Visiting Gavin Turk

Work, viewership and art today: in the studio with the influential Young British Artist

Gavin Turk was never awarded his postgraduate degree from the Royal College of Art. Presenting only one, controversial, work for his graduate exhibition, Cave – his whitewashed studio, empty but for a blue English Heritage plaque stating ‘Gavin Turk worked here, 1989–1991’ – he drew the ire of his tutors, but established himself as an artist who confronts fundamental questions of authorship and artistic identity with an incisive irreverence and wit.

Exhibited as part of Charles Saatchi’s notorious 1997 exhibition Sensation, alongside other Young British Artists, like Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, Turk’s eclectic body of work has come to include repurposed artworks, realistic bronze sculptures of Styrofoam cups and bin bags, and the use of rubbish as readymades.

Port went to Turk’s east London studio to meet the artist who continues to inform the direction of British contemporary art.

Why did you start making art?

Some people have a story, a narrative; they can remember a moment when everything became clear for them and they wanted to be an artist. I never really had that. I went to art school to figure out whether I would like making art or not, but I still haven’t worked it out; I’ve just got a much more sophisticated sense of not knowing the answer.

To what extent do you identify as a YBA?

I mean, the YBAs wasn’t an art movement like futurism or the surrealists. It was much more a movement created by the media, which my name was associated with. There were positive benefits to that; it worked as a form of marketing, but it provoked a lot of questions about the audience of the work: Who am I making the art for? How relevant is my work to the audience?

Do you feel you know your audience better now?

It’s hard to say. I make quite a diverse range of work, and I’m always surprised at how that which I find awkward or embarrassing does well, while the work that I know and have controlled, people don’t really like.

Do you mind that?

No, I try to be quite pragmatic. The audience will always bring their part of the deal into it. I don’t want to make art that is totally dogmatic. I’m not saying ‘Here’s the artwork, it equals this,’ and, of course, the time and the context changes. People today look at my work differently to how they did 20 years ago.

You came to prominence at a time of great energy and activity by young artists. How does that compare with the situation now?

I’m very nervous. There doesn’t seem to be much freedom for young artists to play and experiment. It costs so much money to study art today. The artists I meet who have just graduated want to know how to make money to pay their debts; they feel like they have to play the game, and it’s not helped by the galleries. Young artists either see artists who have sold out to some degree, and think it is success, or feel that if they’re creative and experiment they won’t be rewarded for it.

How important is your studio to the way you work?

My current studio in Canning Town, where I moved a few years ago, is surrounded by recycling plants, which is exciting for someone like me who is into recycling on lots of different levels. I spend a lot of time watching what people throw away. I want to look at the point at which something achieves value, and I think the easiest way is to look at the point that it achieves no value, when it’s just something someone wants to get rid of. With my studio, I’ve created a space that lets you take things apart, or go around the local area to collect rubbish and arrange it in cabinets, or archive ideas that you can return to later when they actually make sense.

Do you conceive new ideas in your studio?

I get asked to do the occasional public work and to be part of various gallery exhibitions or museums and institutions, which can have an effect on the work you’re going to make… how it’s going to go. And then I’ve got a backlog of work that I would still love to make. But I don’t really have ideas in my studio. They usually come to me when I’m doing something else, reading a book or riding my bike or half asleep. But, eventually, half-formed ideas will join up with each other to become something I can’t resist making. It’s this wonderful thing of being an artist: You’ve got be clever enough to have an idea and then stupid enough to actually make it.

Photography Suzie Howell

This is an extract from issue 22 of Port. To buy or subscribe, click here.

A Museum of Light in Nantes

A total transformation of the Musee d’arts de Nantes carried out by London-based architecture practice Stanton Williams has reimagined the museum as a modern shrine to natural light

In recent years, scores of museums and galleries have sought to rebrand themselves with bold extensions and redesigns. While the objective is often the same, approaches and execution tend to vary almost as much as the results and their reception; by turns controversial or celebrated, triumphant or tragic.

For architects, the task of bridging past and present is marked by competing concerns, and there is a case to be made for architectural intervention with a studied sense of place. Even where contrast appears single-minded, it is underpinned by the need to conserve and modernise at the same time. In the case of the Musee d’arts de Nantes (formerly the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes), British architecture practice Stanton Williams has engaged the opposing forces of continuity and transformation in thoughtful dialogue throughout the museum’s all-encompassing overhaul. Here, sensitivity is tantamount to success. 

Since winning the commission in 2009, Stanton Williams has spent the last six years on the project, drawing on founding director Paul Williams’ background in exhibition design and architectural planning for museums and galleries. The practice’s vision for the museum extends far beyond the usual scope and encompasses a full-scale interior renovation of the original Palais des Beaux-Arts, a new extension for contemporary art, a new graphic arts centre, a sculpture court, and a new link to the 17th century oratory chapel, where a video triptych by American artist Bill Viola is on permanent display. Uniquely, the architects have also collaborated with London-based design studio Cartlidge Levene to redesign the museum’s visual identity – including exhibition design, interior design and signage – in order to create a seamless experience. 

Internal view of Palais with installation by Susanna Fritscher © Hufton + Crow

While excavating the Palais, digging six metres down into the ground to create new spaces beneath the Beaux-Arts building, they uncovered the hand-laid stonework making up its foundations. “This is the beauty of unpicking things,” says Williams. Archways of exposed stone have been incorporated into the minimal appearance of the lower-ground floor, understatedly bringing old and new into balance and reflecting a subtle attention to detail apparent throughout the whole project. 

Patrick Richard, the lead architect on the redesign and director at Stanton Williams, explains that the marble, brass and wood used throughout also aim to heighten the senses. “Every time people engage physically with the building – benches, doors, walls – all of these materials create something very sensual.”

The renovated Palais des Beaux-Arts and its extensions make the gentle Atlantic light – which floods in through the pitched skylights and illuminates the abundance of alabaster – strangely physical. The shaft of an old service elevator inside the Palais has been remade in translucent glass, tunnelling diffuse light down from roof to the basement, while existing skylights have been fitted with layers of glass, stretched fabric and adjustable blinds as part of a complex system that helps optimise natural light.

This continues in the new contemporary art extension, the Cube, where one facade is clad with ultra thin sheets of Portuguese marble, hung between two pieces of glass. During the day, light from outside filters through, and at night, glows from within, throwing veins of marble into relief. At only 7mm, it is so thin that shadows can be seen on the other side. Richard refers to it as a contemporary fresco of sorts. 

“The Palais was very introverted in some ways but in the upper galleries, the sky and the light gives you a sense that you are part of a city as well,” he says, returning to the original building designed by local architect Clément-Marie Josso and planned around a central courtyard. “The clouds pass, the light changes. The space is open and you are part of something else.” This thinking, which puts the play of light at the heart of the Musee d’arts de Nantes, informed each step of Stanton Williams’ soft-footed approach. “This is a museum of light.”

As it reopens to the public under a new name, the Musee d’arts de Nantes takes its place as the sixth largest fine arts institution in France. The museum has been a beacon of Nantes’ cultural standing since it opened in 1900. Now, its collection of over 12,000 works spanning 13th century to contemporary has a home truly fit to rival anything in the French capital.

The Musee d’arts de Nantes is now open to the public