by Rachael Disbury
In 2012, Gagosian – global heavyweight of the art world industry – announced the exhibition of 300 Damien Hirst spot paintings across its sprawling international network of galleries. The Complete Spot Paintings 1986 – 2011 fulfilled a lifelong ambition of Hirst to show the full collection, which aims to create structure, colour and… nothing else, conjuring the phenomena that they were painted by machine. In practice, the hands of Hirst’s assistants created the spot paintings exhibited across the eleven galleries, in eight cities worldwide, for this Gagosian sprawl.
Hirst issued a challenge to the art world – travel to the 11 Gagosian Galleries exhibiting the spot paintings and receive the award of an original spot print, made by his assistants, and signed by Hirst himself. Helena Doyle and Eduardo Cassina – two underemployed artists – are two of the 128 individuals who completed Hirst’s challenge. Their journey is depicted in 72 Trees, a film that charmingly mentions Hirst very little – referring mostly to ‘the richest living artist, while the paintings themselves receive no attention.
Instead, Doyle and Cassina – emptying their bank accounts, calling in favours from an international network of artist friends, gambling funds in anticipation of the promised pay-out of an original Hirst – build an absurd journey around the often insidious relationship between artist and market, and the socio-political climates of the urban locations to which they travel. In doing so, they grapple with the privilege that allows them to undertake such a whirlwind tour encompassing London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Athens, Paris, Geneva and Rome.
72 Trees moves between white cube pristinities and the urban realities of the cities the artists encounter, gradually intertwining the tensions that define each. Early on, the artists reflect on methods of the Guerrilla Girls to expose gender and racial bias within the art world and consider a ‘report card’ for the Gagosian, noting that in the last two years 90% of artists exhibited across the three New York franchises have been white men. Soon after, in Athens, Doyle and Cassina find themselves embroiled in anti-austerity street protests. Following scenes of tear gas and police brutality, the artists question whether their project is participating in the very things it aims to challenge. In the aftermath, they spot a graffito: fire to the society of spectacle.
In undertaking a challenge whose terms are set by a global powerhouse and the world’s richest living artist – in generating his prints as currency, Hirst is a central bank in this challenge – Doyle and Cassina embark upon a constant dialogue, around their own role within a system they would rather expose than endorse, and around systems of value and the artification of objects. (In one scene, we see the artists briefly scrutinise a fire extinguisher in one of the Gagosian Galleries: a rare non-art object in any white cube gallery.) Through interviews with artists, gallerists and collectors, the filmmakers question the contradictions of a practice that participates in the systemic production of economic oppression.
Doyle and Cassina deal with their own involvement in this system by offsetting their carbon emissions, and indeed through making the film and posing challenging dialogues. Such actions and awareness are admirable considering that artists are often – though not in the case of Hirst – small players in the art game. It is the self-confessed unsteady existences and precarious circumstances of artists that allow Doyle and Cassina the time to accept such a challenge. One wonders if the journeys of the other 126 individuals to complete Hirst’s challenge were so searching.
Helena Doyle, Eduardo Cassina – 34’48 – United Kingdom
Given the film’s premise, Damien Hirst is mentioned surprisingly little and the spot paintings themselves receive little attention. Could you say a bit more about this decision?
Eduardo Cassina (EC): This is a film about us, about the system that is now collapsing in front of our very eyes, about the insanity of real estate and art markets, and about the (in)visible hand that moves these markets. It is not really about Damien Hirst.
We have not sent him a copy of this movie yet, but we are sure that he would commend us on our initiative. He is a hustler. And a great collector.
Helena Doyle (HD): By participating in the Spot Challenge we were essentially part of a marketing campaign for Hirst. Since he was already the richest living artist, we didn’t want to give him more airtime. It was also a feeble attempt at trying to do the challenge on our own terms but he was like an ever-present demigod and we had many discussions about his work. We had issues with his use of animals and human remains in his art but in the end it wasn’t about him. We chose to focus on the theme of markets and Hirst takes on the role of an archetype, the white, male artist player in the art market game.
The dot paintings were essentially one worldwide exhibition spread across 11 galleries. Since we had so little time in each city it seemed silly to dedicate any amount of time to looking at the same thing and so in the film we use the dots and galleries as a check point, get your stamp, pass, go, and now you’re free to explore a new city!
Usually the art changes and the gallery stays the same, but in this case it was the opposite, the dots were the same and the galleries around them changed. We became more aware of the size, style and dynamic of the galleries as well as their positioning in the city.
