Michael Landy

Michael Landy decided to construct a giant container in which to throw London’s unwanted artworks. The first question was: How big should it be? The answer here was: colossal—some forty feet long by thirty-three feet wide and about two stories high. Evidently, Landy had high expectations; however, with hundreds of doomed artworks barely covering the container’s floor (the heap not much more than three feet at its deepest) by exhibition’s end, Landy’s Art Bin, 2010, became an unexpected tribute to how highly this city values its artworks—not quite the “monument to creative failure” that Landy envisaged. To include work in the Art Bin, you needed to confirm in writing that the work was your own or that you had obtained the artist’s permission to dump it, and to accept that at exhibition’s end the gallery would dispose of everything accumulated, recycling all it could. Accepted entries were tossed into Landy’s immense metal construction either by an art handler wearing white gloves or by the artist himself. Only these two were permitted to ascend the metal staircase at the far end of the bin and, sometimes performing a ceremonial farewell, chuck the sculpture, photograph, painting, or mass of paper cups partially filled with colored paint (courtesy of Gary Hume) into the slowly filling container. Thanks to Landy, studios were cleared, garages emptied; artworks ignored in the attic sank down into the depths of Art Bin as if into a mass grave. Perhaps it was just another group exhibition, one providing a truly democratic opportunity to exhibit alongside such noted colleagues as Michael Craig-Martin or Cornelia Parker. In this collective work, all artistic media—including performance and architecture—were sedimented, resulting in a kind of ready-made landscape. Dramatically set under a vast ceiling of natural light, the work almost seemed some heavenly art offering, with hundreds of artists pitching in to help Landy fill his immense, Oldenburgian shopping basket.

Like earlier works by Landy, particularly Breakdown, 2001, in which he inventoried and destroyed all his possessions, Art Bin addressed notions of fragility, waste, the burden of materiality—but also the compulsion to itemize all that is lost. A full list of participating artists was compiled, rendering these abandoned things oddly precious and attentionworthy, commemorating a fleeting hope in the listed artists’ past, just before vanishing forever. Despite transforming the gallery into a vast landfill, Art Bin hardly knocks the institution; one can only marvel at the gallery’s collaboration and generosity in elaborately portraying contemporary art as so much garbage. Works in which the historical avant-gardes declared the end of art (readymades, monochromes) were typically minimal, almost invisible gestures; twenty-first-century anti-artworks like Art Bin—or even Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s spectacular TH.2058, 2008, whose two hundred metal bunk beds envisioned a future, art-free Tate Modern reduced to barracks—can be massive, materially imposing things.

Not everything submitted to Art Bin was accepted: no children’s art, no purposefully built disasters. One artist reportedly cleared out her studio and delivered its entire contents to the gallery, leaving Landy to separate an unfinished sculpture (in the bin) from random junk (a broken coffeemaker or some scraps of wood, for instance), causing Landy repeatedly to ponder, “Yes, but is it rubbish?”

Gilda Williams