Chris Carter went to see Girl with Balloon before Banksy pulled his latest trick on an unsuspecting art crowd. But did the stunt backfire?
When I popped down to Sotheby’s on Monday of last week to view the lots before the contemporary art evening sale, nothing seemed amiss. Wandering around the gallery, I saw Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art Pyramid, Jenny Saville’s fleshy self-portrait Propped (see below), a pornographic vase from Grayson Perry, and Afromantics – Chris Ofili’s painting, made using elephant dung, that was leaning against the wall atop two large balls of, yes, elephant dung. The lorry that transported it had become rather fragrant, I was told.
So, artworks from the biggest names in contemporary art since the 1960s to the present day, in other words. Other than the rather grotesque-looking Minerva by John Currin or the resin and rubber figurine of the artist by Maurizio Cattelan, called Mini-Me, everything seemed normal.
What was out of the ordinary, however, was what lay hidden in Banksy’s spray-paint on canvas work, Girl with Balloon (below) – the mural version of which was voted last year as Britain’s favourite artwork. Though it hung among the other paintings as innocently as the symbolic red balloon it depicts flying from the child’s grasp, the famously anonymous Bristolian graffiti artist had installed a surprise. For, within the bulky gold frame, a shredder had been carefully hidden years earlier on the off-chance it went for auction one day.
While the identity of Banksy remains a secret (the internet abounds with theories), his (or her?) distaste for auctions is well known. In 2014, during an exhibition in London of his wall paintings before they went under the hammer, a statement was posted on his website that read, “Banksy would like to make it clear – this show has nothing to do with me and I think it’s disgusting people are allowed to go displaying art on walls without getting permission.”
Well, on Friday, he had his revenge – or did he? Within seconds of the auctioneer bringing down his hammer on Girl with Balloon at £860,000 (£1.04m including fees), the painting slipped down through the blade-embedded frame, leaving the canvas half shredded amid gasps from the audience. “It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s senior director and head of contemporary art in Europe, said. Banksy posted a picture of the tattered million-pound piece online with the caption, “Going, going, gone…” Lucio Fontana, the Italian artist whose slashed monochrome canvases from the 1960s also formed part of the sale, might have argued that he hit upon the idea first – were he alive today.
Initially, correspondents weren’t sure whether Girl with Balloon would be worth more or less after the deed – it had, after all, never happened before. “We have talked with the successful purchaser who was surprised by the story,” Sotheby’s told the Financial Times. “We are in discussion about next steps.” Luckily, for all (if not Banksy), the consensus appears to have come down on more. “[Due to] the media attention this stunt has received, the lucky buyer would see a great return…,” Joe Syer, co-founder of online dealer MyArtBroker told the Guardian. “This is now part of art history in its shredded state and we’d estimate Banksy has added a minimum 50% to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2m-plus.” That’s the thing with contemporary art – it never fails to surprise.
The real star of the show
Banksy’s headline-grabbing intervention obscured what was otherwise the star of the show: Jenny Saville’s Propped. It fetched £9.5m earlier that same evening, smashing its £4m upper estimate and setting a new auction record for a living female artist. “An orgy of painterly excess,” it is “one of the most influential and remarkable paintings by a British artist of the last 30 years”, says Sotheby’s. As the subject of the painting, “Saville inserts herself into the tradition of the female nude, subverting and distorting” male-defined traditions of beauty. “Her pained expression undermines her authority”, a quote from French feminist Luce Irigaray in which she posits that men use women as mirrors, has been gouged across the surface of the painting.
But the quote is inverted and illegible, intended rather for the subject’s consumption than the viewer’s.
The seven-foot-tall piece was first displayed at Saville’s degree show in Edinburgh in 1992. When it appeared on the cover of the Times News Review section that same year, it brought nationwide attention to Saville (and to Charles Saatchi, who endeavoured to snap up every work by Saville he could lay his hands on). Propped was included in the pivotal and provocative exhibition, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1997. Another of Saville’s paintings, Shift, sold for £6.8m at Sotheby’s in 2016.