'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

I’ve noticed lately that my tolerance for what I don’t want far outstrips my capacity to ingest more than a fairly limited quantity of the things I do want. The last thing you want, it seems, is too much of what you want. I suppose the difficulty is that getting what you want unavoidably kills the dream and if, as is almost inevitable, the reality fails to live up to the dream, then you’re left with a rubbish time and a desecrated dream. And then what? I’ve an idea that then one gets oneself another fantasy and makes sure this time to keep the thing at arms length where it belongs. Reality can be profoundly overrated.

And so it is with Michael Landy’s Art Bin. The publicity shots of Michael Landy actually in a wheely bin are rather more intriguing than the gigantic Perspex of Peckham installation itself. It should be interesting – failure, particularly in our goal oriented, ego-driven, success-athon society, is certainly a subject worthy of investigation. But it just isn’t particularly.

Firstly it’s too damn big. And it’s too ugly in a dull corporate everyman not quite ugly enough kind of a way. And too literal. “A monument to creative failure,” Landy calls it. Questions too obvious to list waddle about the outskirts of the space trying to look edgy and “on message”, ie anti-establishment (yawn)… but end up resembling your middle-aged IT guy imagining himself hip in a pair of combats nobody outside the 90s would be seen dead in. Who cares that there’ll be a Damien Hirst diamond skull print on its way to the land fill in a few months time? …ditto Emin, ditto Opie… and a whole load of other stuff that didn’t turn out quite as its less well-known creators intended? All those things would have been on their way to the landfill in a couple of months anyway. Now they’re going there in convoy. So what?

But would they have been going there anyway? In our celebrity obsessed age, it’s not inconceivable that some lesser known artists will be choosing the works they consider to be their most successful for consignment to the rubbish bin, rather than the pieces they consider to have failed, so that their one and only opportunity to show in the South London Gallery alongside Michael Landy, Alison Wilding, Gary Hume etc. - albeit accompanied by the unenviable indignity of being hurled into a dustbin - won’t have to involve the further shame making revelation of work they’re not happy with.

This hint of the Hyacinth Bucket meets Katie Price approach to life is the fault line along which the bin thing, possibly inadvertently, begins to hot up. How far will artists go for fame and notoriety? How far will any of us go? Will we happily destroy the best of ourselves in order to hitch a ride on the back of someone else’s bandwagon just to secure our fifteen minutes? Of course we will. And what does that say about us? To what degree have we lost touch with any sense of integrity? Have we become a bunch of complete phoneys chasing ignorantly after the empty chalice of success? Are we at the bottom of the barrel and still digging? As my favourite anti-hero and quintessential twentieth century failure Holden Caulfield might have said: it’s pretty depressing in actual fact.

That aside I’d probably have found the Art Bin to be a bit more engaging if it had hinted at the pleasure to be found in failure; the possibilities that exist in the gap between intention and realisation; the unknown, unmapped space in which innovation and growth are spawned. Even without the possibility of greatness emerging as the fog of failure clears, there’s an apparently perverse pleasure to be found there and a very real existential solace to be gleaned from the embracing of it.

It’s this joy of failure, wherein the more widely accepted understandings of the term oscillate to a dizzying degree, that Roman Signer flaunts with wit and simplicity in works such as Bottleneck (2000) for which a car was driven down a narrowing concrete tunnel and didn't stop when there was nowhere else to go. Bottleneck engages with the wilfulness of our relationship to failure, the fun to be had there and the lessons to be learned from the sometimes painfully destructive experiences that lead eventually to greater insight and compassion.

But maybe I’m being harsh on the bin. Maybe it’ll have more energy to it in a few weeks time when it’s begun to fill up. Maybe with so many thousands of indistinguishable works all squashing down on top of each other morphing into one giant body of rubbish, a creative buzz might begin to stir.

Or perhaps all along I should have stayed at home and imagined the bin, dreamt of how good it might have been if only I’d been able to get over there, if only, if only… rather than facing up to its (and life’s) short comings with quite so brutal an immediacy. Sad to say, oftentimes the image is better than the reality. And maybe the Art Bin is just one of those times. But even that is not so unfortunate, for were Landy to have created the perfect work of art there’d be no need for him to undertake another, which would certainly obfuscate his career as an artist and probably his entire raisonne d’etre.

So success isn’t all its cracked up to be. In fact success is potentially a pretty terrifying place. Which I suppose is exactly the point Landy is making. As Gertrude Stein said: “A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.”

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