On a grey and overcast day in Trafalgar Square, the new occupant of the Fourth Plinth entitled Really Good was unveiled by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to an expectant crowd. David Shrigley’s Thumbs Up is perhaps the perfect monument for a Brexit London that voted emphatically to remain. The thumbs up gesture is as sardonic as the artist gets, an uncomfortable projection into an uncertain future.

The gesture should be affirmative and friendly, it is afterall blokey and instantly recognizeable, but that distended thumb is too exaggerated, it is simply too keen to bestow optimism on the crowds visiting London’s most famous square. In recent years England’s capital has been heralded as the greatest city on earth, but with its rising costs of living the capital has been squeezing out the residents and artists that have long been its lifeblood. It is a capital in transition, one that is out of step with the rest of the country.

David Shrigley’s Brass Tooth, 2010, sculpture

Of course whether David Shrigley is using the prestigious Fourth Plinth commission to question London’s seemingly unstoppable financial drive is impossible to ascertain, he has always been resistant to a singular reading of his work, preferring instead for “Your response is the correct response to the work, whatever that may be or whatever my intention was. It is what it is.” His work is never quite as it seems, his limited edition work Brass Tooth may well appeal to dentist and orthodontists with its oversized earnestness, but for all its simple humor, it ridicules the vast sums of money spent around the world on people’s teeth. Of course Shrigley recommends it be “used for cracking nuts.” 

Since being featured on the front cover of Frieze magazine in 1995 Shrigley’s reputation has been on a never-ending curve upwards. Almost everything he touches possesses something compelling and profound, even if the humor can occasionally be a bit too close to the bone. A few years ago he was astonished to discover that the women asking him to sketch on their bare skin were having them made into permanent tattoos. It can only be a matter of time before David Shrigley’s Thumbs Up starts appearing on the legion of fans that follow his every public appearance. That form of fandom is practically unheard of in the art world, but then the Turner-prize nominated artist is unlike any other working today.

David Shrigley, Really Good, 2016

Many artists would have been put off from taking a well-aimed swipe at London’s massaged optimism, and resisted drawing attention to the pressure artists are put under to conjure up jovial art for public consumption. Shrigley at least gave them exactly what they wanted, only this time you know he does not really mean it. David Shrigley’s Thumbs Up has effortlessly captured the national habit of saying one thing but meaning another—were that only the case for the Brexit vote.

By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor