Artist’s work self-destructs, leaves messages to unpack

In October, street artist Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” sold for $1.4 million and then proceeded to shred itself, leaving spectators astonished and intrigued. Courtesy of dominic robinson via Flickr.

In early October, England-based street artist Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” sold for over £1 million, or $1.4 million, at the last auction of Sotheby’s “Frieze Week” contemporary art sale. “Girl with Balloon” originally appeared in 2002 on a wall in South Bank, near the National Theatre in London, and has been reproduced in droves ever since—on canvas by Banksy himself, on t-shirts and mugs and tote bags, and famously stencilled on other walls around London (though none remain). “Girl with Balloon” shows the subject reaching for a heart-shaped balloon that is floating away in the wind. According to a 2017 poll, the piece is the United Kingdom’s favorite work of art, topping contenders like John Constable’s iconic painting “The Hay Wain” and the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” cover, which was designed by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth (“Banksy’s Girl with Balloon is UK’s Most Beloved Work of Art!,” Widewalls, 07.26.2017).

For this reason, the art world and, really, the general public, reeled when the painting self-destructed at Sotheby’s. After selling for three times the estimate—a record for any solo piece by Banksy—about half of “Girl with Balloon” was shredded. People in the auction room gawked, laughed and pulled out their phones. Promptly, almost casually, auctioneer Oliver Barker moved on and the painting was taken off the wall, ribbons dangling from the bottom of the frame. In fact, Barker, also Sotheby’s European chairman, said as the painting passed through the frame, “It’s a brilliant Banksy moment, this. You couldn’t make it up, could you?”

(“Banksy Painting Self-Destructs After Fetching $1.4 Million at Sotheby’s,” The New York Times, 10.06.2018) Response outside the auction room was immediate; the stunt elicited spoofs from the likes of Ikea and McDonald’s as well as lesser-known artists.

Banksy posted a photo on his Instagram of the Sotheby’s crowd, captioned with a cheeky “Going, going, gone…” (Instagram, @banksy, 10.05.2018). He later published a video called “Shred the Love, the director’s cut” in which he explained that, a couple of years ago, he built a shredder into the frame so that if the painting was ever put up for auction, it would self-destruct. Apparently he had wanted to shred the whole thing, but due to a technical error only half was reduced to ribbons. Not only did the stunt itself attract much attention, but its authenticity was also questioned. “Girl” was the last piece sold that night; it was hung on a wall rather than placed on a podium, as is custom; handlers might have noticed if a frame had a shredder built into it and the buyer, a European Sotheby’s regular, went ahead with the purchase. She said, “When….the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realize that I would end up with my own piece of art history.” Given the media attention, the shredded version was predicted to increase in value, up to over £2 million. It is now called “Love is in the Bin.” (It’s Nice That, “It looks like Banksy intended to shred the whole of Girl with Balloon,” 10.18.18).

Perhaps this was a “screw you” to the collectors eating canapés at Sotheby’s, or a demonstration of the transience of beauty and art. “‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,’” Banksy wrote on Instagram, quoting Picasso. The street artist is known for defying both the art world and contemporary society. He has a whole book of politically charged pranks, titled “Wall and Piece.”

Illustrator Ruohan Wang is one of my favorites. Her work seamlessly combines fine art—her minimal, jellied forms and sickeningly sweet colors recall Henri Matisse and the Tahiti of Paul Gauguin—with graphic approaches. We see grid patterns, text and gradient evocative of an ‘80s music video alongside “traditional” subject matter like the reclining nude and mountainscapes. Wang’s world is chaotic and heavenly, both textured and charmingly flat (her colored pencil compositions are particularly pretty).

Some people might think her sweet style wouldn’t translate well into, say, a public mural or shredded canvas. Unfortunately, when we think “urban art” or “street art,” Banksy’s stunts and street installations probably come to mind. Not to say that his work is shallow or worthless—on the contrary, he talks about such topics such as Syria and Palestine and contemporary British conservatism, and this is important. But he should let their importance speak for itself, grace public spaces with the political and beautiful, rather than so boldly bellow for the attention of Sotheby’s regulars. Urban art is rooted in communities and the local, which is why I admire Ruohan’s latest public installations. She drew promotional items for a Chinese solar festival; her animation was displayed on the Bund in Shanghai, the biggest LED screen in the world, for three days. She further delved into public art for Jerusalem’s Walls festival, which seeks to enliven disenfranchised parts of the city through large-scale murals. She painted a mural in the Talpiot neighborhood, previously regarded as a “ghost town which is remote and isolated socially” (It’s Nice That, “Ruohan Wang continues to wow with her public art installations,” 10.08.2018). The piece is colorful and uplifting, exploring the relationship between humans and the natural world. Ruohan commented, “Art in the public space is the landscape we all share. Consciously or unconsciously, it pours meaning into our everyday lives” (It’s Nice That, “Ruohan Wang continues to wow with her public art installations,” 10.08.2018).

Banksy’s stunt made headlines, but I have to wonder whether the shock value of a half-shredded painting outweighs the message behind the art: Did the boldness of the gesture garner more attention than his comment about the urge to destroy? We should support efforts more like those of Ruohan— the goal to enliven the public art space rather than destroy a part of it.

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