It didn’t look much like art to me

September 1, 2009

Interesting things can occur when waste enters the sanctity of a gallery space.  On 17th October 2001 a cleaner at London’s Eyestorm Gallery arrived at work to discover a terrible mess; piles of rubbish strewn across the gallery floor, a filthy mixture of packets and wrappers, rags and fags. Assuming this to be the remains of a raucous private party, Emmanuel Asare gets to work, clearing away the cigarette ends, newspapers and old coffee cups. Little did Mr Asare know that he had inadvertently cleared away an installation by Damien Hirst. “I didn’t think for a second that it was a work of art”, Mr Asare told journalists, “it didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it.”  Familiar headlines followed, claiming that modern art was a load of rubbish and labelling Hirst a swindler of rich fools. Not wishing to lose their credibility with Hirst, who, incidentally, thought the episode “fantastic. Very funny”, Eyestorm recovered the bin bags and reconstructed the work from photographs.  The work was pieced back together and reintroduced to the exhibition space. The retrieval of the piece from the gallery’s bins merely compounds the enigmatic sequence that Untitled (2001) has passed through, repeatedly shuttled from the categories of ‘waste’ to ‘art’ and back again. Each transformation is by no means absolute; indeed, the easy movement between waste and art seems to highlight the arbitrariness of each category and the brittle divisions that separate them.

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