The film portrays your self-searching grapple with privilege. Could you say a little more about what considerations you took into play at the outset, and how these changed during the project itself?
EC: The discussion around privilege is complex, mostly because we find that it is often flattened into what you represent, what you are, rather than what you do. From the very beginning we understood this premise – i.e. the Spot Challenge – as something that was only accessible to those with a lot of a certain sort of privilege, such as the right passport – very few nationalities could have done what we did, at least with the budget we did it with; accessibility and schedule – being freelancers and students we were lucky to be able to take 12 days off; finance – whereas we were broke at the time, we did have friends and family from whom we could borrow the £1400 that we spent on the trip; etc.
Surely, we weren’t very privileged when the different gentrification schemes and developers in South London literally pushed us out by dramatically increasing the rent. But then again, we had access to selling the print – although, we don’t go much into this in the film, but getting the print into the auction house was not as easy as we initially thought – as well as to the information, the knowledge of how much property cost in Athens. Then again, we also bought abandoned apartments, like many are in central Athens, in neighborhoods that many of our Athenian friends – or even real estate agents! – advised us against going to. But I love it here.
There is no denial that we are privileged, and that we have hundreds of things to be absolutely thankful for. Like there is no denial that this is a ridiculous quest. But perhaps, by engaging a bit in both – the fact that it is ridiculous and we are very privileged – we could almost see how grotesque, but also how fun, it was. How we can go around the world in ten days, and get a print that we can sell and trade for an apartment.
HD: The Spot Challenge itself was very much about privilege and the first person to complete it did it in a private jet. At the time I didn’t consider myself privileged, I saw myself as a struggling artist, trying to find a way to make money while having enough time to make stuff and gaming the system by living in my art studio on the cheap. At the time my main job was editing montages for Greek Cypriot wedding videos so I was ‘lucky’ to be able to take my work with me, even though it didn’t seem like a privilege at the time it was part of a combination of privileges that allowed us to do the trip.
But privilege can be present in so many ways: nationality, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, gene makeup, ability and I suppose it’s relative to where we are in the world. We’re very quick to compare ourselves to people around us who we think are more privileged, but in this moment in time it’s never been so apparent that we are part of a global village and we need to check our privileges accordingly. I became hyper aware of my white privilege viewing flats in Athens. I encountered a few estate agents who would tell me I didn’t want to view this or that flat because there were a lot of immigrants in the area to which I would have to explain that I’m an immigrant and they would say something along the lines of it not being the same.
At one point, you begin to question the legitimacy of your project in light of political upheavals. It feels like an important moment in itself, to step back and question your intentions and impulses, but you do ultimately proceed. This is a particularly ripe moment to discuss the validity and legitimacy of art, isn’t it, with an implicit and explicit pressure on the arts to ‘get us all through it’, either by making their content available or by creating new work…
HD: Witnessing the anti-austerity protests in Athens while participating in the Spot Challenge definitely made me feel like I was on the ‘wrong side’. We more or less went from the Gagosian gallery that was there to serve the wealthy out into the burning city. High-end, luxury shops like Louis Vuitton were targeted so there was a clear anti-capitalist or anti-elitist message, but there was also a rage that consumed cinemas and libraries and looted sports shops. There was much confusion and heaviness but also much dialogue and trying to make sense of things. Our friend Christina summed up the reason for the protests: ‘We hate the city because of this capitalist system so we want to destroy it so see us destroy it.’
Graffiti and street art seemed to represent the crisis in real time. The city’s walls were alive in political slogans, messages of solidarity, poems, quotes, secrets, puns and images all with the aim of speaking truth to power. The graffiti can have a cathartic effect as it reflects certain unspoken realities and sparks conversations. Of course some people may not like it but it’s impermanent by nature and it will change with the times. In Athens it was clear there were a number of artists who were creating well considered work that resonated with people of all ages. Coming back to London, there’s a stark contrast in the graffiti which is mostly void of politics. Perhaps this is a reflection of privilege.
While in Athens we kept asking artists about the role of art in the crisis and the answers were different from what we expected to get. Komas who we interviewed told us that because they were in the middle of a crisis they were still unable to reflect on it, they were just trying to survive. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a global crisis. Since artists are not key workers and art is a non-essential item many artists are out of work and are struggling to survive and asking the same questions. I think we’ve a world of art to draw upon to get us through this lockdown. We may not need art right now, but we need artists, we need them to survive.
