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25 Major Artists Save an Art School Using Its Charred Remains

With the help of Anish Kapoor and friends, Glasgow School of Art’s historic Mackintosh Building is rising like a phoenix from its ashes.

Maya-Roisin Slater

An influential leader in the art nouveau and secession design movements that found their start in late-19th century Europe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Glaswegian architect and artist. Back in 1896, however, when the prestigious Glasgow School of Art held a competition for the design of a new campus, Mackintosh's name didn't hold quite the weight it does today. Nevertheless, the then-junior draughtsman for architecture firm Honeyman and Keppie won the contest with his ambitious design.

Due to financial constraints, the project wasn't fully completed until 1910. The last section to be finished was The Mackintosh Building, finalizing the school's expansion which would eventually be considered by many as his greatest work. Affectionately known as "The Mack," this building is one of the campus' most visually distinct, flooded with light pouring in from large front facing windows the aesthetic is slightly more elaborate than parts of the campus completed before it. Tragically, the west wing, which housed the school's library, archives, and some studio spaces, was severely damaged in a 2014 fire caused by the flammable gasses of an expanding foam can being sucked into a projector cooling fan.

Cornelia Parker, A Slippery Slope (between chalk and charcol). Courtesy of Cornelia Parker. © Christie's

In the wake of the fire, the school hoped to restore this damaged wing, as well as make improvements to unharmed sections of the building to bring it up to modern functionality standards while still maintaining the integrity of Mackintosh's original design. To help them complete this restoration, a project which comes with a £32 million price tag, the London branch of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson came up with a creative way to usher in this rebirth: collecting debris from the scorched library and packaging them in tidy white boxes, staff from the agency traveled to a variety of studios and galleries trying to convince artists to participate. The pieces created would then be auctioned off as part of fundraising efforts for the reconstruction. Jonah Werth, one of these charcoal-hawking staff members, explains: "All the white boxes had a piece of the bookshelf in a large piece of charcoal with a label dating back its origins. Fortunately because the wood itself is just so beautiful that in itself sold it to these artists. Because those were quite small pieces once we'd won them over we then said we'll supply you with more remains depending on what piece you want to make."

25 artists ended up taking part in the project, titled Ashes to Art, with the resulting work spanning a wide variety of artistic disciplines and approaches to the given materials. Werth says their number one concern was ensuring they didn't end up auctioning off 25 identical charcoal sketches. "We chose a medium where the brief was so wide open and we're flabbergasted with the amount of things people have been able to do with charcoal. One of them is Alison Watt, for her piece she ground down that charcoal and made it into a black pigment paint she used to create her piece," he explains. Ranging from wooden sculptures to ash filled ceramics to paintings and sketches, the pieces included in the auction certainly run the gamut of what's possible to construct with rubble. Despite distinct differences in the form these contributions took, Werth notes an overarching theme between the pieces has cropped up: "There is a link, everything has sort of a death theme. But also it's about the artistic community coming together, and making sure a phoenix will rise from the ashes quite literally."

Alison Watt, Deep Within the Heart of Me. Courtesy of John C McKenzie. © Christie's

The entire project is reminiscent of a saying often spouted by pocket conscious dads and college age dumpster divers: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." While that line most often refers to bloated leather Craigslist couches and not new works by internationally renowned artists like Sir Antony Gormley, Grayson Perry, and Anish Kapoor, the sentiment remains true. Beauty can so often be found in the most derelict of places.

Antony Gromley, Site II. Courtesy of Antony Gormley. © Christie's

Simon Starling, Layer of Darkness. Courtest of the Modern Institute. © Christie's


Greyson Perry, Art is dead, Long live art. Courtesy of Victoria Miro. © Christie's

Ashes to Art will be displayed at Christie's on King Street in London from March 3rd to 7th before it goes to auction as part of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on March 8th.

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