When things go viral, we begin seeing stories splashed across every social media platform with pundits and dabblers alike proclaiming it as a stunt or else a fraud. With the recent Girl with Balloon incident in which Banksy’s work was shredded just after its sale at auction, the gathering of voices started as murmur and slowly began to fill my inbox.
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It begins with people I may have known years ago at university, or my cousin’s neighbour, or people who make my coffee, realising, ‘hey, don’t you write about destroyed art?’ This also occurs whenever a well-intentioned Spanish woman tries her hand again at restoring a fresco, or a woman attacks a Gauguin painting, or when someone at a fancy art opening drinks too much and vomits on a priceless work of art (yes, that happens). Yet with Banksy and the Girl with Balloon staging, with its commentary on commerce and destruction, there is also something reminiscent of Yves Klein and the selling of empty space (or the Immaterial Zone) in exchange for gold. Klein would conclude these exchanges by burning the purchaser’s only proof of ownership (in the form of a receipt) as a sort of sacrifice before dumping half the gold into the Seine as a provocation (but remember – Klein kept half the gold).
When art destroys itself before an audience in this manner, one is similarly reminded of events like Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York that took place in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden in March of 1960. Homage to New York was constructed from components salvaged from scrapyards in New Jersey and sources across the city, so that Tinguely cobbled together mechanical bits and pieces into a work designed to spectacularly undo itself before an audience in a one-time event, even catching fire partway through.
In Banksy’s video recording of the shredding of Girl with Balloon at the Sotheby’s auction, the stage is carefully set. In the back of the room, people at a bank of phones monitor auction bids. A woman in pink talks on a mobile, but is the first to notice what is happening. Her expression changes to concern as the piece begins shredding itself and sliding out of the bottom of the frame in strips. A woman in a black dress brings her hand to mouth in shock. When the painting reaches mid-point in shredding, the camera shifts to a man in glasses pointing, pans around the auction room: close up reaction-shots with a startled woman recording it on her phone while people behind her chuckle good-naturedly at the sight. A man touches his forehead in a symbol of universal distress, turns slightly to his neighbour, before two men scramble to lift the frame from the wall cautiously in an attempt to… salvage it? The auctioneer steadies with ‘ladies and gentleman, if I can have your attention…’ against the persistent beeping of an alarm.
Of Homage to New York, Tinguely observed:
‘What was important for me was that afterwards there would be nothing, except what remained in the minds of a few people, continuing to exist in the form of an idea. This was for me very liberating. The next day they just swept up and every trace was gone. It was just a marvellous thing people talked about…’
And this sentiment fits the Banksy event in many ways. At Sotheby’s there was genuine concern, even if it took a moment for those right next to the artwork to realise exactly what was happening. The reactions don’t seem staged and the confusion is palpable, but at the same time everything remains fairly polite — a somewhat demure destruction — as if there is a general understanding that a Banksy piece might destroy itself: this is just something a Banksy might conceivably do.
Paul Virilio, a theorist of the concept of the accident, was famous for proclaiming that when you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck or the object’s demise, and continued, ‘when you invent a concept, an art, a sculpture, a film that is truly revolutionary, or when you sail the first ship, fly the first plane or launch the first space capsule, you invent the crash.’ In this, destruction is intimately tied to the inception. So that what is witnessed in these moments is perhaps a miracle in reverse or negative miracle in the Virilio or Georges Bataille sense—those moments when what was right here is no longer and captures us transfixed or catches us by surprise so we see differently. Banksy appears to have taken this rather literally in constructing the piece as when you watch the video on his Instagram it begins with: ‘A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,’ before showing a detail as he affixed a row of blades to an apparatus within the frame.
It’s the spectacle that draws us into that moment when something is at risk, something expensive might disappear before our eyes. This is art’s ability to contest its status as object. However, it is telling that in the intervening years between Tinguely and the Banksy piece, the site for this type of intervention appears to have shifted from museum to the auction house. Times have changed with the ubiquity of mobile phones on hand to harness every event and non-event, but in both pieces what remains is just some marvellous thing people talked about, and the footage now circulating invites all into the room as opposed to just the people who might have witnessed it in attendance. But that is the afterlife of our time.
In reading the responses to the Banksy video on YouTube, there’s a fairly respectable cross-section—if not a bit skewed toward the conspiracy theory. Commenters like Samuel_Smeltzer proclaim ‘Best trolling I have ever seen,’ while others scrutinise the details like richard_roldan1 with, ‘Look at about 0:39 you can see the auctioneer looks like after slamming the hammer he presses a button.’ Similarly, anachronofspace2 proposes, ‘Definitely a fake stunt, but good nonetheless’ and David Goliath Media Publishing2 asserts, ‘great marketing ploy, and publicity stunt awesome work of art for the publicity point of view! [sic]’ Overall, the response is a bit cynical if not good-natured in trying to discern and speculate how events unfolded. Other users latch onto specific details and perceived anomalies in the footage, like FescronCasual2 who observes:
‘So you’re telling me you added a battery and receiving circuit in there that kept listening for a signal for years, only to shred it now after it heard the right signal? And nobody ever noticed that being in there? Hmm…’
Or George_E2 notes:
‘So, the blades are the wrong way to start with. That direction wouldn’t make a clean cut. Then, when the picture is “shredded” you see a curled picture come out from underneath, which is also shifted to the right of the one in the frame. The paper is also a different colour.’
