Thursday, 18 March 2010

Michael Landy and Art Bin - an exhibition inside out

Closing of Michael Landy's Art Bin, photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2010

The concept of Art Bin was deceptively simple. People were invited to bring to a gallery works of art that they felt had failed in some way. They then left the works in a bin, where they would remain for the duration of the exhibition, to be disposed of afterwards. 

So what? you might think. Modern art, load of rubbish anyway. Wait, isn't this that Michael Landy who destroyed all his worldly things a few years ago?

Yes, Art Bin is certainly a development from Landy's earlier Break Down, which posed all sorts of questions about consumerism, the meaning of wealth, the burden of the past, the value we invest in possessions and memory, and the curse and cure of senseless clutter. (Among the inventory of Landy's possessions was a single trainer [sneaker, for North Americans]. Hung onto, why? Because, I suppose, the other one was bound to turn up someday!) For me, Art Bin forces some fundamental questions (especially once I decided to offer work for disposal myself): What is art? What is an exhibition? And what, as a culture, do we ultimately want to preserve?

What is art?

Oh, why not start with a simple conundrum? People have been screaming 'That is NOT art!' since the Young British Artists showed beds and sheep, or since the performance art of the 1960s, no, since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal in 1914, or since Picasso split up the faces of women - wait, it was when the Impressionists showed all those 'unfinished' paintings, or was it Turner in the early nineteenth century...? The point is, given enough time critical opinion, and sometimes mainstream public opinion, can change radically. You are of course free to decide whether or not you think Art Bin, as a whole, is art, or is something else, such as theatre. But here, from an artist's perspective, is why it is art, for me, anyway: it is a reflection of the usually hidden, but absolutely crucial process of making art: selection. When a visitor walks into a gallery, everything is a fait accompli: framed, presented, lit, but most importantly, selected. The process leading up to these finished products is usually completely hidden. Walking into the South London Gallery to see the Art Bin, I really had no idea what it would look like, even though I had seen a photograph online. The steel frame of the bin (I assume it was steel) filled a single massive gallery and reached up very close to the ceiling. It formed a sort of basket shape, with each of the square holes between the steel supports filled with a  perspex 'window'. So the whole thing was transparent, so that the disposed art could be seen (and metaphorically, the process of selection was made transparent). 

Art Bin staircase. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow 2010

At one end there was a staircase leading up to a platform, where artists or gallery assistants would stand to drop or throw the work into the bin. It seemed very obvious... and yet there were many other ways it could have been built. Initially I had imagined a kind of mulcher like the one used in Break Down, that would destroy everything on the spot. Yet Landy decided to have the work continuously visible for six weeks, to build up layers of work, in a sort of archaelogical way, so that the newly chucked in works would begin to destroy the earlier ones, and they would all begin to meld together. Hence the perspex, and not glass (luckily, or a couple of my overenthusiastically thrown wooden pieces could have spelled disaster when they bounced off the sides). And the staircase, again, a deliberate choice, evoking New York fire escapes and Olympic diving boards, creating a spectacle and emphasising a sacrifice as the works plunged to ignominy. What was a surprise was how much fun it was to climb up, see the full range of works smashed and scattered below, and then gleefully release, whether barely observed or watched by a throng including eager children. 

Another participant casts off work of the past. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow 2010

Most importantly for the participating artist, Art Bin suggested that it is important to admit when something hasn't worked, and not to hang onto it, wasting energy on the possibility for reworking or perfecting the unperfectable. Selection, I knew all about that, making loads of things and exhibiting the best, and making careful choices about what to make, and how, and why, and with what possible meanings. Oddly, I had forgotten about rejection. It had never occurred to me to go back and get rid of all the horrible small paintings on wood offcuts that I had made in the second year of my degree. But now they are gone, and I have more space to make new things! 

Art Bin says that art is as much a process as a finished product. Ideally both should be enjoyable. And when it doesn't work, ideally the artist knows when to let go and move on to something better. 

What is an exhibition? 

