In London we are often spoilt for choice by local art galleries and museums. Whether it’s the equal parts playful and profound anarchy of German artist Sigmar Polke currently at Tate Modern or perhaps the epic and emotional canvases of his fellow countryman Anselm Kiefer on show at the Royal Academy at the moment, it’s not hard to get up close and personal with impressive stuff. But recently I’ve been feeling that the gallery isn’t the only place to do it.
Last week I had the pleasure of getting up close (and relatively personal) with visual and spoken-word artist David Shrigley. During our brief chat it dawned on me that maybe my most meaningful encounter with the Turner Prize-nominated talent’s work came not while viewing a high-profile retrospective on the pristine white walls of London’s Hayward Gallery back in 2012, but probably more likely by accident some years ago when his fantastically odd track “Don’ts” appeared at the end of a music compilation made by Rough Trade Records. Its dark humour disguised as calmly spoken sensible advice (“Don’t stick your hand in the blender, don’t use the hairdryer while you’re in the bath”) echoing around the supposed safety of the home environment sounded infinitely more strange than it could have in the one-experience-fits-all confines of a gallery.
As a result, my relationship with Shrigley’s work has not been one of doting reverence for a great artist but one of casual and willing observance. I’d spot a humorous image on a greeting card here, learn he’d directed a random music video there. It’s a journey that has been experienced pretty much exclusively through commercialism – like entering the exhibition through the gift shop. It took me a while to even put these scattered and disparate clues together: funny man does art; therefore funny man might be an artist? Getting the wrong end of the stick is probably one of the most personal ways you can experience anything. I wouldn't have done it any other way.
I felt similar during a first visit to Frieze art fair; its commercial appeal is often criticised for reducing the context of works to being little more than part of a giant art supermarket. But it also means that art is freed from context and baggage – viewers can quickly make up their own minds. That’s actually the same way we go about most of our daily business. The art supermarket sounds far more convenient than the art museum.
Polke was aware of art’s potential for commercial exploitation. One of his works on show at Tate Modern depicts a jumble of identical stencils of Superman frantically browsing the brand-laden aisles of a huge shop – seemingly looking for something within the many shelves that he might just not find (despite being super). Suitably enough, it’s named “Supermarkets”.
That’s not to say that galleries aren’t essential. Kiefer’s works, when seen up close, transform from what at first resemble pleasant landscape daubings into room-engulfing chaotic visions of fascinating depth. The exhibition itself can become a statement.
But whether you experience art in the bustling spaces of the gallery or the crowded routine of daily life, one thing is certain: it’s all about context and perspective. And there’s none more valid or strange than your own.
Tom Hall is a sub editor and writer for Monocle.