Any, any, any old irony

Scrap metal, old car tyres, even vacuum-cleaner fluff, are seen as the stuff of fine art on the Continent and in the States. But the British are still resistant. John Windsor reports
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The Independent Culture
NA disused wooden goose shack belonging to Jamie Anley's grandmother in Ashford, Kent, is a stack of 50 stainless steel perforated drums designed for washing machines. They are junk, rejects from the Zanussi company's factory in Venice, that have crossed the continent and channel in a container lorry.

A human chain of uncles and cousins hauls them out, washes off the grease with hoses, then loads a dozen into a hired van which is driven in darkness to a council flat near Euston station. After some hammering, drilling and polishing, the drums emerge as glistening contemporary furniture. RoboStackers, four drums tall, cost pounds 350 and Tabourets Lumineux, one-drum stools with a light bulb inside, pounds 150.

Such is the twilight world of junk art. Refurbished drums made by JAM - Jamie and two fellow artist-designers, all in their twenties - were snapped up by the Guggenheim Museum shop when the trio took a stand at the New York Furniture Fair last month. Others will be on offer in London in September, at Bonhams' sale of Decorative Arts Today.

Will the British learn to love junk art? Decorative junk art - that is, applied art such as furniture - is about all we are prepared to tolerate, so far. At least it's useful. And commercial. "We can bring brand equity to existing products," says Mr Anley in his best businesslike manner. Elsewhere - in America, on the continent - junk art is not just decorative. For at least two generations it has been part of the mainstream of fine art.

Modern Brits buy very little fine art, let alone junk art. Even the Belgians put more fine art on their walls than we do. Give us proper junk, instead. Permit us to continue poking, Steptoe-like, around flea markets among the period sanitary ware and trusty old bikes. And refrain from affronting us with the likes of Duchamps' "Fountain" or Picasso's steer with horns. Were they not made by foreigners, just to provoke?

An exaggeration? Then consider that, after 20 years, the Tate Gallery has still not been forgiven for buying the American Carl Andre's pile of bricks. The same spitting outrage provoked by the bricks was vented a couple of years ago by worthy councillors in Edinburgh when they realised they had spent pounds 60,000 of public money on a 100ft "Temple of Tyre" by the Scottish sculptor David Mach - consisting of 8,000 used car tyres.

As a calculated phobic bomb (not its intention) the temple has had no equal. Modern art, as every worthy knows, is effete, produced by foreigners (or worse, Scots resettled in London); but car tyres are macho, the stock- in-trade of muscle-busting breakers' men. Add to this cocktail of cognitive dissonance a joke - the pun on "tyre" - and you have a calculated insult. The Edinburgh councillor who fell into the trap of calling the tyres "junk, not art" must have got up the noses of bona- fide junk hunters everywhere.

At least the proletariat can still be relied on to tell the difference. Newspapers are ever-alert to the plight of office cleaners unfairly scolded for chucking out junk art. Michael Landy's garbage-can installation, zealously removed by night cleaners from Karsten Schubert's London art gallery, was last month's prize disposal. This month, a ball of detritus from a vacuum cleaner dust bag, extracted by the Japanese-German artist Suchan Kinoshita and exhibited in a show called "Stuff" by Jay Jopling, Damien Hirst's gallerist, has been securely taped to the wall.

Meanwhile, continental aesthetes flock to junk-art extravaganzas in the streets. And rich Italians, Germans, Belgians, Americans, even Swiss, attend London auctions to bid six-figure sums for the work of European junk artists whose names are virtually unknown to the British: Burri, Beuys, Schwitters, Klein. This week, Christie's was offering for an estimated pounds 80,000-pounds 120,000 a picture dated 1958 consisting of scuffed white kaolin - the stuff surgeons use to encase broken limbs. The artist was an Italian, Piero Manzoni (d.1963). Name rings a bell? Yes, this was the same outrageous chancer who, decades before last year's bowel movement by Gilbert and George, filled 90 cans with his own excrement and sold them as art - each priced at its weight in gold.

The few Brits who remember Manzoni may execrate him, but on the continent he occupies an important art-historical niche. He was a follower of Alberto Burri (d.1995), an Italian army surgeon who made abstract pictures from gory-looking, neatly sutured sacking, in an attempt to exorcise his traumatic wartime experience. Nothing effete about that, or the prices his work fetches - a European collector paid an astonishing pounds 804,500 for a big Burri sack picture at Sotheby's, London, a year ago. Such prices belie the name given to the junk-art movement that Burri inspired - arte povera.

It was not fringe or underground. It was mainstream fine art, the dominant artistic movement on the continent in the Sixties and early Seventies. At the time, we Brits were being presented with trendy, more easily digested American-inspired pop art, full of familiar, homespun images from the worlds of popular music and advertising.

Which helps to explain why junk art has never been our cup of tea. British art history has no Burri, no Duchamps - whose found objects, over 80 years ago, let loose the mocking, conceptualist genie of Dadaism.

Nor did we spawn a Robert Rauschenberg, whose splattery "combine paintings" in America in the Fifties, using junk ranging from postcards to a stuffed goat, mirrored Dada's subversiveness. It was he who gave the shortest summary of junk art's agenda - to bridge the gap between Art and Life. That is why his works contain bits of life. That is, junk.

The Brits' most explosive encounter with junk art came in 1943 when the Allies, inadvertently complying with Hitler's wish to exterminate "degenerate" art, bombed to smithereens the German Kurt Schwitters' home in Hanover, a junk-jammed Dadaist interior that he called The Cathedral of Erotic Misery. Schwitters, in what must have been a morbid quest for artistic obscurity, had three years earlier fled to Britain, where he spent the last eight years of his life.

