Turk's tapestry: Turning trash to treasure

Gavin Turk has a new take on tapestry – and he tells Clare Dwyer Hogg why it's rubbish
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The Independent Online

Gavin Turk casts black bin bags filled with rubbish in bronze, and then he paints over them to make them look like black bin bags filled with rubbish. He takes an old polystyrene cup and casts it in metal, and then paints it to look like an old polystyrene cup. When Elton John asked him to design a bar that would be auctioned off for the singer's Aids charity last month, he made it out of rubbish: old driftwood, bits and pieces, nothing sleek or polished. Gavin Turk is interested in rubbish. So it takes something of a psychological jump to consider his latest project: a tapestry.

In his studio, the cacophony of sounds – the clattering of industrial tools, the banter of various assistants wielding them, loud music – could not be further from what you might imagine to be the right atmosphere for weaving. Turk, sitting in a little sectioned-off area of his studio, grins. "I hadn't been progressing my work towards the idea of making a tapestry," he says. But the art world works in mysterious ways, and when he was one of 15 artists – others include Grayson Perry and Peter Blake – approached to make a tapestry, he rose to the challenge.

It should come as no surprise then, that the subject matter of Turk's tapestry is not your usual tapestry fodder (if there is such a thing). "In my mind, I was thinking of Hampton Court," he says, "and so I had to think how tapestry would make sense for me; be relevant for me." His inspiration came from Alighiero e Boetti, an Italian artist prominent in the Sixties, who was fascinated by symbols, and created an embroidery of the world map, with each country made from its own flag. Gavin Turk's Mappa del Mundo is created from detritus he collected from the street – crisp packets, drinks cans, cigarette packets – that were squashed and rendered into a two-dimensional world map.

"I'm interested in the idea that products have this grandiose sense to them," Turk says, with more than a little enthusiasm. "They advertise themselves as noble or worthy with crests or traditional typefaces –the packaging is often more expensive and thought about than the products contained within." The irony, he continues, is that once the product has been consumed, the packaging is just discarded as if it wasn't that which was desired in the first place. "On the whole, most packaging is opaque," he says. "You can't see the product and have to trust it's what you want."

Turk had been working on this map concept long before Suzanne and Christopher Sharp – the architects of this tapestry project – invited him to take part. Founders of new visual arts commissioning organisation Banners of Persuasion, the Sharps are probably better known as the couple who set up the Rug Company. It was in this capacity that they noticed when people really loved a rug, they'd sometimes hang it on their wall, the way people used to prize tapestries, and so they thought they'd revitalise interior decorating in a big way. It took some revitalising – while the Normans may have had the skills, tapestry is something of a dead art now, especially in Britain.

Yet even though the designs had to be sent to China to be created, it seems appropriate that tapestry is reworking itself back into the design consciousness: the V&A's craft exhibition, Out of the Ordinary, last year showed that the arts and crafts movement is gathering pace again, while the current financial climate may force people to reconsider what value ready-made culture holds. Which ties in very nicely with Gavin Turk's opinions are about disposable culture. "To take a found object, then to send it to be turned into a tapestry means that you take something unwanted which has no value at all and turn it into something which is one of the most expensive bits of decorative furnishing you could possibly imagine," he says.

And so, the rubbish that Turk found outside his studio is now rendered intricately in thread, woven in what seems to be impossibly miniscule dimensions. "When they generate the tapestry they literally have to go across this object and attribute a colour value to every square millimetre," he says. This is what Turk liked about the process. "What I do happens fairly fast: the rubbish was crushed fairly fast and then photographed and collaged relatively quickly," he says. "But making tapestries is a relatively slow process. While you'll see the image of the map quickly, to digest the image and understand the tapestry actually happens really slowly."

This is true for the viewer, too. "One of the things I've found looking at tapestries," he says, "is that I might look at it and say 'oh I don't like that'. And then if you can stand there just slightly longer you can get captivated and it unwinds slowly – the picture starts to appeal, starts to come into your world." Unlike statement design pieces, a tapestry is supposed to grow on the owner. "I think one of the interesting things about tapestry is how slowly the picture comes out of the picture frame," he says. "It's so intense. You have go close and further away and close and further away; it's like the image slowly unweaving itself."

The intricacies of the final product are determined by the painstaking production process, and so it is unlikely that many people will be able to afford a Gavin Turk tapestry to brighten up a "feature wall". But this is something Turk has come to terms with a long time ago. "That is quite often the fate of art – it goes to those who can afford it," he shrugs. "It's important art does have a market, and obviously it's lovely if you can get your work into national collections."

It's not all about high prestige interiors pieces for Turk, though – again, it's the process that he finds important, and that process can be something that anyone can be involved in. The House of Fairytales – another of Turk's less mainstream enterprises – is a children's art project set up by Turk and his partner Deborah Curtis. It is designed to "promote the idea of old-fashioned craft-making at home within the family," Turk says. "Doing it has resonance and meaning, it is infective. If everything is made industrially, then I think we lose the ability to work with our hands: you lose the sense of stuff, and in a way that erodes the freedom of choice." The idea is that no one should feel restricted when it comes to creating their environment, or hemmed in by what is available to buy.

"I'm making some kind critique of human industrialisation," he says. "The use of products in this way probably does take over, it probably does affect the planet's balance, the land and sea." He walks out into his main studio, and points to a cushion on one of the benches, covered in old-fashioned faded striped material. Another interiors project? He motions to touch it – it's as hard as rock, painted to look cosy. "This striped material was considered very risqué when it was first brought out," he laughs. And now it's the most normal, almost boring, of things.

Perhaps in the same way, his outré tapestry will one day be hanging in every living room across the land or – even better – maybe Turk's ideas behind it will be commonplace. It's not Turk's mission statement – he's on to the next thing (dressing up as a fortune teller, in New York, if you must know) – but that wouldn't be a bad interiors revolution at all.

'Demons, Yarns & Tales' exhibition, to 22 November, The Dairy, London WC1 (020-7243 7345; http://bannersofpersuasion.com)