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British artist bans PM from buying his art

Gina Fairley

What do fresh air, English soil and shit have in common? All have been canned, bagged and sold in the name of art … but for Stuart Semple, the offer comes with caveats.
British artist bans PM from buying his art

Image supplied courtesy Stuart Semple

Stuart Semple is hustling it again – this time banning British Prime Minister Theresa May from buying his art, rather than his usual target, superstar artist Anish Kapoor.

Described as a post YBA artist, Semple gained international notoriety when he banned Kapoor from buying his pigment PINK, billed as the world’s pinkest pigment, and selling for just £3.99  (AUD $6.40).

Read: Artist bans Anish Kapoor from world’s hottest pink

The anti-Kapoor campaign was a response to a story last March, when Sir Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to the world’s blackest black, developed by NanoSystems. Vantablack is composed of a series of microscopic vertical tubes, and absorbs 99.98% of light.

Read: Can one artist own the rights to black?

Semple then decided to release his own super black (Black 2.0) and make it available to everyone, followed by the world’s most glittery glitter, which is made from tiny flakes of glass that reflect light. Semple claims that he has spent the last decade collaborating with an industrial chemical company to create his “diamond dust” – they normally use these glass flakes to re-enforce concrete for building exteriors.

‘There is nothing like this substance available anywhere to the art community,’ said Semple, adopting a similar line to Kapoor’s niche pallet choice.

Baggies of soil as art

In a similar vein, Semple’s latest “art work” is an online project selling England – yes, right Royal soil.

You can buy your 1/4 lb plot of England’s best for just £9.99 on Semple’s custom website,

He says: ‘ENGLAND is 100% pure English soil, beautifully packaged in a gorgeous hot-foil embossed box. The first 500 packages are signed and numbered by the artist.

‘Although ENGLAND is available for anyone, anywhere in the world to buy, there is one important caveat. Purchasers are required to agree to a legal declaration during the checkout process that “By adding ENGLAND to your cart you confirm that you are not Teresa May, you are in no way affiliated to Theresa May and to the best of your knowledge information and belief ENGLAND will not make it’s way into the hands of Theresa May.”'

The question remains: Is ENGLAND a satirical piece of contemporary art that questions privatisation of public space, speculative overseas investment and post Brexit isolationism? Or is it just a bag of mud?

Busting elitism

The Art War saga of Semple versus Kapoor is featured on the cover of the current GQ magazine and the interactive aspect can be explored on social media via the #ShareTheBlack hashtag.

Semple said in a statement: ‘I’m really excited to be able to be able to share England with the whole world. It’s fantastic that now you don’t have to be an Oligarch or mega tycoon to get in on the action! I’m stacking England high and selling it off cheap, when it’s gone it’s gone!’

It would seem that anything can be sold in the name of art and protest.

Last May, Blue Mountain entrepreneurs John Dickinson and Theo Ruygrok bottled air – yes the stuff we breathe – and devised a way to sell and distribute it to the Chinese market.

Priced at $18.80 a bottle, you can choose air from the Blue Mountains, Bondi Beach, the Yarra Valley, New Zealand and Tasmania.

‘We want to give people internationally a chance to taste what our beautiful air is like,’ Dickinson told SMH. He said the cans had been intended as a novelty souvenir item to give tourists the chance to "take a bit of Australia home with them", but Chinese buyers had seized on the health aspects.

Each can of air contains the equivalent of 130 deep breaths, with the cap doubling as a mouthpiece – a sure asset in a country where the poor air quality contributes to an estimated 1.6 million deaths annually.

The idea was picked up by a British IT consultant living in Switzerland, who was more ambitious: launching his Alpine air product in March 2017, at £200 (AUD$330) a bottle. While John Green, Dickinson and Ruygrok would not claim their bottled brews as “art”, we can look back to as early as 1961 for the beginnings of the creative bottling trend.

Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (The Artist’s S–t) (1961)

Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni preserved 90 tin cans of his own faeces labeled Merda d’artista (The Artist’s S–t). Each 30g can was sold priced at its weight in gold – about $37 in 1961 – and last sold in 2008 at auction for $USD150,000. One can even entered the Tate Modern Collection in 2000.

He proved that the art world does indeed sell shit. The twist – Manzoni’s father owned a canning factory and did not approve of his son’s choice of career as an artist. Merda d'artista was part of a series by Manzoni, including Fiato d'artista, or Artist's Breath – balloons filled from his own lungs. Sound a little like our local Chinese export?

Artist's breath, Alpine or Aussie air, and English soil – it would prove the argument that anything can be art and anything can be sold – the trick is in marketing, and in a world today where social media influencers carry great weight, the internet proves to be an interesting conceptual medium for art making.

Semple is perhaps best known for his 2009 HappyCloud performance from Tate Modern, where he flooded the London skyline with pink smiley soap clouds at the height of the recession.

He has developed a reputation for using the internet as an artistic space, initially selling and disseminating over 3000 works of original art via eBay as a teenager, then becoming the first artist to release a digital body of work with Apple on the iTunes platform.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.