A framed canvas version of Girl with Balloon by Banksy, the pseudonymous street artist whose true identity remains unknown despite the best efforts of researchers and journalists alike, just sold at London auction house Sotheby’s for at least $1.1 million. At pretty much the exact moment the work was sold, a hidden device in the work’s frame activated, apparently sucking a little over a third of the print through a shredder mounted in the bottom.
Video of the incident posted to Banksy’s Instagram account alongside the quote “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” show that the frame of the painting does not appear to have any wires attached. TechCrunch noted that the art in question was listed as being given to the owner by Banksy in 2006, meaning that the internal components as well as a charged battery inside either lasted 12 years—seemingly unlikely—or the device was primed prior to the sale by someone working on behalf of the artist. In either case, it seems likely an individual in attendance hit a remote trigger as soon as the auction closed.
According to Bloomberg, this all certainly resulted in a typically Banksian reaction:
Cue footage of amazement and outrage.
Sotheby’s said it’s discussing what do next with the anonymous buyer, who was bidding by phone. The U.K.’s Press Association suggested that Banksy might even have been involved in the bidding process, while some observers posited the idea that whole event wasn’t quite as unexpected as Sotheby’s made out.
At a briefing immediately after the sale, the auction house tried to explain the incident.
“We’ve just been Banksy’ed,” said Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s European head of contemporary art.
It is obviously entirely possible that the shredded piece is now worth more, given that it was the linchpin of a high-profile art prank. It’s also unclear whether the print was in fact shredded or whether a secondary print was rolled up inside, and the whole thing is a parlor trick.
This could be could be construed as commentary, a twist on Banksy’s well-publicized distaste for the rich people buying and selling his art at grotesque prices like he’s Jeff Koons or something. Or it could interpreted as rubbish, selling fundamentally lazy and internally inconsistent “gotchas” about cultural capitalism back to the ultra-wealthy architects of it as monuments to themselves. As the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker put it in 2006:
Take his political stuff. One featured that Vietnamese girl who had her clothes napalmed off. Ho-hum, a familiar image, you think. I’ll just be on my way to my 9 to 5 desk job, mindless drone that I am. Then, with an astonished lurch, you notice sly, subversive genius Banksy has stencilled Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side of her.
Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America ... um ... war ... er ... Disney ... and stuff. Wow. In an instant, your worldview changes forever. Your eyes are opened. Staggering away, mind blown, you flick v-signs at a Burger King on the way home. Nice one Banksy! You’ve shown us the truth, yeah?
“Banksy is just basically hilarious to me,” Cullen Crawford, a comedy writer who ran the (seemingly now-defunct) Twitter account @LazyBanksy, told the Daily Dot in 2012. “He’s like if an overwrought editorial cartoon went to college at Urban Outfitters.”
As opposed to prior supposedly biting critiques Banksy has made of the art world like a print titled I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit, this one is at least a good punchline regardless of what one thinks of the underlying message.
As one Twitter user noted, another work that had a bit more to say about the concept of destruction was artist Chris Burden’s 1988 exhibition of Samson, which consisted of a 100-ton jack pressed against supporting walls at the Newport Harbor Art Museum and tied to a turnstile such that (in theory, if not in practice) if enough visitors attended the building would collapse. Fire officials later had the piece removed as a safety hazard.
Correction: A prior version of this article misspelled the pseudonym of the artist known as Banksy, whose true identity is currently unknown but is probably not just one letter off from “Banksy.” We regret the error.