An aptly named print hangs in the Royal Academy’s Winter Exhibition – this year’s rescheduled edition of the RA’s famed Summer Exhibition. Going, Going, Gone. (Lot 44 – The Atlantic Rainforest, Brazil) by British artist Josef O’Connor is as much about conservation as it is about working together. Art Critique had the chance to (virtually) sit down and talk with O’Connor and Dan Bradbury of the World Land Trust about Going, Going, Gone, how it came together, and the bigger picture of the project.
Going, Going, Gone is a series of 100 prints boasting a monochromatic topographical map of the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil. An irregular, flat yellow shape stands out at the centre of the map like a fleck of gold amidst a river bed. The yellow area pinpoints Lot 44, a plot of land in the Brazilian rainforest, that will be purchased and protected with proceeds from the sale of the print. The project was the brainchild of O’Connor but in order to come to fruition, it took a lot of collaboration between him, Bradbury, and the UK-based World Land Trust, a conservation charity working to save and protect land around the globe.
Below the print, where you might expect to find the print edition and artist’s signature, you find a lot more information. Alongside the print’s name, there are details that were critical to an overall vision of transparency that O’Connor wanted in Going, Going, Gone. The total cost of the 19.25-hectare plot of land (£20,000) and the breakdown of how the cost of each print (£400) will be divided up. After the RA’s 30 percent cut and O’Connor’s 20 percent cut, half of the print’s cost goes directly towards purchasing Lot 44.
“What’s so interesting I think about the Summer [now Winter] Exhibition is that it’s kind of the epitome of selling in the art world. What it represents is something I wanted to challenge and to try to flip, conceptually,” O’Connor told Art Critique of his submission. “So as a starting point I knew I wanted to create a work that would have a wider impact than just providing people with more to hang on their walls. For me, that feels increasingly void of substance, creativity and artistically.
“I liked this idea of, almost a form of abstract painting in a way, because it’s like abstract conservationism in the sense in that it’s using the lines drawn on a map to create the outline on a space that is abstract. Texas is a human idea. London is a human idea. Bringing to our mind’s focus the idea that through the purchasing of an object of art, the priority of what our values should actually focusing be on. Is it about acquiring more stuff or is it about protecting and saving the stuff that actually matters more and means more?”
O’Connor was introduced to Bradbury through Johnny Lu, a World Land Trust ambassador, and Going, Going, Gone started to take shape. When O’Connor got in touch, he thought his idea might sound a little unusual. Asking the World Land Trust for a piece of land to purchase through funds brought in at the Summer Exhibition, O’Connor admitted, seemed “like a mad crazy idea.” However, that wasn’t the case.
“Art’s a really powerful thing,” Bradbury, who studied illustration and art, told AC. “Josef came to us with an idea that I felt was genuine,” he continued.
Bradbury and O’Connor began working with each other to bring Going, Going, Gone to life. It was a collaborative effort to find the right piece of land and to figure out the best way for O’Connor’s work to make an impact. After discussing various locations, including areas of Borneo and Bolivia, they came to Lot 44 in Brazil, which best fit O’Connor’s bill and became the focus of Going, Going, Gone.
O’Connor’s original idea for Going, Going, Gone was to make artwork representative of portions of Lot 44 that would then be sold off bit by bit. “I was really interested in this idea of like fractional ownership,” said O’Connor while showing us a prototype of his original idea. “I think what rounds all of my practice together is a desire to draw people together,” he continued. “By allowing people the opportunity to buy into something collectively,” as is the case with Going, Going, Gone, “that you can achieve something as a whole, which is at the root of my practice, in many ways.” (In 2012, O’Connor used a similar method to achieve the Gagosian Gallery’s Damien Hirst Spot Challenge.)
What Bradbury found refreshing about working with O’Connor was his collaborative spirit. “[Josef] wasn’t scared to rethink [the project] slightly.” Eventually, O’Connor’s work took on its final form, but there was still the issue of making it into the Summer Exhibition. “I said to Dan,” O’Connor laughed, “we still don’t know if it will get in.” “I was confident he’d get in,” Bradbury cut in.
Unlike other artists, though, whose sigh of relief came after their works were accepted into the Summer Exhibition, there’s still an air of risk around Going, Going, Gone. Making the RA’s cut was only the first hurdle, now it’s crucial that all 100 editions sale so that Lot 44 can be purchased.
