humans, different cities have different personalities and perhaps this is one of the reasons why David so brilliantly builds on his experience with various locations around the world within his practice, because he acknowledges the need to connect with them, to create a relationship with them, to fundamentally immerse himself in the environment. He achieves this by intimately getting to know one small plot of a particular place, for example, spending two weeks in one square neighbourhood, deep in a truly local, authentic corner of a city where he’s making a mural, rather than the typical tourist experience in which you rarely visit the same attraction twice, he establishes a routine within a specific site through the development and execution of his work.

When discussing this David sounds very grateful for the opportunity he has as an artist to approach a place from a different angle. He explains the three dialogues that inform and structure his work. Firstly, there is a dialogue with himself, a conversation about an experience, place or emotion which he compares to a meditation. Secondly, there is a dialogue with Art History, “whether that be with Picasso or the Ancient Egyptians, I’m talking to them all, anyone I’ve seen in my life since I was 4 years old and discovering Salvador Dali, in a way they’re in my head, all of those artists, I’m trying to either reference them or ignore them but they’re there.” Lastly, the third dialogue is with an audience. Perhaps this is the answer to successful art, consistently having these three conversations which enable the perfect “love triangle”. David believes a way of achieving this is to create a universal language, he wants to make work “that people from China and Brazil, people who are 5 years old, 55 years old or 105 years old, people who are gay, straight or transgender, people who are vegetarian, vegan or cannibals” can relate to and become familiar with. “I want to get people on the dance floor, once you get people on the dance floor then you can talk to them about really deep shit, like death or love”.

The question and challenge is how to visually discuss something that’s universally felt or thought? The answer is symbols, associations are made with particular symbols and emotions or understandings, that we all recognise regardless of where you’re from or who you are. David uses the example of a heart, or a trumpet, or a fire, none of which realistically represent the thing in which we take from it or associate with it, but we accept it as just that. “My aim is to create my own vocabulary, like an encyclopaedia of symbols that I can communicate to people”. There are strong parallels between Shillinglaw’s work and comedy, which he deeply admires. “Comedy is brilliant because it’s such a domestic or basic way of talking about something profound, you can talk about love and death and absurdities, it’s like if you make someone laugh, they access it, you get them on the dancefloor and they remember it and they had a good time thinking about that deep thing.” Shillinglaw’s grandfather was a comedian so it’s always been a point of interest since childhood. He can relate to comedy on a number of levels as he believes he has more in common with comedians than many other artists “because with a lot of artists, I find it really highbrow, it’s really difficult to access, it’s like you almost need a degree in philosophy to understand a lot of contemporary art, whereas with comedy you don’t, it can be very highbrow but it’s a mix of highbrow and lowbrow together and I think that’s the best kind of art.”

Words: Caoimhe Rogan

Image: Studio hots taken by Joanna Dudderidge (c)