Art in Europe,  English,  Scandal of the month

Shelley’s Scandal of the Month – The Curse of the Cleaner

Have you ever wondered just how all those art galleries and exhibitions stay clean?  You probably haven’t, as you turn up to enjoy the displays and then wonder off home.  I imagine it is a mammoth task, with potentially thousands of visitors a week traipsing through space, it can be a real chore, but what happens when the cleaners can’t tell the rubbish from the artworks?

There have been numerous stories which have hit the headlines of cleaners who have been overenthusiastic about their job who accidentally clean away the hard work of an artist, but with the best intentions.

Now, you may feel that really art should stand out as not being easily scrubbed or cleared away, but art is in essential a replication of life, so when the lines blur this can leave those in the know a little bemused by what is what.

As this is the inaugural scandal of the month post, I am going to take you through three examples where art mimicked life to the point of destruction.

“Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art” – Gustav Metzger 2004

This piece was in the Tate Britain gallery in 2004, in an exhibition called “Art and the Sixties”.  The piece was a recreation of Metzger’s original work from 1961.  It shows a bag of rubbish next to a table, displaying a metal sculpture and a sheet of nylon hung which had been splattered with some hydraulic acid.  The artwork was set to display the finite life cycle of art – it is viewed, loved and then disposed off (clearly not in all cases), and was a forerunner in auto-destructive art when the original display was created.

Just before the 2004 exhibition opened, cleaners mistook the bag of “rubbish” next to the table for a real bag of rubbish and placed it in a skip.  When it was realised what had been done, the bag was retrieved from the skip, but it had been too badly damaged to place back.  Unsurprisingly, it was fairly easy for the rubbish bag to be recreated as the contents of the damaged bag were put into another clear waste bag.

The incident was covered up for nearly 2 months before hitting the news, and cynics were less than sympathetic to the swift recreation, feeling it was easy to reproduce the waste paper sack.

What some of the viewers may have missed with this piece is that Auto-destructive art was inherently political; also carrying anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist messages. It addressed society’s unhealthy fascination with destruction, as well as the negative impact of machinery on our existence.

Metzger died in 2017, but his name will stay in the art history books for his bag of rubbish and the over helpful cleaner.

“Fat Corner” – Joseph Beuys – 1982

This piece, you could be forgiven for either overlooking completely or just thinking it is a stain on a wall, which frankly it is.  Beuys had a fascination with fats after being shot down in WW2 in Crimea and claimed he was rescued by Tatar Nomads who covered him in fats and wrapped him in felt.  This led to a lifetime of what is probably up there in some of the most well-known misunderstood art.

“Fat Corner” or “Fettecken” was created in 1982, butter was put into the corner of a room in the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, about 2 meters below the ceiling, which was then left to melt, render and go rancid.  The pattern which it left on the wall looked like a grease stain, which was another of Beuys works.

Beuys died in 1986, and not long after his death, cleaners removed the stain from the wall believing it to be dirt rather than an installation.  The owner of the piece was paid 40,000 DM in damages for the clean-up efforts.

In a turn of events, another part of Beuys installations “Fettecken” was destroyed in 2014 by three artists who took a 4lb chuck of the fats to distil alcohol as part of a performance piece; upsetting Beuys widow Eva, who labelled it “crap and stupid”, and rocking the art world as they used the 30-year-old fat to create their drink then proceed to drink it and offer it to the audience.

I guess not all destroyers are so hooked up on cleanliness.

“When it starts dripping from the ceiling” – Martin Kippenberger

In 2011, a cleaner of the Dortmund museum decided that the small trough under Kippenberger’s wooden slats looked dirty and scrubbed it clean.  The rubber bathtub had actually been coated in a fine beige patina symbolising dried rainwater as though it had been leaking through the wooden slat structure.  The piece had been on loan to the museum, and cleaners had been told to stay at least 20 cm away from the artworks at all times, but it would seem this overzealous cleaner hadn’t got the memo and really wanted to ensure that the museum was spic and span.

 Kippenberger had died in 1997, and the piece was insured for £690,000.  There was no way to replicate the patina which Kippenberger had meticulously worked on, which means that the piece now remains damaged for all time.

Many artists have fallen foul of the cleaning crews, with names such as Damien Hurst losing what was also deemed as rubbish from his exhibition.

In all these pieces, art replicated life so closely that it was hard for the audience (or cleaning crew) to know if this was really a piece of art or just another challenge to get the bleach out for.

No matter how you feel about these pieces, as I know that they can be highly contentious amongst the critics as to their actual artistic content, this is still the destruction of someone’s work, and you know what they say… One mans art is another man’s rubbish…

Come back next month when I will be looking at more scandals that have happened throughout art history and the potential impacts that it had on the art world.

Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.


  • Anony Mole

    In the end, all art will become trash. And, in an ironic twist of fate, perhaps millions of years from now, our trash in landfills may become art for some distant descendants of humanity.

    • Parkstone International

      Well, I think everything will be deleted/ transformed into other things because of the ironic twist of fate, including art and human body. The changing is happening right now, just like every cells, they dies and borns every second. About your second point, I think not sure about it. This might or might not become true but surely I do understand your idea.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap
%d bloggers like this: