Fine Art

Why are Banksy and Tony Hsieh trading art?

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It seemed like a bad idea. For one, Downtown Project planned to exhibit the tanker-truck sculpture Big Rig Jig at Life Is Beautiful. And two, who knows who these people really were?

“Someone from Banksy emailed me in March and basically asked if they could use it,” says Tony Hsieh, who owns the Mike Ross sculpture. “They were very vague and just said it was for a project they were organizing in the U.K. They asked for confidentiality and apologized for having to be so mysterious and clandestine.” (The project turned out to be Dismaland, Banksy’s Bristol, England, “bemusement” park, where Big Rig Jig is showing until the exhibition closes September 27. Afterward it will ship here and settle on the Fergusons Motel lot later this year.)

After a series of emails, Hsieh arranged a March phone call with Banksy’s manager—reportedly the only person who knows his identity or deals with the renowned street artist—but still wasn’t sure of the offer’s legitimacy. “In all seriousness, what happens if it disappears?” Hsieh says. “All we have is this intriguing email and phone call, and really it could’ve been anyone. … Everyone involved [on the DTP side] thought it was high-risk.”

So Hsieh declined. Then he received this email, allegedly written by Banksy: “I feel strongly Big Rig Jig is probably the first sculptural masterpiece of the post-industrial age and we want to exhibit it accordingly. Importance is measured in influence, and you can never be sure, but I’m confident in 20 years time Big Rig Jig will be cited by a whole new generation of artists as a touchstone in modern sculpture. It should be in every textbook of art history that covers this age and this won’t happen from photos at Burning Man alone.”

In May, Hsieh and his team began negotiating to trade the Big Rig Jig, which was supposed to be a centerpiece at Downtown’s Life Is Beautiful fest, for a Banksy work to exhibit in its place. But as the July shipping deadline approached, Hsieh still planned to say no. “We don’t know anything about shipping art, and if it disappears, who do we go after?” Hsieh says. “But the morning of, it was just one of those things. We were down to the wire and we were like, let’s just do it. … There was no rational reason for us to do it, but in the end we just went with our gut.”

As for what Banksy might show at LIB, Hsieh offers few details. “It’s not going to be just a piece of work from him, meaning that there are moving, mechanical parts to it. We want people to discover it, [so] it may change locations.”

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