A sort of cottage industry appears to have grown overnight around the shredding of Girl with Balloon where people dissect the minute particulars of the spectacle for plausibility. Whether a perceived inconsistency in the colour of the painting behind glass and its appearance when it scrolls out, or the battery life of the transmitter used to trigger the shredding. Some have proposed that the apparatus of the frame might have simply scrolled the work up within the frame while dispensing a pre-shredded version like a magician’s trick.
Over at the blog Artnome there is a pretty systematic debunking of many of these concerns with an almost forensic approach to the footage and it appears that according to them the events are indeed plausible as seen. For example the battery life could conceivably work if the equipment ran on standby or the clean-shredding could be attributed to those blades if a leader portion (like film) of the work was already pre-shredded and threaded onto the blades out of sight and then when activated spooled across the blades to cut them before our eyes. Yet it isn’t the legitimacy of the act that is significant (after all Piero Manzoni’s tin of Artist’s Shit may have in fact contained peaches)… or whether the auction house was in on it, or indeed if Banksy was in the audience (or who he or she is for that matter), or the technical questions and assumptions about the object itself, but rather the spectacle and challenge it presents.
Since the event, many have speculated on how the stunt likely increased the value of the work, and this is echoed by the chorus over at YouTube with responses like, ‘Now the shredded painting is worth double!!’ from a user named Joseph or similarly unkdoctor who proclaims, ‘Also, i am afraid that people will now pay even more for this piece of art…’ There is something calculated in these spectacles, carefully choreographed while returning a bit of street-cred with a thumbed nose for a brand like Banksy, but then rarely do you find the average person weighing in so heavily on contemporary art.
Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian has disputed the cynicism of many of these responses. He proposes:
‘Here was the art world’s moment of truth – however theatrical and multifaceted it may prove to be. Of course, this revolt will be assimilated. Of course, the market will smile and the cash tills will go on ringing. Yet for once the commodity bit back. Art turned on the hands that feed it.’
Like the Mona Lisa when it was stolen in 1911 from the Louvre, it actually brought a new level of fame to the painting itself. The story around the painting and its eventual recovery made people see it differently. Author Darian Leader noted the unlikely reactions to loss of the painting, where ‘crowds gathered at the Louvre to gaze at the empty space where the picture had once hung.’
Again with the chorus over at YouTube as user Splitz1 asserts, ‘Now try it with the Mona Lisa,’ perhaps more accurate than he or she realises. In the aftermath the story shifts and Alex Branczik of Sotheby’s has issued a statement in the intervening days saying:
‘Banksy didn’t destroy an artwork in the auction, he created one. Following his surprise intervention on the night, we are pleased to confirm the sale of the artist’s newly-titled Love is in the Bin, the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.’
Similarly, the currently anonymous buyer of the work commented: ‘When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realise that I would end up with my own piece of art history.’
And if the follow-up coverage elsewhere is to be believed, we are now in the midst of a spree of copycat shreddings where at least one owner of the same print has taken upon themself to use a blade on theirs in the hopes of increasing its value. To which experts respond, ‘what this person today seems to have done is needlessly ruin a print worth around £40,000 and reduce its value to almost nothing…’ Unlike what Tinguely proposed where afterwards there would be nothing, with the remnants of Banksy’s intervention just swept up the next day with every trace gone. No audience members stepped in with brooms to sweep the remnants away, while savouring the experience.
The Banksy piece is altered, but very much intact (in fact it went on display over the weekend at Sotheby’s). However, maybe the gesture of the copycats are the more genuine as their actions might fundamentally contest the value of the object itself whereas the Banksy might ultimately fetishize and enshrine the object’s value more. Perhaps with these copycat incidents art reveals itself ultimately as meme, but likewise in events like these we witness a beautiful clearing when what seems fixed becomes publicly challenged. Like the poet Francis Ponge describes, ‘All the doors of the polling booths bang open and shut. Into the bin! Into the bin! Nature shreds her manuscripts, demolishes her library, furiously knocks down her final fruits.’
AUTHOR BIO: Jared Pappas-Kelley is a visual artist and Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Teesside University. His new book, Solvent form: Art and destruction, will be published by Manchester University Press in December, and is available to pre-order now.
Instagram image Courtesy of Pest Control Office, Banksy, London 2018.