Initially, O’Connor’s Summer Exhibition work was about making an abstract concept (some land thousands of miles away) more tangible. With the onset of the pandemic, which forced the RA to reschedule their Summer Exhibition for the first time in more than 250 years, Going, Going, Gone also became about bringing the environment back into focus. As the pandemic eclipsed major world issues, the environment took a back seat. For a number of World Land Trust’s partners, work slowed significantly as the pandemic made it difficult or even impossible to put boots on the ground. For Bradbury and O’Connor, the pandemic and environment are more intimately connected and they want Going, Going, Gone to bring the environment back to the forefront.
The pandemic has also impacted the reality of Going, Going, Gone as O’Connor originally anticipated a series with fewer prints, meaning each would have cost more. However, when the exhibition was postponed, O’Connor found the circumstances to be “serendipitous” and he revisited his submission. Increasing the number of prints meant he was able to drop each edition’s price to just £400, giving more the opportunity to contribute. Going, Going, Gone extends beyond the buyer’s home and beyond the Summer exhibition, but, as pointed out by O’Connor, “it only works if the work sells out… If I don’t sell the lots, you can’t buy the plot. So, there is a bit of jeopardy involved.”
Ultimately, Bradbury hopes Going, Going, Gone raises awareness amongst a new audience who might now challenge their pre-pandemic ways of living. “I think there’s a lot of people have been kind of assessing the importance of this habit of protecting space, because it’s become even more important to us as we’ve been kind of locked away in our houses,” said Bradbury. “We know that [how we were previously living] wasn’t right. But it’s an awareness of the issue.”
“I don’t want people to take anything away from this,” O’Connor told AC. “I think that’s the whole point, people have taken too much. And I think what we’re doing with this project is we’re trying to give back, and we’re trying to protect, and for me, this project is about trying to transform perspectives in relation to what our priorities are. And I hope that, you know, if it even planted a seed of an idea of somebody in relation to their consumption on any level, then that would be a success.”
O’Connor’s works offer the chance to examine the purpose and impact of art and, as is the particular case with Going, Going, Gone, an opportunity to connect with real issues that face the world in a time when we all have pandemic tunnel vision. Near the end of our conversation, O’Connor said “I hope this inspires people to take a second look, not only at the work, but at the underlying context.” So, do just that: take a second look and be part of a second chance.
This year has been a busy one for O’Connor. At the start of lockdown, O’Connor created a series called “Face Valued,” which took a closer look at the idea of commodity. To do so, he created identical red canvases and sold each for a different amount despite being essentially the same. The creation of those canvases was livestreamed and O’Connor donated the proceeds to a local soup kitchen in Holborn, where O’Connor lives and works.
Not a five-minute walk from the RA, yet another project of O’Connor’s has come to fruition over the course of lockdown: CIRCA. In the works for more than two years, O’Connor was able to “repackage” his idea just weeks into the pandemic and pitched it again to the powers at be over Piccadilly Circus. Thanks to the pandemics disruptive nature, CIRCA got the green light. “I suppose [it’s] one of the good things to come out of the pandemic,” said O’Connor. “[The pandemic] has created fractures in a pretty concrete society for new possibilities and new ideas to emerge.” Just this week, O’Connor oversaw the launch Eddie Peake’s A Dream of a Real Memory, CIRCA’s third installment, which followed works by Ai Weiwei and Colleen Smith. Peake’s work will be shown in two-minute episodes at 20:20 (8:20pm) GMT each day in December. If you’re not in London, though, you can still partake in CIRCA and support the project online.
To visit the RA’s (delayed) Summer Exhibition and see Going, Going, Gone in person, timed tickets must be booked in compliance with UK government guidelines around the pandemic. If you can’t make it to London, all of the artworks included in the exhibition can be viewed online as well. The Summer Exhibition is on view through January 3rd, 2021, which is also the make-or-break moment for Going, Going, Gone. If you’re interested in acquiring an edition of Going, Going, Gone and supporting the purchase and protection of Lot 44 in the Atlantic Rainforest, that can be done through the RA, here.
Edited December 3rd: Original article referred to Eddie Peake’s artwork as the wrong name, which has now been corrected.