157 Robert St,
London, NW1 3QR
8 – 23 October 2010
All photos: nolionsinengland
"I woke with a bolt this morning. I had been dreaming about the night my jacket went missing. I could see it all in the dream. Where everything and everyone was in the pub. M and E were sat at the table as I got up to goto the loo. My jacket hooked over the back of the chair. As I enter the loo, M goes to the bar, and starts chatting to two girls, while he’s waiting to be served. Elliot goes over to join hime (sic) and help with the drinks. In that split second A guy moves over to our table, squeezing through the crowds, grabs my coat and is out through the door, all while I am still pissing. It is the night everything changed." MBSC:JC/200.19
Ever wondered what kind of kunt lurks in a bar with the objective of stealing your personal property? Well Mike Ballard has created an art spectacle proposing “I am that kind of cunt”.
Mike Ballard has spent ten years taking his twisted and silent revenge on an innocent(ish) society. His story is that ten years ago a prized jacket was stolen from him in a bar. His grief and rage prompted him to go on a larceny spree, stealing coats in revenge against that silent unknown threat, the bar dipper.
Now Mike is contrite, seeking to right his wrongs and to exorcise the demons. “Whose Coat is that your jacket is wearing” is a display of 200 coats Ballard stole during this 10 year campaign of shame and evil. Turn up, you might find yours and if you do Ballard wants you to have it back.
There is a twist of course, you have to be able to rigorously prove it is yours. Ballard never stole to profit, or to clothe himself or even particularly to inflict trauma and pain on any individual victim, he stole as revenge. He would then photograph every jacket, note the date and record the contents of every pocket. So can you remember what packet of sweets and phone number written in lipstick was in the jacket when it got stolen? Ballard has it all catalogued on a secret indexed card database and you just have to get the description of those details right to get your coat back.
"Fashion Week is here again, and loads of after parties going off. There’s always some dizzy intern working on the coat check" MBSC:JC/200.125
The show itself takes place in a tiny shop, seemingly formerly a tailor’s workshop, A densely packed forest of jackets hang down from the ceiling, you have to stoop low to move around. Hanging from each jacket is a kind of dated looking luggage label, each of which has an entry from Ballard’s diary.
The first sensation that hits you entering this cramped space is the smell, a whiff of damp mustiness falling off a collection of wet weather gear that has been stored away for too long in a dark cupboard.
The art within this show has to be perceived as a number of layers. Firstly, the tight packing of the clothes obliges you to see the aggregation of the individual deeds, the woods rather than the trees. The artistic desire to create a shock is partially satisfied with this overwhelming sense of the total misery represented by all this stolen property.
Ballard has structured the experience so you can’t really take in the details of individual garments but what you can appreciate is the next macro level of detail in the experience, the individual; statements tagged to each jacket. These reveal the real art of the show in the detail of the personal confessions, the insights into the mind and bizarre logic of the serial coat purloiner. One thing missing from these written vignettes is any sense of shame or guilt. Quite often the message is one blaming the victim and the words lead us to conclude that Ballard has actually never stopped blaming himself for whatever lapse or buffoonery on his part led to the loss of his jacket.
Of course there is way more to this than merely running a lost property locker. What Mike Ballard is saying is let’s see how much you can take, how sanguine can you be about the notion that celebrating other peoples transient misery is art and here we zoom back out to the” big idea” level of his art. It certainly has a shock factor. It is verging on performance art, and a very cerebral performance at that. Ballard is putting himself in the firing line (metaphorically if not always literally, it may not actually be Mike Ballard in the space at any particular time!) for the moral indignation of the many and of course the special fury of the few should any victims actually find their coat among the Ballard trove. In terms of the personal danger Ballard might be placing himself in this is almost up there with the conceptual artist Chris Burden who had a mate shoot him in the arm for art in 1971.
Let’s not forget the risk of police scrutiny Ballard may attract. Stealing coats is theft, thieving on this scale goes beyond petty, who is to say that Ballard won’t find himself assisting the Met with their enquiries some time soon.
"Were the answers to be found in this long war of the will against the power of taboo? I doubt it so I took another and another and another" MBSC:JC/200.161
The added ingredients in this conceptual layer cake include the idea of catharsis through public humiliation and also the challenge to a Society which incarcerates as a punitive measure – can you forgive me? If you can’t forgive the reformed coat thief, then what’s the point in prisons because you will clearly never forgive nor forget anyone who has been through the “that’ll teach you not to do that again” system of correction through punishment.
The reaction to the announcement of this show has firmly focussed on the big concept, both public (via the internet, that lovely dis-intermediating tool for direct and un-censored expression) and press have homed in on the clash between the artistic concept of creating a shock spectacle out of stolen property and the personal risks taken by the artist in revealing this despicable history.
Ballard is unique in creating a art concept that exposes him to vilification and possibly violent retribution, it is fascinating to watch and interest provoked in his concept has gone world-wide. With this particular genie now out of the bottle it is possible to run with a whole new genre of “Look I’ve been naughty, me” concept art performances.
"Why put your coat in a locker then not pay the 20p to lock it. It doesn’t make sense for the sake of 20p. You will from now on though" MBSC:JC/200.92
To test the integrity of the back story, and to dispel the notion that even the facade with its tangentially linked and convenient name might be a sham fabricated by Ballard, with a little “due diligence” on the internet Graffoto tracked down a photo of Walkers Tailor in its genuine previous life.
photo from online business directory here
Open during the huge draw that is London’s Frieze art fair, this show is very close to the Frieze site, about 10 minutes walk from the Frieze entrance if you cut through Chester Terrace to Albany St, or about 20 minutes if you walk the long way round past Great Portland St tube station. This is likely to be more confrontational than anything you are likely to see in that tented world of the surreal unreal.
Graffoto has been a champion of Ballard’s art, his immersive room experiences and the quality of his canvas paintings and light boxes have always been exceptional. There is nothing on sale here which actually isn’t new for Ballard but still this show is a totally new kettle of aquatic lifeforms. It is a show big on concepts and big on risks. It’s a show designed to be controversial, intended to shock and bound to provoke extreme reactions. The crime of stealing coat is a very intimate one, the property is personal and in virtually every instance the victim and perpetrator are in the same room at the same time. Should anyone identify their jacket, respond to the provocation and give the artist a slap, we will be at the front of the queue pointing and saying “you got what you deserve”.
"B. just called me and said she had her handbag stolen. Shit!!!....what the fuck, I’m raging but what can I say. I hope she never finds out what I’ve been doing. " MBSC:JC/200.39