EC: Arriving in Athens at the time we did, just before a major protest against the Troika and the cuts, was decisive for us. Indeed, our project does not matter – at all – in comparison to what was happening in Greece at the time. I don’t think that us stopping at that point would have helped us, or the situation of the Greek people. I guess the only way this project can be legitimised is if we accept validators from the market, i.e. it is a legitimate way to ‘trick’ the system.
Could you say a bit about the tension between existing within a system as an artist and contributing to that system’s values, its modes and forms of power and oppression?
EC: As artists, we love to see ourselves separated from the systems that continuously demean us and oppress us – or others. We love to think that we are somehow in a different multiverse. But in fact, we are very much at the service of that system. We talked a lot to Georgia Sagris about this particular topic. It was the aftermath of the Occupy movement and a lot of the world was still in the middle of a financial crisis. There were existing tensions everywhere, but the ones that surprised me the most were the banality of this challenge that has a relatively large ecological footprint and the impact it has had on my life by giving me a certain form of stability allowing me to buy property.
HD: The international art market is no doubt part of that capitalist system. There’s a joke that the art market is as unregulated as the drugs market. The art market can help you avoid tax or launder money, hidden in plain sight and all dressed up as culture. The real winners in this documentary are the auction houses who made 50% of the sale of my print by charging fees from both the buyer and myself. It’s interesting because the auctions are mostly open to the public, anyone can go in and see hundreds of works being sold in an evening and they’re happening all the time. The majority of the works being sold are by dead artists because it all comes back to supply and demand, which means that a very small percentage of all this money that is changing hands is actually going into the pockets of living artists.
I think it was admirable that Hirst decided he wouldn’t be a poor artist, that he would make money from his art, but it seems like this became the main purpose behind his art and he endorsed this system. If the system were regulated, taxes could be charged on these transactions and those funds could then be given to arts councils to give to living artists. It would also help if collectors would replace their obsession with having the rarest, most expensive objects with collecting the works of living artists. But unfortunately, there’s a level of the international art market that doesn’t care about the art, it’s about investment, commodity and return and being a ‘living artist’ doesn’t appeal to it.
You made the decision to offset carbon emissions – all that plane travel – by planting the 72 trees that the title alludes to. But the film itself is also a kind of offsetting: an action in itself that has allowed you to come to terms with the thoughts and findings you encountered during the period depicted. How did your decision to make a film impact your undertaking of the challenge? How might it have been different had you not distilled the experience into a film?
HD: When Eduardo told me about the challenge, I said I’d do it if we made a documentary about it. I don’t think I would have done it otherwise. It was a way of justifying it. Eduardo also documented the trip in a blog as we went called Look See Spots [readable here]. Since we only had two weeks from the moment we decided to do the challenge we hadn’t much time to plan the documentary but before we left we went to visit a filmmaker friend of ours, Treasa O’Brien, to pitch the idea and ask her advice. Treasa asked us, ‘Do you want to make a hipster film or a political film?’ I think we answered political, but we kind of knew that it wasn’t going to be that straightforward! The question stuck with us and would come up at times on the journey and in the end I think we made both a hipster and a political film.
We returned to London after a hectic 12-day trip around the world, totally broke, with 20 hours of footage. In many ways the project was a struggle. The trip was the fun bit and then the work began. The word distil very aptly describes our process. It was like a block of marble that we were chipping away at trying to find its essence. There were so many conversations, topics and threads we could and did go down many different routes. It felt a bit like Groundhog Day, constantly reliving those 12 days. After more trips to Athens, eventually the plan revealed itself and we had the end of our story. Making the documentary gave our trip purpose, a lens to view the experience through and we learned so much from it. We never could have guessed at the outset how much that trip would change our lives. We didn’t know each other so well before the trip and by the end we had a beautiful friendship which has only strengthened over the years by working on this project together. Although at first it seems abstract, the title 72 Trees cuts to the core of what underlines much of the issues we are facing today.
EC: In many ways, this film has also been witnessing the formation of our friendship. Helena and I met many years ago at an art camp in Singapore. We didn’t talk much, but some years later we ran into each other at a bakery in London, where we discovered we were neighbours. The second time we were hanging out I told Helena about the challenge, who immediately jumped on the idea and suggested we make a video out of it. For the next seven years, we would talk regularly, and meet every few months wherever we happened to be at that time to edit the film. The excuse of finishing this work was our Penelope’s shroud. Until we finally finished it. We are now neighbours again, this time in Athens. In that way, this decision – that of documenting our journey and feelings – has been the most important of all, as it brought us together.