Ah, yes. While walking through Peckham it occurred to me that Landy has produced a perfect inversion of what an art exhibition normally is. To wit: 

ORDINARY EXHIBITION                          ART BIN

art preserved                                               art destroyed

artist, work and medium clearly labelled   nothing labelled

items well spaced                          items disappear under others

arrangement in a sequence                         no order; anarchy

separation of professionals from amateurs   everyone equal

white walls                                                   perspex windows

artist absent                                                artist present

visitor separated from work                       visitor contributes to work

work criticised by professionals      work also implicitly criticised 

exterior to the work                        by participants 

                                                         who have judged their own 

                                                         pieces as failures

artists' selection process hidden      artists' selection process on view

Going back to the idea of selection, although Landy courteously refrained from passing any comments on the quality of works that went into the bin, he did generally refuse works that in some way were contrary to the spirit of the process of artistic selection - including people who wanted to throw themselves in the bin as failures. During the closing festivities, when some of the Art Bin 'rules' went out the window (e.g. non-contributors allowed up the stairs to observe the splendor of the finished chaos), someone was making a collage specifically to throw in the bin. It was nice that he wanted to participate, but predestining the failure of a work of art did seem contrary to the spirit of selection. (It turned out to be Adam Ant.) 

What, as a culture, do we want to preserve?

All over Peckham, it was Bin Day! Image copyright Margaret Sharrow 2010

Must we save everything? On a personal level, Break Down forced us to confront that it is possible to survive without an accumulation of possessions from a person's past. As a society, do we need to hang onto everything from our culture? Wooooh, I can feel myself stepping into ideological quicksand here. Before a barrage of angry comments about my philistinism are launched, I'd just like to say that I've done quite a bit of work unearthing, preserving and promoting culture, have worked in a museum and a rare books library, and am most certainly not advocating any destruction of property in our public cultural institutions. But it is interesting to note that it would have been impossible for Landy to create Art Bin in many other European countries or the United States (home of freedom of speech), for legal reasons. It seems there are places where an artist cannot agree to give a finished work to another artist for destruction, no matter how poor they judge their own work to be. Would we be better off if Francis Bacon hadn't destroyed all of his paintings that didn't work? Or do we wish that he hadn't destroyed them primarily because his touch, as it were, conveys a kind of hagiographic value to everything, and now, years after his death, an increasing monetary value? I can hear him laughing... and no doubt he would have loved Art Bin, although perhaps he would have been loathe to make his failures public. (Congratulations, then, to everyone else who showed the courage to admit that they, and their work, is not perfect.) 

Of course, the problem with destroying things from the past is that we never know what value might be placed on them in the future. (Ruskin in fact privately and posthumously 'art binned' many of Turner's paintings because he considered them morally repugnant; we will never know what we lost.) But an artist should always be free to select and destroy their own work - so credit is due to Landy for encouraging better work through allowing the destruction of the failures. 

And for giving us plenty to think about. 

Read the Times review of Art Bin

Practicing my throw for the ignominious flight of my first contribution

(photo by Simon of South London Gallery)


Angie said...

Really enjoyed reading your take on the ArtBin. Just to let you know that I'm glad the bin was made of perpex because you scared the living daylights out of me with one of your skillfully frisbeed small square canvases which rebounded right next to my head-I recognised your hat!
Angie (ArtBin contributer who enjoyed it immensely only wished it had continued longer)

Margaret Sharrow said...

Thanks very much Angie, for reading & commenting. And I'd like to apologise for my overenthusiasm in chucking some of my smaller works way too hard - very sorry to have alarmed you - I was alarmed too but as was obvious to everyone, throwing skills are not my forte! (Michael Landy made it look so easy, javelinning in an enormous canvas as I arrived, proper gloves and everything.) The first piece I threw in was a work on paper, folded as a paper airplane for its launch. Michael suggested it was too heavy at the back, but I didn't know what to do about it. Of course he was right. Even though I chucked it quite hard, it went nose first straight down into the bin (much to everyone's amusement, including me!) So I suppose I was overcompensating with the later works. Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it too - I certainly had a wonderful time!