Public and outdoor art features prominently at this year’s ArtBasel. But after the controversy surrounding the hijacking of street art for auction, can artwork like Banksy’s make the leap from the street to the gallery?
For this Summer’s ArtBasel the rumour mill started churning early – December 2012, to be precise. The controversy over the sale of a piece by the elusive British street artist Bansky, in which art collector Stephan Keszler removed sections of walls adorned with the artist’s work from their urban origins and shipped them to Miami for sale, has fuelled discussion over the value, and the ownership of public art. In the heart of Europe the Venice Biennale and ArtBasel are upon us. More so than usual, these ancient host cities become like viral museums – excavating contemporary artefacts, setting context and consequently price, and hosting these relics of the present age in the opulent rooms of the old world.
North-East London’s slightly less glamorous Wood Green was the canvas for Bansky’s piece entitled ‘Slave Labour’, a mural splashed on the side of a discount store that has been at the centre of an employment rights scandal. That is until early this year, when the artwork was cleaved from the side of the shop and turned up on the online catalogue of Fine Art Auctions Miami for a list price of between $500,000 and $700,000. Street art is, by essence, an unsanctioned comment upon the urban environment and the political conditions that leads to its decline and neglect. Typically, a Bansky intervention attains meaning and value by absorbing the character and changing attitudes of the location in which it has been placed.
The act of intervening in a graphic way on the surfaces of urban centres in a way enforces ruinous qualities upon the contextual surroundings, using the weight and gravity of the city-canvas as a platform that has out-lived its original purpose and now ripe for reuse. Banksy’s savage critique of British society manifested itself prominently during the London Olympics in Summer 2012. The Olympics, the foremost global opportunity for nation-branding, has seen a recent intermingling with the contemporary art world. For the Beijing 2008 Games, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was enlisted as artistic consultant for the famous ‘Bird’s Nest Stadium’.
Like the big art fairs the Olympics are a vast opportunity not only to make grand statements of the future of architectural and contemporary design but also to acknowledge a link to the concrete past. One of the most notable quirks of the 2008 games was the Chinese appointment of Albert Speer Jr, the grandson of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, to design the huge East-West Axis going from the stadium to the train-station.
When thinking about the city as public exhibition space, a space for subversive anti-branding, as well the ownership and future of public art, a surprising clue for meaning comes in the archetypal design philosophy of fascism, the ‘Theory of Ruin Value (Die Ruinenwerttheorie)’. Hitler’s megalomaniacal intention was that the structures would exist for thousands of years, but when they inevitably fell into ruin, he felt they must communicate a sense of the supposed grandeur of the fascist past. Consequently, Speer senior would make two mock-ups of any building he was designing for the Fuhrer – one envisioning how it would look when it was built and the second envisioning how it would look in a thousand years when it was a ruin. Nazi architecture was essential a space for bodies to congregate en masse, they must therefore have been monumental in their size and, uniquely for designs of the modernist period, be of a highly durable nature. In real terms, the Theory of Ruin Value was essentially a manifesto for using special materials and by avoiding certain principles of modern construction such as steel girders and reinforced concrete. It was a way of bringing the outdoor amphitheatres of the Greek and Roman worlds into the 20th century’s obsessive interiority.
At this Summer’s ArtBasel, a number of works explore what happens when you bring the politics of the outdoor inside. Galerie m Bochum’s Lee Ufan speaks through sheets of steel, rocks, and other monolithic materials, of a correspondence between made and unmade. Relatum – Meditation (2006) inspects the ways in which elements relate to each other, their surroundings, and project the themes of confrontation and coexistence. In the Feature section, Parra & Romero presents artist Luis Camnitzer, whose Somebody’s Fragment (1969) features a rock made of granite dust, suspended from a rope inches above a drawing captioned with the words ‘Somebody’s fragment’. It is a teasing statement on the precariousness of subjective experience in the face of the monumentality of urban reality.
Erika Vogt, represented by Overduin and Kite, uses a mimeograph, a low-cost printing press, to reproduce objects and tools of value. Notes On Currency (2012) sums up the mood of this year’s ArtBasel, as she places the measurements of weight and currency next to forms from everyday life and mythology. Through a regularity of form, the viewer is disorientated by the illegibility and interchangeablity of these materials that attribute value.
Without doubt the themes of outdoor art can be bought into the gallery, but what is intended at street art should remain inscribed upon the material and historical trajectory of the surface and surroundings or give up its existence. Arguably, contemporary diversion on public buildings accelerates the rate of ruin by external intervention critiquing their static place in the changing city or appropriating them with the aura and aesthetic appeal of a ruined building. When giddy auctioneers rip a Banksy from an East London wall, they are in fact committing a similar act of diversion on the surface of the city as the work itself – a part of the great tug of war between culture and commerce. With the gavel falls on another section of a city wall, we learn the real price of ruin value.
Renowned street artist Bansky finds his lineage with those that daubed across the decaying shell that was 1970s New York, the urban pride of Hip Hop culture, the militant pedestrianism of the Paris Situationists, and the mournful decoration of the Berlin Wall. All of which situated in periods of societal transformation wherein the people felt their cities had fallen into political or physical ruin.
In response to previous thefts, Banksy set up ‘Pest Control’, an authentication service that strictly refuses to authenticate any work taken from the street. This same service issued a condemnation of a similar Keszler exhibition in New York and consequently none of the pieces sold and were not offered up for sale when they were shown in Miami. While ‘Pest Control’ reported £1.1 million in assets in 2010 for prints alone, the original artworks are ephemeral, site-specific, and explicitly within the public domain.
His studio-produced canvases now go for upwards of $1 million, and his popup exhibitions draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from word of mouth alone.
Reflecting the tastes of the public, ArtBasel’s Parcours section provides a forum for outdoor art, filling the city’s old town with performances, appropriations, and site-specific sculptures. Free and open to the public, Parcours will this year be situated in Basel’s Klingental district. The initiative may be hoping to capitalise both the success of ArtMiami’s Public section, sited within Collins Park, and the recent furore surrounding the removal of outdoor art from its contextual surroundings for sale.
Art Basel Switzerland will take place from the June 13 to June 16, 2013. This year, 304 leading international galleries will present 11 decades of work, ranging from the Modern period of the early 20th century to the most contemporary. The Basel show, whose lead partner is UBS, will present a geographically diverse selection of galleries from 39 countries and territories across five continents.
Galerie m Bochum
Artist: Lee Ufan
Relatum – Meditation, 2006
3 steel plates, stone, in total approx. 180 x 315 x 174 cm, each steel plate: 180 x 130 x 1 cm, stone: approx. 60 x 60 cm
Overduin and Kite
Artist: Erika Vogt
Notes on Currency (cast iron weight), 2012
Laser print on printed paper, 11 x 8 inches
Courtesy the artist and the gallery
Parra & Romero
Artist: Luis Camnitzer
Somebody’s Fragment, 1969
Rock made with granite dust on a metal armature, rope, and written drawing with the caption ‘Somebody’s fragment,’ diameter 140 cm
Courtesy the artist and the gallery