THE newly-announced Brighton Festival guest director is an intriguing choice but one that might require a bit of introduction. Brighton-based artist David Shrigley may be well-respected in art circles but he is hardly a household name.

For this year’s festival, organisers placed Kate Tempest at the helm, a musician and writer whose work speaks to the disenfranchised youth while at the same time galvanising them. Tempest urged the public to think of art as something “social” and an intrinsic part of everyday life.

In a sense, the ethos of Shrigley is not so different. The artist has spoken about the importance of art to general health and emphasised its “therapeutic” qualities. Reacting to the festival announcement, he said: “I think people need to value the arts perhaps more than they do, because they are very important culturally, but also in terms of people’s wellbeing.”

As opposed to the explosive directness of Tempest’s work, Shrigley takes a sideways look at life, portraying the irreverent and often bizarre moments of human experience. His rudimentary drawings highlight the value of culture in knowingly simplistic fashion. Examples include a watering can with “the arts” written on it sprinkling a thriving plant, and a disassembled doll with the phrase “the arts can reconstruct you”.

Shrigley’s formal training ended in disappointment – a 2.2 grade at the Glasgow School of Art. Later, he said that the people marking his degree show “didn’t appreciate” his work.

The artist isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers. His sculpture, Really Good, which stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square last year, was interpreted by art critic Jonathan Jones as both a “sly parody of the emptiness of public art” and a “sarcastic thumbs-up to Brexit Britain”.

His football mascot Kingsley, meanwhile, designed for Scottish team Partick Thistle, perplexed fans and onlookers alike. While Shrigley might be seen as someone who looks to subvert the conventions of art from the inside, he’s also been nominated for prestigious awards in the art world, like the Turner Prize in 2013. The piece he was nominated for included an oversized and disproportionately-sized statue of a nude man, which urinated into a bucket every few minutes.

With all this in mind, what to make of the Macclesfield-born artist? And what can we expect from his directorial choices at Brighton Festival? Ben Burbridge, a senior lecturer in art history at the University of Sussex, said Shrigley would look to strike a “humorous, funny and at times dark” tone in his artistic choices for the festival. The academic brackets Shrigley with popular British surrealists like Monty Python, Spike Milligan and The Mighty Boosh.

Burbridge adds that Shrigley “tries to avoid the kind of intellectual posing that can alienate some audiences, but a lot of critics like it nonetheless. He pokes a kind of surreal fun at what social convention demands we disavow; that most institutions achieve the opposite to what they are designed for, that we spend most of our time thinking about utter nonsense, or that the art world is actually a bit silly.”

There is a certain paradox in Shrigley’s perception of the role of art in social life. On the one hand, he clearly believes it has a transformative power. On the other, he seems bent on sending it up. This dichotomy is exemplified in Really Good, and Shrigley’s thoughts about it. In Shrigley’s mind, the piece explores both the possibility and futility of public art.

“I wrote a kind of slightly ironic blurb about it where I said that basically it [the sculpture] was going to make the world a better place through some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, where you say that everything’s really good and then it becomes really good.

"And, in a way, that was ironic because it’s slightly ridiculous to suggest that a giant sculpture makes the world a better place. But then at the same time, as an artist, you have to believe that what you do makes the world a better place on some level.”

While Shrigley is often preoccupied with the dynamics of the art world, his work may be seen as poltical, too – albeit with a small ‘p’. Burbridge discerns a difference between Kate Tempest and 2015 guest director Ali Smith’s “issues-based” festival direction and the approach Shrigley is likely to adopt.

Burbridge says the artist’s work “certainly has a political dimension” but he focuses “less directly on current issues and more on the absurdity he finds in the rituals, conventions and forms of communication that shape the way we engage with the world. I suspect that will be the sensibility he brings to the festival programme.”

Another way in which Shrigley will differ from certain guest directors in the past is in his “scepticism” towards the idea of a “cult of personality” (as Burbridge puts it). Is it possible to hold such an illustrious role, in such an arts-savvy place as Brighton, and NOT give something of your own personality away?

While previous guest director Brian Eno, for instance, doesn’t go looking for the limelight, he’s still a monumental name in the world of culture. And last year Kate Tempest’s imprint was absolutely all over the festival – she performed no less than four times. So how visible will Shrigley be, and in what way will he use his lofty role? The artist said he is relishing the opportunity to make artwork during the three weeks of the event, and is excited to “have it presented in the place I live”, so it doesn’t seem like he’ll be a withdrawn presence. Burbridge hopes Shrigley uses this platform to critique the festival itself, and Brighton generally.

“To cynical eyes, the festival could be seen as a month-long city-wide branding exercise. It is one of the ways in which Brighton tells itself, and the rest of the world (particularly moneyed tourists), that it really is some kind liberal cultural Bohemia. “I think it’s unlikely that he will deal with that overtly and directly, but I hope we will feel some awareness of parts of that somewhere in his programme.”

All this considered, will Shrigley appeal to the average festivalgoer? Do we have to be afficionados, schooled in the depths and ironies of modern art, to appreciate him? No, says Burbridge, we don’t. “On the contrary, I think a lot of his art is very accessible,” says the lecturer.

“Much of it relies on humour and I think a lot of people find it very funny. And often when we laugh, it’s because we recognise some kind of truth, even if we don’t fully formulate that truth in words. Or maybe you just find it funny to see a statue doing a wee.” We won’t know until next summer what kind of atmosphere Shrigley will create. In the meantime, and to whet the appetite, the last word goes to the artist.

“The great thing about the festival is that you see things that are really thrilling and wonderful that you’ve never heard of before. So, what I’m really looking forward to is the stuff that people haven’t heard of, that they’re going to be surprised and amazed by.”

See you in May.

Brighton Festival runs from May 5 to 27, 2018. For more information visit