MEET Liam Gallagher. No, not that one. The real one. The Real Liam Gallagher is a 79-year-old up-and-coming artist from Donegal who has been described by arts and culture magazine Vice as “one of 2015’s most exciting new voices.”
He had his first ever show, No Need To Shout, in London this May, and more recently in Brighton. His grandson Scottee says that his Grandad is “the political David Shrigley”. Unlike the visual artist, David Shrigley, Liam Gallagher has never been to art school.
Such was his upbringing, he never learned to read or write until his grandson helped him a few years ago in order to make his art work, which is plain and to the point and at times surreally funny. (Slogans like “The NHS Is Keeping Me Alive”, or “No Blacks, No Irish.”).
It would be fair to say that throughout his decades as an Irish immigrant in North London, Liam had never thought about becoming an artist at any age. Especially not when he was knocking 80.
Scottee is the one who got the whole thing going. A 28-year-old art activist and performance artist from Kentish Town, he is the driving force behind Liam Gallagher’s later life emergence as an artist. Scottee himself uses art to react to things that make him angry, and he saw how invisible old age had rendered his Grandad. So the project was all about making Liam visible again.
“We live in an ageist culture,” he says. “We consider mid-forties old. We regard old people as senile or crazy or if they’re Irish, drunk. My Grandad never set out to do art, it was me who approached him to do this project. The idea that an older person becoming an artist is so novel just shows how ageist we are.”
He is currently campaigning to have the upper age limit of Turner Prize entrants changed — as it stands, you can’t enter if you’re over 50. He says that collectors go into art schools and hoover up the work of young students; that the art world is as ageist as everywhere else.
Scottee describes himself as “fat, queer, left handed and dyslexic” and says that all his work is “activist art, in a pedantic but celebratory way.” He recently broadcast My Big Fat Documentary on BBC Radio 4, which examined social attitudes to fatness in a brilliant, joyful and thoughtful way.
He travels the world performing, entertaining, and provoking reaction; expelled from school at 14, he has no formal qualifications of any kind, other than a sharp mind, keen sense of the absurd, and just the right amount of anger mixed with humour and humanity. Oh, and a wardrobe on par with the late performance artist Leigh Bowery.
Which is all a very long way from 1930s Donegal and the harshness from which Liam Gallagher emerged and escaped. Liam’s mother died in childbirth, so he was adopted by a local family who were brutally unkind to him. The family had money, but they were cruel and treated him differently from their own children.
They didn’t even feed him properly, instead saying they wish he had died along with his mother. When he was fifteen, having been refused admission to a dance by his adoptive father and the local priest, he lost his temper and ran off with the admissions money.
He walked all the way to Derry, where he used the stolen money to buy a boat ticket to Glasgow. He has not been back to Ireland in more than 30 years, but when I speak to him, his Donegal accent is as strong as if he had arrived last week.
Liam met his wife Mary, also from Donegal, when they were both in Glasgow. They later moved to London, at a time when there were signs in boarding house windows saying No Blacks, No Irish. Liam and Mary had a family — their daughter Sarah is Scottee’s mother.
Liam and Scottee are “best friends”, Liam tells me. When I ask if he is happy with his new status as artist, he laughs and says, “Oh, aye. Course I am.” Now he has an online presence, and has tweeted that since becoming an artist he “feels different — more important”.
“It used to be me holding his hand when I was little,” Scottee says. “Now it’s him holding my hand.” What is most vivid in all of this is the relationship between the friendly old man from Donegal with the astonishing survival instinct and his clever talented grandson; they plainly adore each other.
“I couldn’t have done this project with any other older person but my Grandad,” says Scottee. “With another older person it might have seemed exploitative. With him, he can give voice to his boundless optimism. We are not doing this to be bought up by Saatchi — art for art’s sake is pointless. We are doing this to affect real people. That’s what art is for.”