Over sixteen years ago, a group of Rietveld students came up with a fabulous idea after one too many drinks: Dead Darlings, an anonymous art auction. They were super excited about it, and they were definitely going to make it happen. More often than not, those tipsy ideas — you know the ones — rarely survive in the light of day. But somehow, Tania Theodorou, (that’s me), and Lina Ozerkina, with a lot of help from our friends, put our first successful auction together in 2005, soon after that conversation took place.
Following a few different configurations, we were subsequently joined by Hanna Mattes and Jessie Yingying Gong to form the DD collective in its current form. From grass roots events hosted in basements on a shoestring budget, to big shows organised at museums and art-fairs, we always held fast to the main principles of that very first auction. The works need to qualify as ‘dead darlings’: the starting prices need to stay low and inclusive, and the auction is anonymous!
All participating artists are listed, but the name of the maker is only revealed after the hammer goes down and the sale is completed! These three specifications form the foundation of a Dead Darlings auction, and from there we go on to explore diverse aspects and emphasise different manifestations that arise from this combination. We like to push boundaries by fostering connections across diverse creative scenes and artistic disciplines.
Where it takes place does not define the nature of our event. We are a pop – up and our shows take place in spaces that welcome us. We encompass artists and works that reflect through a wide spectrum because our goal is to deconstruct the ideas of value and commerce on both ends. How do artists valuate their own work? What makes them kill their darlings? How does the public ascribe value to an artwork? What makes a thing precious? Is it financial or sentimental, real or imaginary?
At our events, all you have to go with is the work itself and your gut feeling. No name, no wider frame of reference. You simply choose what speaks to you.
‘Through our low prices and anonymity, we democratise the art auction and re–assess those notions of commerce and value that a typical art auction showcases and exemplifies’
So, what exactly is a Dead Darling?
In art school they often tell you to ‘kill your darlings’; after a quote from the writer William Faulkner. My personal interpretation is that it’s about editing. When you edit anything, whether it’s a text, a film, a photo book, or even an outfit; sometimes, you need to sacrifice or leave out a personal favourite. It could also be a first draft of something which is very close to you and you can’t be critical about.
Or an idea that never came to full fruition, but it could also be something you just couldn’t bring yourself to paint over, or throw away. Sometimes a dead darling is something which is too beautiful and steals the show, perhaps you engaged themes or employed materials atypical to your practice and you are now afraid to show them, or unsure where to take the work…the list goes on. The fact is that dead darlings can take on many forms, but whatever your art practice entails, you’ve most likely killed a few darlings along the way.
Through our low prices and anonymity, we democratise the art auction and re-assess those notions of commerce and value that a typical art auction showcases and exemplifies.
In the performative aspect of our shows, we play with those ideas in subtle ways through mocking and making fun of the formality of the auction format: the hammer, the white gloves, the solemn display. At the same time, however, we reclaim those elements for ourselves, to discuss, enjoy and celebrate those once-rejected, but unique artworks that we call Dead Darlings.
For an event like a Dead Darlings auction to come together, it takes a lot of preparation and planning, especially if you consider that our collective is spread around different parts of Europe: Amsterdam, Berlin, Torino and Athens. Somehow, magically, we manage to make it work. Well, it’s not really all that magical, it just takes a lot of commitment and determination.
As a team, we have separate and distinct roles, but we also work very closely together, while our functions often merge or change according to the specific needs of production.
I am the main auctioneer and DD copywriter, Lina is in charge of our graphic identity, website and printed catalogues, Hanna is responsible for all the communication with the artists, updating our mailing list, arranging production and communicating with collaborators and venues, a task she often shares with Jessie, who is also very involved in production as well as being in charge of all our social media, finances and digital assets.
This of course is only the core team during the ‘behind the scenes’ stage. When the exhibition days and auction performance come about, we all transform into painters, builders, cleaners, exhibition hangers, curators, producers, greeters, drivers, hosts and sometimes entertainers… It’s a lot. And it’s also very rewarding, because we work with and for our community, providing a kind of platform that brings together a cross section of artists who might never otherwise be in the same space, not to mention the same show….During Auction month or week (depending on how long any given show lasts), our team expands to include as many as 15 people, often members of our extended DD family, who fall into pace with us to perform the many interconnected tasks necessary, mostly invisible from the outside.
Our list of participating artists often contains quite well-known names who are showing in museums, selling at Art Basel or exhibiting in the Venice Biennale, but also people who just graduated and have more ambition than experience, and indeed, artists who may now be basking in the twilight of a comfortable, mediocre career… No matter: all of them have killed some darlings along the way.
Our audience is also a mixed bag. Mostly composed of artists who — ironically — can’t afford to buy art, first time buyers, curious walk-ins and serious collectors, all are herded together and treated as equals.
This brand of inclusivity is in my opinion our ‘secret ingredient’. It’s what gives our events their distinct character, and gives us that extra wiggle room to break rules or make them up as we go along. I don’t think a Christie’s auctioneer has ever bid for a lot from the podium.
(I have!) I don’t think they are allowed to make fun of the art, break into song or banter with the audience… We do, and that irreverent environment not only contributes to a general sense of fun, but is an irrepressible aspect of our identity. Some people come hoping to guess who made what, either because they are looking for a bargain or because they collect a specific artist. It gives me so much joy when those people specifically don’t get what they want because it means that those subversive notions inherent in our concept have come into play.
A killed darling is an artefact with no actual commercial value connected to it. If it wasn’t for our auction it would never be ‘on the market’ therefore the value ascribed to it by the time the sale is final, is in fact created from scratch. The commercial aspect of Dead Darlings essentially exists to make a point. It’s value, created in a vacuum. A kind of alchemy. Of course, money changes hands and art changes ownership. That’s undeniable, however the hierarchy and the level of accessibility are certainly groundbreaking in the realm of the fine art market. We create and hold that space together, which is why Dead Darlings walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but it’s not a duck at all.
Our event may take on many of the trappings and characteristics of a conventional auction, but it’s more of a layered performance with many participants. Sometimes I think of it as a collaborative artwork in its own right.
We are super grateful for everyone who takes part in any capacity and super excited about joining forces with Current Obsession for this, our second auction focusing exclusively on jewellery, that’s coming up on 30 November during the closing of the OBSESSED! Jewellery Festival. Worth mentioning, is that entrance to our auctions is always free, and there is no extra value added to the selling price. Collectors can pay for and take home their new darlings immediately, with 60 percent of the profit going directly to the maker, the rest going to cover the considerable costs of production.
Hope to see you there!
All Strings, No Regrets! Auction
Time: 18:00 – 22:30
Location: Fashion For Good – Rokin 102, 1012 KZ