29 May, 2009

Art or worthless junk?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Modern art has become too focused on money, says Josef Valentino – which is why his junk-turned-works of art don’t come with a price tag

A dribble of white paint leaks from the bottom corner of a shop sign in London’s Covent Garden. The lettering looks similar to that of the late-lamented Woolworths; the font is the same, and so is the spacing. The background is exactly the right shade of red. But this one reads “Worthless!”

As I stand looking up, a couple of middle-aged tourists peer into the shopfront, watching as a group of young people inside attack a four-foot picture frame with saws and hammers. Posters tacked to the windows call for “Talented artists, security guards, creatives, cashiers, stockists … AND LOTS OF CUSTOMERS!”

The philosophy behind Worthless is simple. You bring in your ostensibly redundant item, and it’s transformed in some way by a team of artists. Then you buy it back for the amount you think it’s worth. It’s the brainchild of 19-year-old artist Josef Valentino, who conceived the temporary store as a space for artists to engage with the public at street level. Seeing boarded-up Woolworths shops on the high streets as a symbol of Britain’s collapsed economy, and the recession as an opportunity for society to reassess what it values, Valentino convinced the landlords of a disused shop on Endell Street to loan him the space for two weeks and let him convert it into a pop-up art studio.

Though names are still being confirmed, Valentino says that those expressing an interest in taking part include Tracey Emin, Peter Blake, Gavin Turk and Stella Vine. The catch is that buyers won’t know the name of the artist behind the finished product until after they’ve paid. “So we might sell an Emin for a fiver and something by an A-level student for thousands,” says Valentino. “That would be great.”

For me, rummaging around at home for a truly worthless item to bring was an adventure in itself. I’m the kind of person who tries to reuse every elastic band, turns old clothes into cushions and recycles just about everything else. So I was stumped, until I saw one of those scented candles in a glass container on my bathroom windowsill, unrecyclable because of the metal wick-holder barnacled to its base. The wick had snapped. I bundled the wretched object up in a carrier bag and took it to Endell Street.

Just inside the shop door, in the spot you’d expect the pick ‘n’ mix to be, is a series of plastic tanks – but they contain mice, not sweeties. And instead of shiny new products, old objects were filling up the shelves: a plastic pot plant here, a broken Dictaphone there; elsewhere a crumpled cigarette packet and the rather lovely picture frame I saw being attacked earlier. “The TV presenter Nicky Hamilton-Jones brought it,” says one of the assistants, who has been helping Goldsmiths graduate Ruth Waterfall-Brown dismantle the thing. “Part of what’s interesting about this project is that people are going to have very different ideas of what’s worthless,” says another assistant. Companies, too, have sent in items: there’s a trainer from Nike and a Flymo from Homebase.

I nip around the corner for a slice of quiche with Valentino. He dropped out of sixth form last year to establish an art collective called Pollocks. It’s described in his press release as “born out of the ferocity of youth – a desire to run before one can crawl … a dynamic fusion of art, music and life”. He used Facebook to sweet-talk Marc Quinn and Annie Lennox into contributing to the collective’s first show, and says he’s passionate about breaking down the barriers that separate the art world from the rest of us. That the public debate about modern art is focused on money annoys him. How many diamonds in that Damien Hirst? How much did taxpayers shell out for that massive motorway sculpture?

While the world is accusing its money-managers of recklessness, Valentino stresses the importance of artistic responsibility. “I’m keen for the artists to transform items to their full potential,” he says. “Creative people have a responsibility to look at things differently and inspire others. I’ve been working hard to encourage them to stretch themselves.” Take the example of an easyJet ticket stub they were given recently. “It maybe seems a little dull,” he concedes, “but then when you look at it you see the journey from Berlin to London, the time of the flight … that could inspire something fascinating.”

To ensure there’s a real exchange between artists and donors, the latter fill in a form explaining why they think their item is worthless, and which of their other possessions they value most. They have their photograph taken with the object before and after its transformation. The money they hand over will be split between the artist and the Pollocks collective, with a plan to auction several artworks on behalf of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Valentino has experienced problems with members of the public wanting to get a little too involved in the commissioning process. “A guy brought in his skateboard and wanted a painting on it. I had to explain he may not even get a skateboard back … I mean, we’re turning that picture frame into a poncho.” With that, Valentino wanders back to his shop with my candle in his hand. I wonder what its fate will be.

• Members of the public are invited to bring worthless items to 37 Endell Street, London, WC2 until 29 May 2009. The shop is open 10am to 6pm, Monday to Saturday. The pick of ‘worthless to priceless’ creations will be exhibited in the store from 1–5 June for customers to buy back. A £5 deposit is charged.

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