Banksy’s most well-known work, “Girl with Balloon,” sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s on Friday, October 5th. Minutes after the pounding gavel confirmed the sale, alarms sounded and a wave of exclamation went through the auction house. Banksy’s painting had shredded itself.
The following day, Banksy posted a video on Instagram showing the mechanisms behind the painting’s self-destruction. The video starts with the text, “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” continuing, “in case it was ever put up for auction….” The causal relationship of destruction occurring only after the piece’s sale sends an anti-capitalist message against the purchasing of art. Banksy is a graffiti artist; the goal of his art has always been accessibility to the public — murals on walls ready for passerby to admire or deface.
“Girl with Balloon,” sometimes known as “Balloon Girl,” is perhaps one of the most famous artworks of all time. Like Banksy himself, “Girl With Balloon” is faceless, showing plainly the black silhouette of a girl reaching out to a red heart-shaped balloon. The enigmatic artist tends to refer to his subjects only in the barest descriptions, with names like “The Drinker,” “Umbrella Girl,” “Mobile Lovers.” Banksy’s success comes partly from the universal applicability of these murals: free from intellectual pretension and easy to understand, his pieces use clean stenciled lines and limited color to outline clear ideas. The version of “Girl and Balloon” sold at Sotheby’s feels deeply ironic, its simplicity contrasting dramatically with its extravagant frame, which places his usually accessible art under the parameters of the wealth and exclusivity at an auction.
Banksy often plays with the contrasts between the innocence of children and the violence of their surrounding world, pointing out political or social issues. The first version of “Girl with Balloon” was a mural created in 2002, with the words “There is always hope” written nearby. This hope, written or implied, is usually present in the different versions of “Girl with Balloon,” Yet one notable variation of the work, “Balloon Debate,” painted on the West Bank, depicts a young girl being lifted over the separation wall between Israel and Palestine by a number of black balloons, which replace the hopeful red balloon, just as the innocent child is placed in a dark situation. Similarly, “Bomb Hugger” shows a girl hugging a bomb close to her; “Child Soldier” paints a little boy holding a gun the size of him, “Slave Labour,” depicts a child in a sweatshop, “Cash Machine Girl,” shows an ATM’s mechanic arm reaching out to grab a girl. These themes of violence and anti-commercialism anticipate his decision to shred “Girl with a Balloon” at the Sotheby’s auction. Banksy’s public art is not meant for sale; in an Instagram post from August 15, he writes, “I don’t charge people to see my art.” His distrust of the capitalist system, seen especially in “Cash Machine Girl” and other works, is even reflected by his name. Banksy is most often thought to be a man named Robin Gunningham, a name which, combined with “Banksy,” creates a modern-day Robin Hood image: “Robbin(g) Banks(y).”
In typical Banksy fashion, many details and circumstances of the shredding remain a mystery. According to The New York Times, Sotheby’s claimed to not know anything about Banksy’s intentions. The Times, however, points out that the frame of “Girl with Balloon” would have been clearly heavier than expected with the shredding mechanisms inside. Additionally, the unnamed man who activated the destruction was able to make his way past security with this technology. Sotheby’s also chose to hang the piece up on a wall, an atypical placement for a smaller work like this one. Furthermore, “Girl with Balloon” was saved for last, which could have been to prevent the resulting uproar and confusion from affecting the other following sellers. Finally, the anonymous woman who bought the painting for a record sum has decided to continue with the sale, as the piece may have even increased in value. Critics claim that the increase of the work’s value after its destruction actually reduces Banksy’s allegedly anti-capitalist act to just a publicity stunt. Still, all of these decisions could have revolved simply around the popularity of the piece.
Banksy’s Instagram video from October 6th shows him creating the mechanism that allegedly shredded the artwork. Many, however, commented that the logistics of the device doesn’t add up. It seems like Banksy used sharp knives rather than a simple shredding device and placed the knives at the wrong angle to be shredded. The age of the artwork and its destruction mechanisms also calls the truthfulness of the shredding into question. The text of the video states that the frame was put together a few years ago, so the batteries would be unlikely to survive that long. In response, Banksy posted another video to YouTube to authenticate his original, anti-capitalist intentions by filming the genuine shock from Sotheby’s auctioneers and claiming that the shredder malfunctioned, stopping short of fully destroying the artwork. Even this new video has some issues, however, including an ungloved man using a soldering iron without getting serious burns. In all, the video seems manufactured, with dramatic edits like shots of wealthy auction-goers indulging in food and drink and a cut to the pressing of the button that set off the machine. This doesn’t necessarily entail that the shredding was fake and that Sotheby’s was in on the equation; it would also have been very easy for Banksy to not respond and leavehis process a mystery. Instead, he purposefully reveals parts of his production, even including tiny mistakes, like intentional sleights of hand in a magician’s larger performance.
Through Instagram and YouTube, Banksy speaks out to his true audience: the general public. As of the time of this article, the Instagram video from October 6 has over 13 million views, captioned with a quote attributed to Picasso, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” The creativity found in the very process of destruction relates to the name of the Youtube video he posted, “Shredding the Girl and Balloon — The Director’s half cut.” “Half cut” is both a pun on the British slang “half-cut,” meaning drunk, and the fact that the piece was only shredded halfway. The most interesting parts of the title, however, come from Banksy’s new role as “The Director,” and how the video itself was a “cut” like a film. Banksy even describes his past experiments with the mechanisms as “rehearsals,” making both the act of destruction and its recording into an artistic production.
The performative shredding of “Girl and Balloon” is a piece of art in itself. Although Banksy suggested through his videos that the painting was meant to be completely destroyed, the half-shredded remainder has unexpected yet tantalizing implications. The shredded “Girl and Balloon” beheads the titular girl and cuts off her outstretched arm by obscuring her under the ornate frame, leaving only the strips of her lower body below and the red heart-shaped balloon intact above. Banksy has renamed the piece “Love is in the Bin,” as it is effectively a new artwork. Just like the the shredded girl, the artist is obscured by the selling of art, which reduces the message of love and hope the piece has carried through the world to mere strips in a proverbial garbage. Even if the destruction was false and Sotheby’s was aware of what was going to happen, the work still can be seen as a performance questioning the very meaning of art itself.
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