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15 February 2018 – DIE ZEIT no. 8


These Works are for Free


Even works by renowned contemporary artists are sometimes available for free.

But what value do they actually have if nobody has paid for them?


By Gunnar Lützow


Hallesches Tor, a windswept public transport hub in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, is easily accessible but also a place that most visitors rapidly depart from. The only possible reason to remain would be a quick visit to the local garish superstore, selling bargain basement furniture. Nevertheless, anyone this past November visiting the rather inconspicuous Haus 1, a former Kiosk (and public convenience!) close to the bus station that has been refurbished as an exhibition space, could procure an altogether different kind of bargain. Works by British-born artist Tim Beeby were available in two price categories during his exhibition Unsigned Untitled Undated. Signed and dated works from his uncompromisingly abstract and minimal series Inks could be acquired at their standard market price, but anyone prepared to forgo conventional authentication was able to select a work on canvas from the range of formats on offer and take it away with them free of charge.


The reasoning behind the concept, according to the artist, is that leaving work unsigned, untitled and undated, and making them available free of charge breaches the western cultural convention of signing works of art before they enter commercial or institutional systems. “Even if an unsigned work’s economic or institutional value has been seriously compromised or even completely abrogated, it still retains perhaps its most important value, its aesthetic one, which remains the same as signed canvases,” the artist argues.


These are not merely mind games, but in fact raise important issues. In an overheated era such as ours, where the race for record prices for so-called Siegerkunst (literally triumphal art), as German art historian Wolfgang Ullrich has dubbed it, is being professionally staged for the benefit of the global super-rich who so revere such works, can something even be appreciated as a work of art if it doesn’t have a seven-digit price attached to it? Status-conscious trophy hunters who primarily gain emotional satisfaction from victory over their financially powerful fellow-bidders are unlikely to find pleasure in works of art that cost nothing.


There is nevertheless a wider public and many curators that value art available at no cost, and not only in Berlin, where, in the most recent exhibition at the NGBK Kunstverein, there were two examples of art that could be taken away free of charge. In 1995, renowned curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the artist Christian Boltanski conceived the exhibition Take Me (I’m Yours), which since 2015 has been touring such cities as New York, Paris and, more recently, Milan. At the entrance visitors were given a paper bag, which they could pack with free items from 50 artists. Even today, museums continue to show works in this spirit by the artist Félix González-Torres who died in 1996. They are based on the idea of both the transience of art and the sharing of it. Mountains of candies and piles of posters epitomize such work by him, both of which can be taken away as each is also continuously replenished.


But how exactly should such a phenomenon be categorized, one which seems to have so little to do with the day-to-day business of commercial galleries and the distribution of a range of objects that are generally for sale?


Whilst these are laudable actions that disrupt the hierarchized relation of owners of major art, to owners of more minor art, and non-art owners, the gift also represents an act charged with a powerful significance capable of establishing social bonds. In the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu this creates the “social capital” that forms a fundamental part of a person’s social status. Recent diagnoses of contemporary society refer to the so-called “attention economy,” which is also dependent on minor violations of commercial norms.


In economical terms it can also sometimes be beneficial to pay occasional attention to free art. For example the issue of the poster/magazine co-authored by Raymond Pettibon and Marcel Dzama, part of the “point d'ironie” series published by Agnès B, that were available free of charge from a fashionable art and architecture bookstore in Berlin Mitte, are currently selling on eBay for relatively modest amounts. In contrast, a substantial amount of money would now be needed to acquire an example of Christopher Wool’s 1993 The Show Is Over, originally a take-away poster produced for New York non-profit Printed Matter, from one of the online auction houses such as Paddle 8.

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