Wry Society: The performance artist

When a middle-aged, sofa-surfing artist is offered £1 million to be the subject of an avant-garde artwork, he determines to give it his all…

Image: phildisley.com

Rob Spivey signed his name on the contract with the heavy Montblanc, and the atmosphere in the room lightened. “That’s that, then,” said Darius Troat, shooting his cuffs and reaching to shake the older man’s hand. “Let’s make some art.” And he beamed, wolfishly. That these two men had come together, in the expensively minimalist surrounds of the lawyer’s office, was on the face of it unlikely. Troat was a billionaire at 31 whose name (along with that of his never-seen-in public brother Lucius) adorned the most expensive residential developments in London, New York, Dubai, Moscow and Beijing.

Rob Spivey was a struggling artist in his late 40s – and the struggling was getting to seem a bit less romantic. He had been sofa-surfing after the rent for his Shoreditch flat had nearly doubled. His few sticks of furniture, most of his clothes, his portfolio and his materials – the old easel, the smeared tubes of paint, the DIY box full of blowtorches and metal and old bags of plaster – were in storage. His bank account contained £36.52, his suit was from the Marie Curie shop and his laptop dangled from his shoulders in an old record bag. Answering the ad in Loot – “Artist Wanted” – had been a last throw of the dice. 

The commission was for a video performance piece that the Troats wanted to play on a loop on wall-high plasma screens in the lobby of their flagship new Mayfair development. The premise was simple. The video would show Rob Spivey, in a large bare space, feeding every single one of his possessions – passport, laptop, birth certificate, old work, even the clothes on his back – into a large shredding machine. And once it was all gone – every atom he owned shredded – the Troat twins would buy the performance for a million pounds. 

They had havered around titles. “When You Ain’t Got Nothin’”; “Ad  Nihilo Ex Nihilo”; “I’d Give Everything For Art”. But that could wait. It was the concept that the Troats found so exciting: it was a symbol of what they did. Creative destruction. Creating value out of nothing. Making something worth a million pounds out of the annihilation of something worth, well, a bit less than that. And a week later, in an old aircraft hangar in Barnes, freshly painted in austere white, Rob got down to it. 

As if symbolically, it was the thin handful of notes and jingle of coins – his bank account emptied of cash – that went first. Then the rest. He winced as the laptop cracked and squealed in the teeth of the machine. He gritted his teeth as a series of paintings of his ex-girlfriend were chewed to fluff and rags. He even shed a tear as his photo albums – Mum! – went. The half-eaten Pot Noodle from the fridge. Four hours, it took. A long time – there was a surprising amount of stuff. But then, four hours didn’t seem like all that long at all when it came to the destruction of everything he had to show for nearly half a century. They’d even arranged to print out all his emails and photos from the Cloud, before closing those accounts.

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Finally, there he was: a bare, forked thing, naked as Adam, with no possessions and nothing even to prove that he was Rob Spivey. Troat walked in and surveyed the scene – a great tangled pile of shredded mulch spread across the floor, the naked man, the conveyor belt still calmly running. “Jolly good,” he said. “Jolly good. Marvellous!”

Then: “One last thing.” He opened his briefcase and presented Rob with a piece of paper. It was the contract. “I believe this belongs to you.” Rob looked confused.

“Your copy of the contract,” said Troat. “For the piece. It needs to go in the shredder.” “But,” said Rob.

Troat pointed to a passage on the first page. “It’s quite clear: ‘Every single one of my possessions bar none.’ That includes this contract. We’re not bound to buy the piece until you fulfil its terms.”

“But,” said Rob. And then a series of emotions played on his face, before something inside him seemed to slump. He took the contract, placed it glumly on the conveyor belt, and watched it vanish with barely a whisper into the shredder. “Pleasure doing business with you,” said Troat. “So,” said Rob, “about that million quid?”

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“Which million quid?” asked Troat. “I think we’ll call the piece … ‘Small Print,’” he said, turning to leave the hangar.

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