Referencing the iconic date paintings by On Kawara - a series spanning fifty years, recording the date on which they were made - O’Connor responds to this period in time by developing his own visual language, with each canvas being delicately painted gloss-red on matt-red with a numeric value. Once sold, these accumulated acts of purchase complete the work as social sculpture, in the process generating a combined value of £5050.
The Coronavirus outbreak has tested our systems, values and humanity; upending assumptions about individual freedoms, collective responsibility and stripping us of the privileges we had mistaken for rights. Exposing our age of rampant inequality, it has made society reassess its priorities and reconsider our shared values. We clap for health workers instead of Glastonbury headliners, long for loved ones over long-haul flights, prioritise the environment over profit and observe right-wing governments support the swelling numbers of jobless and homeless.
As central banks print money to keep the economy afloat, and the price of oil drops below negative, the very notion of capital is undermined. Questioning the relationship between art, money and value, O’Connor asks: what, other than the price, is the difference between two almost identical works - one worth £1, the other £100?
A Zoom Call with Gavin Turk - 22/04/2020, 12:15BST
JO I wanted to talk to you about the idea of value because I feel it’s just coming up in so many different ways at the moment. Erm, and the idea of isolation because other people are kind of struggling with something I’ve normalised.

GT Uhm, for me I think that the… It’s interesting because I said to someone I thought it was a bit sort of desert island scenario. This idea of basically everyone just returning home and staying indoors and self-isolating. And so there is this kind of idea that, uhm, everyone has created these miniature vacuums and art can’t exist in a vacuum. And, and so, although you say that it’s a great time because you have special and focused time on your own to concentrate on your own processes, in actual fact, for me, I think that art is something that achieves meaning and it achieves its essence through relationship to ‘audience’. And what I say is that if I was on a desert island, I wouldn’t make art. I would just fiddle around and learn how to like, stack coconuts, and do whatever it is, but it wouldn’t really be art. It would be fiddling around. It would be just sort of experimenting on stuff, but it wouldn’t have that component - that social component - which I think art has. So, for me it’s really important to, to try to understand that there’s always an audience.

JO One of my big influences was with the, erm Yves Klein when he was doing the Zone Sensibilité (‘Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle’) and without the audience, he wouldn’t have been able to complete that work. And the idea of something immaterial being achieved by the component of collaboration between one person buying into something else and then burning it at the end and then nothing being left to show for it. But the idea of presenting this work in the real world was for more intimidating for me than live-streaming it to an audience on the internet.

GT This is my little model. You’ve got artist and the audience, and obviously, you’ve got A, B, but then the artwork exists here in C. So, basically, what happens is that - at some point - the audience is also the artist and, at some point, the artist is actually the audience. There’s a point at which you leave something in a space with the audience. As an artist, you’re able to go around the other side and see what you’ve made from the point or perspective of being ‘audience’. And at that point, you get a chance to understand yourself, erm, within that, erm, sort of esoteric, eh, parallel within that sort of paradigm position of how someone else sees you. So, your…so ‘your’ and it’s always difficult to know about possession and artworks: like why do people buy art, what are they buying; do they ever actually have it? I mean, in terms of value, in terms of paying money, it’s almost like they’re paying money to support the concept, but the concept will always remain with the artist. So what they’re doing is they’re buying into the idea that they’re supporting the concept and that goes right up to the most expensive artwork that was ever bought, where, in a way, what you’re doing is you’re buying culture and, and you end up supporting culture by virtue of buying the artwork. And then really you’re just a custodian of that place and, and that significance of cultural value. And, that’s why I say that art, like, is about culture and, and its value is obviously shifting; in the same way that the art object itself is shifting because, as we know, like values, morals, ideas of generating meanings surrounding ‘things’ and how we give things meaning changes depending on where you are, historically. So, some things, and you could look at it in scientific terms, some things that were thoughts to be true, like 100 years ago, are now thought to be totally and utterly wrong, and other things that were thought to be totally non-existent or wrong are now considered to be true. That the truth and ideas, erm, switch around and obviously, you know, it’s impossible to think that we can be early modernists. We can be involved in a project of, like Yves Klein, making invisibility for the first time an artwork. Like now when we have to make invisibility we have to make a kind of used invisibility, a kind of, erm, second-hand invisibility.

