I am art, therefore I am

Gavin Turk doesn't need to look far to find a fitting subject for his art. What better than ... Gavin Turk. Self-congratulatory nonsense, or does the Brit-pack star actually have something to say? By Judith Palmer
Click to follow
Gavin Turk was no doubt the kind of boy who spent his adolescence redrafting his signature over the outside of his pencil case, rough book, duffel bag, his arm or any other available surface.

The years weren't wasted: he's perfected a very nice signature. Well, it's a rather nice name, Gavin Turk. In fact, young Turk's finest asset is probably his name. And how fully he capitalises on it. Most artists sign their work. Turk just signs his name, and it is the work.

Ever obsessed with the cult of self, Turk's final year show at the Royal College of Art consisted of an empty sculpture studio, bearing a discrete circular blue plaque with the words "Gavin Turk Sculptor worked here, 1989-1991" on it. College Rector Jocelyn Stevens withheld his degree; and the young British art-world fell at his feet.

Turk's new solo exhibition at the South London Gallery, "The Stuff Show", sticks with his favourite topic: Gavin Turk. "Narcissistic, or what?" muttered every punter, bang on cue, as they entered the space.

There's a helpful quote from fellow British artist Sam Taylor-Wood outside, for anyone who makes the same mistake. "Gavin is special because he is totally inseparable from his work - but at the same time it's not narcissistic or even like self-portraiture," she says. "It's so bizarre that the work is about him, yet at the same time it could be about somebody else called Gavin Turk. It's like the portrait of an anonymous man."

With guff like that in your defence, it's no wonder Turk attracts a routinely hostile response. A shame, as Turk's work is actually fairly likeable. Dominating the show is a life-size wax-work self portrait - within a vitrine - of Turk as Marat, dead in his bath. It is a close pastiche of David's 1793 painting of the assassinated French revolutionary, via the Madame Tussaud's chamber of horrors. Turk lies slumped and turbaned, swathed in sheet and sacking, beneath a baize-covered board in a modern tapless fibreglass bathtub, poised on chequer-board lino. Missing from the original however, are the wound and bloodied water, Marat's quill and papers, so that the tableau is deliberately stripped of meaning.

"Never let your brushwork show," David famously instructed his pupils, but Turk's Marat comes complete with raggedy joins, blancmangey nipples, snipped lashes and eyebrows and chest-hair scattered from clippings off the barber's floor. Like Hirst's taxidermy, Turk's wax-work is slovenly up close, but the general effect is striking.

Following on from his degree-show plaque, which presented his career as if it were already over, The Death of Marat underlines Turk's assertion that "life only acquires meaning and shape through death". An interesting choice of alter ego. Marat - the venerated radical who fell from fickle public favour. His body was committed to the Pantheon with full public honours, then cast out 15 months later amid popular execration. There also is a scabrous private joke at play. Marat, of course, took to his bath as relief from a nasty skin disease contracted while hiding in the Parisian sewers, while Turk's self-portraits seem to reveal the scaly, desiccated hands of an artist who has spent too much time dabbling with toxic resins.

The other wax-work on display, Bum, stands directly on the floor, positioned as if it had shuffled in off the street. Bum is Turk as a gummy-eyed derelict - a recreation of the artist's bleary entrance stunt to the Royal Academy's private viewing of Sensation - in piss-stained trousers and newspaper- wrapped feet. A glutton for the self-referential, Bum strikes the same pose as his Sensation wax-work Pop with Turk dressed as Sid Vicious posing as Warhol's Elvis; and to crown it all Oi!, a huge photo triptych of Turk dressed as a bum, points limply down at Bum while Bum peers at yet another photo self-portrait.

They are everywhere. A big fresh-faced photo head with eyes closed in Portrait of Something that I'll Never Really See; then a light-box mounted portrait with flaky khaki mud-pack, smirking demonically like Grant Mitchell in Apocalypse Now in his A Man Like Mr Kurtz. It makes quite an impact as it's the only Turk here with its eyelids open.

They are obviously intended as expressions of banality, but most of the cover versions still don't do much: a Magritte-style portrait in a suit with an egg for a head; a Jasper Johns-type fleecy DIY paint-roller cast in bronze, a big Manzoni egg in a packing case, a Duchampian sanitary- ware font signed Gavin Turk instead of Armitage Shanks.

Ironically, the most pleasing works are those neat, confident, well-practised signatures, as omnipresent as a global corporate brand name. One Thousand, Two Hundred and Thirty Four Eggs has tightly-packed rows of empty eggshells, glued like ping-pong balls undulating across canvas; with his shadowy autograph tidily nibbled out across their surface. Opposite, more white on white, looking like an embossed deep-pile fancy-hotel bath-mat is Constellation with nearly four metres of teeny white polyester beads signed in elegant relief.

Above it all, mounted on tasteful neo-classical roundels are two big blobs of chewing gum, shiny smears of yellowy resin, thumbed onto the walls (PK1 & PK2). A yobbish mark of disrespect to his own show, that spat-out gum might as well be Turk's official acknowledgement of the guiding forces of Brit-pack art: the throwaway, and fraudulent, emptiness and groundless ego.

Amid all this brazen hugeness, you could easily miss one drab little photo, Drouste Effect 98, a panoramic 360 degree shot of the gallery, with every exhibit wrapped in brown drapes. This is the latest chapter in Turk's ambitious self-mythology, for the artist apparently opted to leave his show covered up throughout the private viewing. He does, after all, know one thing about young British art - what really matters is being seen and soaking up the free Becks.

Gavin Turk, The Stuff Show, South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Rd SE5 (0171-703 6120) to 18 Oct