I’ve often wondered what Michelangelo’s reaction would be if he were plucked from 16th century Milan, and deposited in, say, the Tate Modern. I can’t help but feel that he’d be a little disappointed at what he saw. He must have known that art would develop and change – yet I don’t think he would have predicted the path that the art world has taken in recent years. In the last few decades alone, we have had pickled sharks and unmade beds, people in bear costumes and sheds that are actually boats that are actually sheds.
And now we reach the latest manifestation of this never-ending mutation: Michael Landy’s Art Bin. Essentially, it is a skip. A very large and transparent skip, yes, but a skip nonetheless. As the name suggests, this skip is designed for a particular type of rubbish – unwanted artworks. A ‘monument to collective failure’, Art Bin has already swallowed works by big-name artists such as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst, and Landy is running a scheme through which we, the members of the public, can apply to have our artworks disposed of. After six weeks, the contents are to be crushed and turned to landfill (or ‘Landyfill’ as the artist has termed it).
Landy is no stranger to such acts of destruction; in 2001 he famously catalogued and then destroyed all of his personal possessions with an industrial shredder. Break Down was celebrated by some as a protest against consumerism, but was criticised by many as a waste: surely it would have been better to give his belongings to charity? Others merely dismissed it all as a stunt. But not only did he destroy his clothes, his passport, his photographs and even his car, he also wrecked hundreds of artworks (a few of which had been gifts from other artists), which was condemned by some in the art world. Landy is by no means the first to carry out artistic destruction – Robert Rauschenberg once erased a drawing by the Dutch abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning – he is simply the first to take it to such an extreme.
As in Break Down, Landy tries to use Art Bin to question the concept of ownership of an artwork. If a piece is sold or given away, whom does it belong to? Of course, legally it belongs to the purchaser or recipient. But does the artist retain any rights pertaining to what happens to the work? Members of the public wishing to dispose of another’s art in Landy’s skip need to confirm they have the express permission of its creator before it will be accepted, which does somewhat quash the debate. But can we go further, and ask whether art should even be destroyed at all? Obviously, only a small fraction of artworks are actually masterpieces, but all art is a creative celebration of the world around us – is it not wrong to destroy any part of it?
Landy wrote in The Guardian that he was ‘interested in failure’ and that it was ‘all about value’. This is one of the major problems I have with the piece. How can an artwork ever be a creative failure? Of course, it can fail in the eyes of its creator, but a piece will always have some value, however small and difficult to find. In terms of artistic merit, there are countless works in galleries around the world that I would have been ashamed to produce as a toddler, yet others celebrate them. It takes only one person to view an artwork, and it is worth something. Or, in the case of Art Bin, it just takes Landy to view it, and it can be worthless in a moment. And that is the strange thing. He judges what ends up in the skip – he is the self-termed ‘bin monitor’. So the contents of Landy’s creation are based on his opinion of failure, rather than on the opinions of others.
But can we even call Art Bin a creation? Surely it is the opposite of creation; the whole concept behind it is centered on destruction and its own existence is meaningless without the dropping, smashing and eventual crushing of the work of others. Can we even call it art? Perhaps it is something else. Anti-art? Call me old-fashioned, but there needs to be some aesthetic appeal to something for it to be referred to as ‘art’. That doesn’t mean that I only consider paintings and sculptures to be art – in fact the ‘readymade’ work Bicycle Wheel, by the pioneer of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, is a favourite of mine. It possesses an innate beauty and poise, with the wheel balanced gracefully on the stool. A large skip, on the other hand, holds no such attraction.
Art Bin projects a question mark onto the state of the art world today. What is the value of art? Like most contemporary artworks, it sets out to be novel and outrageous and, for a brief while, it has commanded the attention of the media. But is this enough?