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Banksy’s Hanky-Panky at Sotheby’s, Part II: Can you Create a New Work by Shredding an Old One?

Part I is here.

In case you thought that Sotheby’s BalloonGate couldn’t get any crazier, this just in from Sotheby’s London:

The winning bidder on Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” offered at Sotheby’s last Friday has confirmed their decision to acquire the new work that was created that night, as part of the canvas passed through a hidden shredder seconds after the hammer fell. The new work has been granted a certificate by Pest Control, Banksy’s authentication body, and has been given a new title, “Love is in the Bin” [Huh?!?]

The buyer, a female European collector and a long-standing client of Sotheby’s, is proceeding with the purchase at the same price [£ 1.04 million, or $1.4 million] as was achieved in the room on the night.

Here’s the image of the “new” work, which was dispatched with Sotheby’s press release:

Banksy, “Love is in the Bin,” 2018
[aka: mutilated “Girl with Balloon,” 2006]

Alex Branczik, the auction house’s European head of Contemporary Art, gave the incredulous CultureGrrl a hint of what was to come in an email to me this morning, before the public announcement. He blithely characterized the act of vandalism at his sale as a “performance” and added:

I think you are approaching this from the wrong angle. Instead of thinking about a painting being destroyed in the auction, you might consider that the artwork was created during the auction.

And that’s exactly how Sotheby’s characterized it, in a campaign to mitigate its embarrassment. The attempt to recoup by claiming a PR coup began with Sotheby’s post-sale press release, in which Branczik grandly proclaimed the shredding to be “art history in the making.”

Not really. Although the incident may be a first in auction history, there is art historical precedent for an artist’s orchestrating the unexpected public destruction of his own work, with the remains treated as a work in its own right.

In an event much more dramatic event than what Banksy concocted, Swiss Dadaist Jean Tinguely staged a performance in the sacrosanct realm of the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden, where his contraption, “composed of bicycle wheels, motors, a piano, an addressograph, a go-cart, a bathtub, and other cast-off objects” (as later described by MoMA), burst into flames.

Comments by Dore Ashton, the late art critic, writer and professor, about her experience at this 1960 performance by her friend Tinguely suggest what Banksy might have been going for in last week’s auction escapade.

Screenshot from the video on the Tate’s YouTube channel

Here’s Dore’s story, as amusingly related in a video posted in 2015 on the Tate’s YouTube channel:

It [Tinguely’s performance] was sufficiently iconoclastic and this is an institution and us old anarchists [inspiring new ones, like Banksy?], we’re against institutions, right? [emphasis added]…I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t tell these people at the Museum of Modern Art….I knew it was going to catch fire. Jean had told me.

As far as I know, nobody else ever made a sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art that burned itself up….It was really scripted. Every minute of it was planned. After the performance—which it was—he did smile at us, as if to say, “Well, we’ve done it!”

The remains of that extinguished conflagration are in enshrined in MoMA’s collection:

Jean Tinguely, “Fragment from Homage to New York,” 1960, Museum of Modern Art

Andrea Scott of the New Yorker beat me to the Tinguely-Banksy analogy, and floated her theory that another famed British provocateur, Damien Hirst, “was the seller of ‘Girl with Balloon’ and was in on the prank.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to name Hirst as the likely seller, I do think it’s reasonable to believe that the seller was Banksy’s friend. (Some have speculated that it was Banksy himself.)

My view that the seller was the artist’s friend is supported by a close reading of the catalogue text, which tells us that the painting was “given [not sold] to the present owner by Banksy in 2006.”

Sotheby’s entry for “Girl with Balloon” also informs us that it is “signed and dedicated on the reverse.” I was hoping that the text of the dedication might provide a clue as to the recipient, but all it said (according to an email that Branczik sent to me in response to my query) was:

Thanks ❤️ ☮️ Banksy

Whether the seller was in cahoots with the artist, or was being punished by him for monetizing a gift he had promised to keep, we may never know.

While Banksy’s prank has become the talk of the artworld, there’s no consensus about what to make of it. People’s interpretations of the deeper significance (or lack thereof) of Banksy’s provocation are colored by how they regard the perpetrator (serious artist, agitator or PR stuntman?), the art market in general (a purveyor of genuine value or a hype-inflated bubble?) and the auction market in particular (a gauge of fair market value or a pre-orchestrated charade?).

My own iconoclastic take is colored by my reverence for artistic creation and my skepticism about auction-house machination: I see Banksy’s subversive act as a clever metaphor for the self-sabotaging auction houses, which, through opaque side deals, secret pre-arrangements and favored treatment for those who enter into such compacts have damaged their credibility as a transparent public marketplace where buyers can feel reasonably confident that they are paying fair market value, equitably arrived at, on a level playing field.

I elaborated on these concerns in my May 23 blog post—Gloom at the Top: Why Megabucks Auctions Are Broken (and how to fix them)—which Christopher Knight, the LA Times‘ art critic, quoted in his own analysis of whether “Banksy [is] bursting an inflated auction balloon” (in the words of the headline).

By embracing Banksy’s mockery (giving implicit encouragement to others who might follow his lead), Sotheby’s comes off as part-patsy, part-good sport. For Banksy, this caper was a lot riskier than his museum interventions, because it could have had real monetary consequences—to the auction house, to the seller, to the high bidder and, by extension, to the artist, who might have been held responsible for financial damages.

For now, cue the happy ending: “Banksy has cleverly nestled himself in the pages of art history,” Sotheby’s cheerfully proclaimed in today’s post mortem on its website. It remains to be seen whether he will go down in the history books as a prophet, a poet or a clown (or all of the above).

I’ll leave it to Branczik to get our minds off this controversy, with his emailed observation to me:

It is fascinating to me, the chatter that Banksy has caused with this performance….What about the new auction record [my link, not his] for Jenny Saville, now the highest price paid for a living female artist. Isn’t that more newsworthy?

I suppose it should be. But even Sotheby’s own homepage today has a feature on Banksy but nothing on Saville:

Jenny Saville, “Propped,” 1992, sold at Sotheby’s for $12.43 million

Meanwhile, can someone please explain to me what is meant by “Love is in the Bin”?

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