Michael Landy, Art Bin, 29 January – 14 March 2010, South London Gallery, London, UK.

Detractors of contemporary art will have their moment of glory when, on confronting Michael Landy’s new work, they will be finally authorised to state that: “Contemporary art is nothing else than rubbish!”. Deliberately playing with the disdain often concerning contemporary art, Landy has occupied the space of the South London Gallery with a giant steel and glass container (600 cubic metre) which functions as an Art Bin. Artists, collectors and the general public are invited to offer an artwork to be thrown away in the bin (from the top of a five-metre ramp of stairs) and then, once and for all, destroyed at the end of the exhibition, buried like any other kind of ordinary rubbish. 

To take part in the work, everyone can apply online (http://www.art-bin.co.uk/) or go directly to the SLG where Landy, who is working on gallery hours for the whole duration of the show, receives people, look over their artworks and allow or deny their disposal in the bin. The artist proclaims he want to realize a “monument to creative failure”, and this declaration of failure is then the only rule to contend for the ‘bin-competition’. Anyway, it is not clear how the failure is achieved: if it was already an intrinsic quality of the work (and, if not, we should understand when and why the artwork stop being successful) or if it is just a question of subjective and personal taste (both of the owner and Landy). Interrogating the concept of value in art (what it is, who determinates it, how to define a successful artwork), Art Bin sounds like a polemic statement on the ruthless and arbitrary mechanisms of the art system, where merit is not longer sufficient to determine the career of an artist. And this explains the absence of criteria in Landy’ selective process: “I decide what goes in, I am the bin monitor!” he says. It is in honour of the failure of those artists who, for different reasons, are refused or discredited by the art system that Landy want to realize his monument.  

But today can we really think of artists as defenceless victims at the mercy of the market? As D. Diederichsen suggests in On (Surplus) Value in Art (2008), considering the present economic conditions established by financial capitalism, the notion of art as commodity has lost glow. And the only artistic added value is recognizable in the valorization of the artist as an essential factor to guarantee the economic potential of art and, consequently, its survival. For Art Bin, some big names have already responded to the request of donating an artwork: from Peter Blake to Tracy Emin, from Matt Collishaw to Damien Hirst (what a surprise). Some young unknown artists instead, are queuing for their work to be smashed up and their names written next to those of the art-celebrities. The artworks don’ t count anymore here and Art Bin turns into a collective and performative action revealing the triumphal and (alarming) power of the artist as undisputed protagonist of the art system. Although there won’t be anything to sell and buy at the end of the show, Landy’s original intention is equally reversed: while contesting an old system of value, he (unintentionally?) leads up to the creation of a new one.   

For what it counts, the public – generally excluded by all these off-stage secret machinations of the market – is left with the sour consolation to decree that most of the artworks visible in the container really do deserve their place in the Art Bin.

Giada Consoli

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