Interview Magazine: Why Scott Campbell Lit His Art on Fire

A few days ago, New York artist Scott Campbell made headlines for the burning of his own artwork at a showing in Mexico City. Taking place at the VICE Mexico gallery, the scene was caused by a dispute with the gallery owners. Speaking for the first time to the press since the incident, Interview Magazine get to the bottom of the situation and the final outcome knowing that the artwork burned was all part of a sold-out show. Some of the questions and answers are seen below.

BENNS: So… Where did it start to go wrong?

CAMPBELL: [LAUGHS] You mean, what the hell happened?

I didn’t do it out of spite. A lot of the complications were because I was in New York and didn’t go down until the day before the show. I was nervous about doing a show with [Vice Mexico]; they’re a young gallery. But I liked the sound of their program. They import reputable artists, but they have a project room that always supports local artists. I thought that was a nice gesture.

BENNS: What were your concerns before going down?

CAMPBELL: One of the main things was, they were going to get a sponsor for the show. I was really clear about my hesitance about having a corporate sponsor for an art show. They said it would be a little logo at the bottom of the invitation, tastefully done, they explained it as the way things worked in Mexico. I said, “OK, I’ll trust you on this one, and take your word for it, just know I’m very cautious about this.”

BENNS: Art and advertising have very strict boundaries at the level of the commercial gallery.

CAMPBELL: I got there and it was like, a full-on vodka commercial. Banners everywhere. On the invitation, the name of the company was at the top, printed larger than my name and the name of the show.

I bit my tongue. I was really happy with everything we made for the show, and proud to show it [in Mexico]. Everybody showed up for the show and was very positive about it. The show sold out; they had never had a sold-out show before. I think their heart’s in the right place, but I think when they started seeing dollar signs, I think when they started doing the accounting, they got a little bit ahead of themselves. The main guy I was dealing with started to get a little bit too pushy. All of a sudden took the position that I owed them.

He kept bringing up, repeatedly, the dollar amount of the show. He kept talking about how they had made me money. But I could have made this work, and sold it out of my studio to my collectors, without giving them a cut, and saved myself the trip. I was there because I love Mexico City. I sent him an e-mail saying I wanted to keep things cool, and I thought he was being a little pushy and for us to just ride out the rest of the show.

Essentially, I had some issues, and when I confronted him with these issues in what I felt was a productive way, he came back with a personal attack. Really childish name-calling. I can’t work with that. If we’re all focused on a common goal, then we’re communicating, but as soon as somebody takes it to a competition of egos… I’m not going to entertain that.

BENNS: So it was the insults?

CAMPBELL: I decided I was done. If he’s going to wave this dollar amount in front of my face, then fine: No one makes any money.

There was a gas station across the street from the gallery, conveniently. I filled up a gallon and set the gallon of gasoline at the front door. I had a couple friends of mine there to help carry stuff out, and I said, “OK, I’m going to go upstairs, we’re going to have a conversation, and if it goes well, we’re all good. If the conversation doesn’t go well, then I need your help getting all of this stuff out of the gallery.” I went upstairs and told him, “You sent me this e-mail, and I need you to explain it to me in a way that I am going to be okay with it.” But it was the same pissing contest. So I was done. We started taking everything off the walls, walked it outside, poured a bunch of gasoline on it, and lit it on fire.

BENNS: Did you reconcile with the gallery?

CAMPBELL: We have a very delicate truce at the moment. They have a huge obligation to their collectors, obviously. They took money for all this stuff and sold it. We left it; they can keep the works through the end of the show as scheduled. But, they’re all burnt and they have to display them as they are, with an honest explanation about what happened, and why they are in that condition. And at the end of the show, if everything’s kosher, they return all the burned works to me and I’ll replace them with new pieces.

BENNS: Did this incident tap into any general frustration with the art world?

CAMPBELL: Well, selling art is an age-old job. As soon as you commodify art, or put value on it, it’s hard not to be corrupted. There’s always that issue of an artist making a living and keeping themselves fed, while producing work that’s not swayed by the market of the audience. You can’t think about your work in terms of money, because it gets harder and harder to stay spontaneous. You have to be able to burn it all down at any moment, in order to keep it fresh and new. You can’t hang onto it too much.

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