JO One of the things that you said that I found really interesting is the value of culture. Do you remember the first time that someone bought something and it actually meant something?

GT I mean, I sold something to my headmaster at school - erm, £5 - when I was nine years old. I was called up in assembly and, er, kind of went and sort of gave the artwork to the headmaster, and he gave me an envelope with some money in it, in front of the school. It was terribly humiliating (laughter). So that you know was I think the first moment where I sold something. I guess, I mean, it’s interesting, because, there is a point at which people talk about “putting your money where your mouth is” or this idea of selling something as being some kind of condoning. Like its an amazing…uhm...that there is a point at which, even though sales made now - I still find it shocking that someone is prepared to give you money for your magic beans; for your artwork.

JO It’s very intimate, isn’t it? It’s a very er...

GT Well, well, it’s sort of not very intimate. It’s sort of the most un-intimate sort of thing there is. I mean it’s, you know, it’s kind of a bit like, erm, prostitution, in a way. Because like, erm, but at the same time there’s a point at which unless there is a circulation of finance - unless there is actually a financial component - then it doesn’t actually...the artwork doesn’t actually, and isn’t actually engaging, within the...well, you know. I hate to use this idea that it’s something to do with the real world - but it doesn’t become engaged in a sort of cultural linking. In that cultural story. In that cultural game that’s being played through all of the, erm, storytelling that’s going on to make culture work. To make culture happen. To make culture tick. (pause) That’s just odd.

JO How do you think art amasses value?

GT I mean, you know, I’m always kind of, I kind of bat on about this idea of art becoming and obtaining value by being ‘audience-d’ - so the more audience-d an artwork is, the more it obtains value. But it’s a really difficult and problematic elution because the more audience-d an artwork becomes, the more it dissipates…loses value. Or loses specificity…loses specific-ness. Or loses kind of an edge, like it know it becomes populist, it becomes a cliche. It becomes something people don’t look at. Something that’s almost there all the time in the background. So if we, kind of classically we think of, erm masterpiece es, like the Mona Lisa. It’s a wonderful thing to go to when we’re looking for something where we can talk about a masterpiece. And something with the Mona Lisa, like, the most important moment in the career of the Mona Lisa was when the Monda Lisa had been stolen, and more people went to see ‘the gap’ that was where Mona Lisa wasn’t - where the Mona Lisa was missing from - than went to see the Mona Lisa. But it, it was almost like because the Mona Lisa had been stolen it gave it infamy as well as fame; and the gap in a way allowed…it was almost like a death that allowed, kind of more filling and more indulging in that space. And obviously, it’s sort of a floating signifier where people don’t actually look at the art anymore, they look at what they need the art to look like.

JO I love Robert Hughes, and when I was 19, I watched ‘The Mona Lisa Curse’ and he kind of like beautifully contextualised how we are in the shadow of that moment in history. And he draws it back to when JFK took the Mona Lisa on tour around America…;

GT I didn’t even know that

JO Yeah, he said that like people didn’t queue up to see it, they queued up to be seen seeing it. And it was almost like the power of the artwork became a status symbol. And I guess talking about that now is interesting because is this moment in time about us being brought back to the meaning?

GT Well, no, I think the difficulty here is that, is that humans are meaning-making machines. They will take anything and turn, and put, and wrap meaning on to it. It’s human nature. I think that the, the strength of that doesn’t really get stronger or weaker, it just remains a kind of constant. It’s a human condition. I think interesting things are happening with the moment and, I did a series of talks last year that was about the fact that people go to museums with their camera phones. They take a photo of it and walk away, but it’s almost like the idea is they’re going to see the artwork later on, on their photo. That they couldn’t actually physically cope with the physical interaction or the idea that they had to physically interact with this artwork while it was in front of them. Or that literally all that they needed to do was, got it, and it was sort of like…

JO Pokémon!

