Carys Tudor, Digital Curator: Art, Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales
21 December 2023

A new acquisition: David Shrigley's Pulped Fiction

Carys Tudor, Digital Curator: Art, Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales

21 December 2023 | Minute read

Back in 2017 the Oxfam Books and Music shop on Castle Street in Swansea made headlines by saying that they had plenty of copies of Dan Brown’s hit novel The Da Vinci Code – they made a display showing just how many had been donated, kindly requesting:

You could give us another Da Vinci Code… But we would rather have your vinyl! We urgently need more records to keep our customers happy! …And to make more money for Oxfam!

Having seen the headlines and the sign, artist David Shrigley decided to embark upon a project entitled Pulped Fiction. Deciding to acquire 5000 copies of Dan Brown’s novel, Shrigley started pulping these unwanted paperbacks, and using them to make new paper. Working with a book designer, Shrigley decided to recreate George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The typeface chosen for the edition has been selected to match the first edition of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, however it is possible to see small fragments of the original text on each of the pages. The dust jacket has been repurposed as has the cover. Shrigley has signed and numbered each copy of the work, as well as including a signed screen-print.

Amgueddfa Cymru has been lucky enough to acquire one of these special edition copies of Shrigley’s Pulped Fiction and so as it arrived at National Museum Cardiff, I wanted to find out a bit more from other colleagues as to how we would work with it as part of the Art collection.

Why did Amgueddfa Cymru decide to acquire Pulped Fiction?

“It's usually the case that Museum acquisitions develop over months or even years of research and development, but this is a great example of rapid response collecting.” Nicholas, Head of Fine and Contemporary Art at Amgueddfa Cymru says. “It was made possible by Steph Mastoris, Head of the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea who had been in contact with the Oxfam shop manager about Shrigley’s Pulped Fiction project. Steph attended the launch event at the Volcano Theatre and then visited the pop-up installation over the weekend in the Castle Street store, managing to acquire for Amgueddfa Cymru one of the very last copies of Shrigley’s 1984 to be sold in the Swansea shop. The acquisition is important as a work of art in its own right, capturing a moment in time when algorithms, AI and surveillance technologies are stress-testing democracy and Orwell’s dystopian imaginings are a step closer to reality. But the acquisition also captures an important moment in the cultural history of Swansea when a humorous sign on a charity shop book display inspired a major project by an internationally acclaimed artist.”

What kind of challenges does David Shrigley’s work pose curatorially?

“Shrigley’s work poses a number of curatorial challenges, which are focused by the book being accessioned as an artwork as opposed to an object of social history or a book in the Museum’s library. The material object - the book itself - is just one of many traces or markers of a much wider project that involved a team of people to deliver and in the final stages relied on the participation of hundreds of members of the public who distributed the artist’s idea through acquiring the book.” Nicholas tells me. “In this way Pulped Fiction is an important example of how many contemporary artists choose to make work - mixing conceptual art, installation, socially-engaged practice and performance to express ideas that extend beyond the materiality of the artwork. So a challenge for the Museum will be how to we display the book into the future to communicate this complexity? Key to this will be capturing and recording as much information as we can about the project so that curators and conservators have the knowledge to display the book in a way that introduces and asks questions as to why in 2018 Shrigley embarked on a project. Just as the layered complexity of Pulped Fiction resists a singular interpretation, the display of this object will ask different questions to our audiences depending on the time and place of its display. In a hundred years time will George Orwell’s 1984 still be considered one of the great novels of twentieth century? Will Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code be completely forgotten or instated into a revised literary canon? And will paper books still be printed?”

What’s the best way to look after David Shrigley’s Pulped Fiction?

I headed over to ask Amgueddfa Cymru's Paper Conservator Fiona about her thoughts:

“One thing that's interesting is what you do with an object that comes with accessories like this - is the artwork just the book itself, or does it also encompass all the extra packaging and notes that come with it?” Fiona says. “That was the first thing I discussed with Nick, is the tote bag part of the acquisition? In this instance we thought it made sense to keep them all together. I would also think about the longevity of the materials used to make both the book and its accessories. Usually we would rehouse acquisitions into acid-free boxes but in this instance we will perhaps keep the cardboard box the work came in, as although it’s unlikely to be acid-free or archival, neither will the book itself be, given the kind of paper stock that would usually be used for printing a commercial novel. So , We have to recognise that items like this may not have the same lifespan as, for example, an artwork which uses the finest handmade, acid-free, 100 % cotton paper, but this is one of the challenges of working with contemporary art which keeps preservation and conservation work interesting. As a conservator I must respect the artist's choice to use particular materials, and try to recognise and maintain the integrity of each artwork, sometimes through intervening, sometimes through not doing anything: in this instance I believe it gives the item greater integrity (and joy!) to keep all the parts together rather than separating them out and putting them into archival boxes and sleeves. It would turn it into quite a different object if we split it all up.”

“How is this different from other works that you’ve looked at for conservation?” I asked.

“Having previously been a conservator within a library I'm particularly interested in artists' books. This one is especially delightful as you can still make out letters from the previous text in the repulped paper; it's a very playful material object.” Fiona tells me. “One of the things that intrigues me is how you make the most of such an item in a gallery rather than library environment - you would want visitors to be able to see the cover and the inside of the dust jacket and the text inside - how do we get around static displays for an item which is meant to be opened and read? (this goes for all books really...). Same with digitisation - we're surely not going to digitise every page of the novel? Or are we? It brings interesting challenges and dilemmas with it.”

This led me to get in touch with Amgueddfa Cymru's Photographer Rhian, and Curator for Digital Collections and Documentation, Maddie.

How will David Shrigley’s work be prepared for digitisation?

“We always think carefully about displaying our collection online. This work poses some interesting questions that make us reflect on what it is we’re really trying to do here.” Maddie tells me, “We are not a library service, so while Orwell’s text has been out of copyright since 2021, would we want to display it all on our site? I don’t think so. I think what is important is thoughtfully capturing Shrigley’s intention by picking out some of the unique details that highlight his creative process.”

How does photography impact on our understanding of David Shrigley's work?

“Photographing the book and all its different elements can potentially aid in how it’s displayed in future.” Rhian says, “You won’t be able to display the whole work at once. For example, the dust jacket could be displayed in many ways, meaning that photography can help the viewer in exploring the work further. Record photography holds the purpose of documenting the work as it is but working with curators we’ll be able to create beautiful photographs to go alongside it when it’s displayed to fully uncover the work.”

With all these aspects to think about, David Shrigley’s Pulped Fiction offers opportunities to experiment with display and digitisation, and we’re really looking forward to accessioning the work and finding a place for it in future projects.

Carys Tudor is Amgueddfa Cymru’s Digital Curator and has worked in the museum’s art department since 2021. With a background in communications, she is passionate about offering opportunities for all voices to share their knowledge and expertise, making all subjects relevant and engaging. Carys is also interested in depictions of recent social and industrial history through art.

Oxfam Books and Music, Castle Street, Swansea © Oxfam Castle Street, Swansea


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