The 30ft long section of drystone wall that he collaged with pieces of cartwheel, rope, watering can spouts and twisted metal in the barn at Elterwater, in the Lake District, where he lived and worked, now resides intact in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Germans and Dutch make pilgrimages to it.

I might have been spared contemplation of young continentals' passion for junk-art festivals but for Lennie Lee, a 38-year-old performance artist and neighbour of mine in Hackney. I talked to him the night before he set off for the latest junkfest venue - in Siberia - from which he has not returned.

Last July he was the only Brit among 20 European artists invited to make junk sculpture, installations and paintings at the first two-week, innocuously titled European Congress (Eurocon), held in a cavernous, overcrowded pedestrian subway in - you would never guess - Zurich. Its four bars, 40 punk concerts (at least that's British), five techno-parties and one "orgy" were subsidised by the Swiss government, whose benign, un-gnomelike demeanour dissolved when the artists appeared on early evening television, eating dogfood from cans and claiming that they had been conceived in Nazi breeding camps. A German art critic dubbed their antics "post-industrial Baroque".

The artists had been given permission to scavenge from Zurich's garbage trucks. Their haul of 90 vanloads of junk included scrap metal which, welded together as a wall the size of Schwitters', was lit up and played as a musical instrument. It formed the backdrop to one of the bars. The Russian artists had different ideas, using eight tons of mud to create the Mud Bar, a replica of a Siberian street. The Pussy Bar, a giant, painted structure made from papier-mache, chicken wire and garbage, housed the orgy, at which 50 naked revellers splashed each other with oil and played various musical instruments.

Even Eurocon seems likely to find itself caught up in art history. Its origins were in East Berlin in the summer of 1990, after the wall came down, when a narrow strip of no man's land outside national jurisdiction became a short-lived junk-art paradise. Artists made extravagant assemblages from scrap and painted murals on the derelict buildings in which they squatted.

Proof of the obsessiveness of the European junk art craze is the continuing attempt to immortalise a kitchen table in a room in the Hotel Carcassonne, Paris. It was strewn with 102 bits of rubbish - spent matches, nails, a box of sugar - on October 17, 1961 by the Romanian-born Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri and two artist friends. Spoerri, a New Realist, is known on the continent for his "readymade" artwork of a pair of spectacles fitted with spikes capable of poking the eyes out. The bid for immortality is his book about the strewing of the table, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. In the past 34 years it has run to 10 editions, each fatter than the last because of the trio's ever-expanding, labyrinthine and monumentally banal footnotes.

Last year, following a succession of editions in Germany, France and America, the latest - grown to 239 pages - appeared in Britain. Reviewers ignored it. Sample footnotes: Under item 29, a pin from a FF20 shirt bought from Uniprix, Spoerri records: "insulted by the salesgirl because I didn't know my size, which turned out to be 39." To which he adds, in an edition four years later: "Now I buy size 41." And to which is added by another of the artist trio two years later: "I buy size 43."

Early Sixties versions of Topo appeared under the banner of the anarchic Fluxus collective of American and European Dadaesque anti-art artists, of which Yoko Ono was a leading light. Fluxus "happenings" often ended in destruction and the group once tried to sabotage the American postal service by mailing bricks to traditionalist art institutions. Again, nothing to do with the Brits. Honest.

Spoerri offers a condescending reason why Fluxus has been ignored in England: "Its congeniality (Anglo-Saxons expect artists to suffer for their art), and its apparent simplicity (some people don't want to understand art, it is disconcerting, art should be a serious matter, etc.)" His mother seemed to side with the Anglo-Saxons: the book includes a letter of hers in which she says she is "saddened ... to see that my first-born writes such stupid things".

In Britain today, the spirit of Fluxus's junkophilia is kept alive by a small band of "mail artists" who mail found objects and home-made artistic curiosities around the globe. Their latest venture is ring-pull cans imitating the Heinz baked beans design, filled with the work of ten artists and selling for pounds 10 each. The cans have penetrated several avant-garde London art galleries - and even Dillon's bookshop, probably because their homely pop-art livery is so non-threatening. They are issue four of the monthly magazine Engaged, founded by the 29 year old publisher and performance poet Rachel Steward. The German magazine Max raved about the cans. They will probably sell better in Europe and America than here.

If the British ever learn to love junk art it will be because of a cunning assault on our psychology - junk art sanitised as "recycling". That was the title of this spring's Crafts Council show of applied arts made from waste materials. Craft rather than art. Duchamps must have turned in his grave. There was Joanne Tinker's jewellery made from drink cans and ring pulls (Lucozade earrings pounds 7.50), Lois Walpole's baskets made from drink cartons (pounds 180-pounds 600) and Clare Goddard's handbags made from dried tea bags (pounds 60). Nothing to do with agit-prop; more to do with saving milk bottle tops and keeping idle fingers busy. Waste not, want not: thrifty, Boy- Scoutish and British.

JAM echoes the recycling theme: it is "dedicated to using post-consumer waste". But junk artists who want to be rich are advised to avoid falling into the craft/recycling trap. The Japanese Tomoko Azumi, who graduated from the RCA last year, will be offering folding furniture made from recycled corrugated cardboard at Bonhams at a modest pounds 90 a chair. Comparable corrugated cardboard furniture was sold at Sotheby's New York in March for up to $3,737 for a pair of sidechairs. The maker: Frank Gehry, the celebrated American architect of the striking new American Centre in Paris. The hot bidding was due to the Pugin syndrome - the craze for architect-designed furniture. Gehry is reportedly so shocked that his junk furniture is fetching fine art prices that he has refused to make any more.

! Engaged Issue Four: available for pounds 10, post free from Rachel Steward, 334a Kennington Road, London SE11 4LD. Marcel Duchamp: The Portable Museums, Entwistle Gallery, 6 Cork Street, London W1 (0171-734 6440) to 27 July.