GT Like safari, on safari, you just go around, and you just pick up these like Pokémon, you just basically pop your photographs of these classic artworks in your phone case, in your, in your ibry...library...ibry!? (laughter) in your photo library and, then actually you never print and never look at them; or maybe you send them to a friend to say - look I was here!

JO Do you think that, in some way, the art world as a structure is almost like an algorithm in the way that it chooses and appoints and, anoints the culture that we’re delivered and that we’re served?

GT I, I dunno. I’m…I kind of think that the market - the art market - has become incredibly powerful in relation to what goes into museums, to the people who basically run the trustees or the patrons or the museum are collectors themselves. They favour certain artists, or they maybe donate certain artists work. Erm, they in a way, they propagate their own collecting trends, erm, and so the museums, like, become a kind of reflection of the collecting society. And the collecting society is being influenced and informed by the gallery system. And I think that sometimes artists are the ones who come off quite badly from the whole situation because they’re too busy with their noses in oil paint to look up and think about how their art is being kind of ‘exercised’. How it’s being manoeuvred and manipulated round a kind of art course, erm, in the “art world” whatever that is. I mean now, you know, some galleries won’t take artists who don’t have followers; who don’t already have a media profile. So, there’s already - I’m already starting to see a way that galleries are resistant that don’t already have a social media presence. And, what the galleries finding is that when they do take these artists who have a social media presence, it has an amazing influence on the way that the galleries working. I mean it pushes the gallery up and pushes some of the artist’s fans into some of the other artists, that artists that are working with the gallery. So you know, it’s like in the old days, it’s great if an artist comes to a gallery and they had collectors. That they already had a group of collectors supporting them. That the gallery was already sort of, erm, happy to meet and greet a whole load of new collectors that were coming with the artist. But it may be that if the artist is able to actually organise it properly, they’re able to call the shots in as much as they can have a kind of exhibition in the space - so the space might be able to offer a physical, a physical connection space - erm, but they might also be able to offer the gallery terms underneath the umbrella of shut the artist working globally from their own social media platform.

JO Because, like, a gallery will try their hardest not to even let an artist know who bought a work of art, but, if then, that collector is then ‘liking’ and then following (which wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago) an Instagram account for an artist, it kind of bares the question of, well: what value is the gallery bringing to the artist if the artist can almost orchestrate all of the parts themselves?

GT Yeah…yeah! True.

JO Or do you think the gallery is still an important gatekeeper in reassuring collectors that an artist is a viable investment. That, you know, is it like the blue tick of the art world to have a gallery?

GT I know I think that, erm, don’t get me wrong - lots of collections only buy art through galleries because the gallery doesn’t offer a certain kind of validation. And also, maybe, I’m buying this off you now - if I don’t like it or if it doesn’t go up in value in two years - will you buy it off me? There’s almost a kind of security, like when you buy off the gallery. Whereas obviously if you’re buying off the artist, there’s very little critical space unless the artist can get the critical space into their bubble, their world. It needs to have, somehow, like value is achieved through triangulation. In a way it can’t come from round or through a series of - I don’t know if their gates - but a series of channels.

JO Larry Gagosian said that ‘It’s an act of collective faith what an artwork is worth.’ I really like that.

GT Yeah, that’s probably true. That might be true. I mean, I don’t mind it; whatever. I mean it always strikes me as strange. I mean it’s like the value of an artwork is always going to go up, or it’s going to succeed in an auction if two people with a lot of money want it. Only these two (laughter) and they both need a lot of money. And then it can go to whatever someone - you know - whatever someone is prepared to pay for it. (pause) And that’s it.

JO That’s it. Thank you so much.