At an opening in Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Contemporary Art, the viewer is invited to consider the aesthetic potential of rubbish. The champagne is Taittinger and they play Edvard Grieg, while the well-groomed and well-attired attendees engage in calm conversation around the centrepiece of the exhibition: a ten-foot synthetic phallus, cast in dump leavings and sculpted to extraordinary vascular detail. On the floor there are works made from cat fur, dead flowers, last year’s newspapers, pear-can wrappers and splintered, Estonian tiger-engraved tea chests. For the artist (the program reads), the dump is full of images.
The concept is not new, having originated in 1960s Italy with the Art Povera movement, in which artists rejected the dominant artistic mediums and celebrated waste as a constructive material. The collective was wildly progressive, promoting a revolutionary mode of creativity free from both the governmental power structure and the insidious capitalist art market. Works by some of its members, notably Michelangelo Pistoletto, Pier Paolo and Mario Merz, sit in prestigious galleries around the world. Very few pieces are worth less than six figures.
The Astrup Fearnley gallery paid more than £450,000 for Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided) in 1996. It is among the most well-known of contemporary sculptures, and sits in the immense gallery across from the rubbish-themed exhibition I attended. A floor below, there is a gift store which contains a rack of official Damien Hirst trademarked, white cotton t-shirts, featuring printed representations of his various works, Mother and Child included. They cost £30 each, go up to XXXL, and are apparently very good sellers.
In 2001, Hirst’s work The Dead Ones (priced over six figures, but not quite as much as Mother and Child) was mistaken for rubbish and swept up by a janitor in a Mayfair Gallery. Hirst was apparently not bothered, and the janitor kept his job. Twelve years later, he created a series of limited edition souvenir artworks to celebrate his first solo exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley, which gallery goers could purchase for £450. They were a series of pedaled rubbish bins, marketed in collaboration with the ‘vipp’ brand. The bins were stark white and printed with his iconic coloured dot design.
Many high profile critics have dismissed Hirst as uninspired and talentless. It’s easy to understand why, but also difficult not to feel like it’s a joke ‘why’ when the artist is doing so well selling and exhibiting white trash, prints of trash on white, and white trash cans.
None of his works were included in this opening, which might be considered a missed opportunity. With regard to the art that was featured, most people I spoke to agree the concept felt tired. The ‘playful irony’ of assembling works of art from rubbish has been well and truly done. The shock value of works like Manzoni’s Artist’s Faeces relies on there being an established high-class/low-class separation in the art world which the artist can then disrupt. Once galleries have begun to accept any level of art, the theoretical ‘edginess’ of non-traditional work is weakened significantly.
Words by Harry Sanderson
The World Is Made Of Stories runs at the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo until July 31.