David Shrigley’s offering on the fourth plinth is due to be replaced in March 2018. Before it disappears from site it is worth, I think, looking at this work again.
Superficially it is a fist making a ‘thumbs-up’ gesture with the thumb elongated so that it appears more like a finger. Jonathon Jones describes it as ,gleefully ugly’i .
Shrigley has entitled this work REALLY GOOD. One has to ask does the title refer to the idea that the sculpture proposes or to the work itself.
In an interview Shrigley said,
“I made a drawing of an elongated thumb that said everything is good and I wrote some text that sounded like some sort of weird political satire: If we make this sculpture, we can make the world a better place through some kind of self–fulfilling prophecy.”
Does this sculpture actually say what is claimed for it?
The meaning of the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture is at best ambiguous. In Europe and the USA the sign is taken to mean , GOOD and OK and is a positive signal. However in parts of Africa and the Middle East the sign is seen as pejorative. As a child in Australia I was taught that this was a rude gesture and I learnt later it was saying ‘sit on this’ or more specifically ‘up yours’.iv
So the sculpture is saying ‘Really Good’ to the local population, but is seen as exceptionally rude to many overseas visitors.
The message of the sculpture is further complicated by the elongated thumb which actually has the dimensions of a finger. The gesture of ‘giving the finger’ ……..‘is an obscene hand gesture. The gesture communicates moderate to extreme contempt, and is roughly equivalent in meaning to “fuck off,” “fuck you,” “shove it up your ass,” “up yours,” “suck my dick,” “eat shit,” “kiss my ass,” or “go fuck yourself.”’v Not only is it seen as obscene in Western culture , its use in the Middle East and Asia is so offensive as to lead to prosecution.
The dimensions of the thumb in REALLY GOOD actually appear phallic ( which co-incides with the underlying origin of the ‘finger gesture’).
As far as I can see this work is far from saying REALLY GOOD, but is telling all viewers to take a hike. This may of course be what Shrigley intended and he is having a laugh at the viewers expense. It is hard to believe ( though possible) that Shrigley is not aware of the alternative meanings contained within his work.
Work to be displayed on the fourth plinth is chosen by a highly literate and educated group known as the FOURTH PLINTH COMMISSIONING GROUP. vi The selection is then signed off by the Mayor of London ( REALLY GOOD was selected at the end of Boris Johnson’s term and the beginning of Sadiq Khan’s.)
Before the work is finally commissioned the maquettes being considered are on display for public comment.
It seems astonishing that there appears to have been no acknowledgement of the problematic meanings of the work. Or if there was, the commissioning group went ahead anyway.
As one commentator wrote …………….’And thus it came to pass. Really Good will take up its position in 2016, an ugly monument to empty cheer, 10ft tall and hollow in every sense. Your correspondent may enter the National Gallery via the back entrance for the duration of its tenure’.vii
Ignoring the gesture, the title REALLY GOOD is as ambiguous. Is Shrigley telling us that the piece itself is a ‘good’ work of art. Clearly this is debatable , and a matter of opinion. Or is he telling us that it is a really good thing that his piece has been chosen. Both of these interpretation of the title are possible. Shrigley does seem to have a certain defensiveness about his art.
Talking about his final degree show, Shrigley later told UK daily newspaper the Guardian‘s Becky Barnicoat, “I thought my degree show was brilliant, but the people who were marking It didn’t. I got a 2:2. They didn’t appreciate my genius….viii
There is also a divergence of opinion about his work . He was nominated for the TURNER PRIZE in 2013 although
Guardian art critic Adrian Searle …………………..believes David Shrigley should have made the shortlist years ago (he put him forward when he was on the 2004 jury, but was laughed down). ix
While not wanting to encourage or support censorship I find it difficult to understand why a work that is so overtly offensive was chosen for such a prominent position. We can pretend all we like that the gesture is telling us that everything is OK. Sorry it isn’t.
iiReally Good. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty
vihttps://www.ica.art/sites/default/files/downloads/FourthPlinth-ICAPublication.pdf for a discussion of this group. Written in 2013 but still relevant