Last month, the work of an artist showing at one of Art Basel Hong Kong’s satellite fairs met with a sad fate. “Unhappy Meal” (2018), a sculpture that the Swiss artist Carol May intended to look just like a box containing a Happy Meal (McDonald’s distinctive children’s combo) save for its frowning mouth, was mistaken for trash and thrown out by cleaning crew workers at the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, which hosted the Harbour Art Fair. The incident was first reported by the Swiss daily the Local.
“In my art I often play with everyday objects or articles to which I give a new identity through small changes,” May told Hyperallergic. “I am concerned with the value of things and their perception, but also with the deception, as in the given case, and [with this work] I obviously succeeded.” She also noted that “Unhappy Meal” isn’t entirely lost: “Fortunately, the work consists of an edition of 30 pieces.”
After mistakenly trashing “Unhappy Meal,” the Marco Polo Hotel cleaning crew allegedly realized their mistake and attempted to salvage May’s work, but by then it was damaged beyond repair. The artist said that, as far as she knows, the hotel’s administration has not apologized for the incident.
The screenprinted, cardboard sculpture was valued at 350 Swiss francs (~$364). It was being show at Harbour Art Fair by a-space, a roving artist-run gallery based in Switzerland.
“It is a bit disturbing that this happened but we are in contact with the Harbour Art Fair and with the Hotel,” Roy Hofer, the founder of a-space, told Hyperallergic. “I do not know yet if there will be a fair solution for the artist since we are still waiting on the decision. It was our first time to be at this art fair. We are an artist-run gallery where the artists take quite a financial risk to participate. Carol among all the other artists made works specially for the Harbour Art Fair.”
The organizers of the fair, mall developer Harbour City, have not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comments. For May, however, the unhappy turn of events ironically echoes the piece’s themes.
“The McDonald’s Happy Meal is known to virtually everyone,” she said. “It was developed for children and attracts them with seductive toys that have become collectible over time. Here, I also draw parallels to the art market. I would like to seduce with my imitations, but also encourage you to look behind the façade. A small change in the graphics, to turn a laughing mouth into a sad mouth, hits the nail on the head.”
Of course, May’s bittersweet take on McDonald’s branding and packaging isn’t the first artwork to be mistaken for trash and tossed. In 2015, an installation by Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari intended to look like the messy aftermath of a raucous party was cleaned up into oblivion by an Italian museum’s janitorial crew. The previous year, also in Italy, a cleaner at a gallery threw out an installation by Paul Branca made of crumbs and newspaper and cardboard scraps.
But Brits have historically outdone Italians when it comes to sweeping away contemporary art that resembles garbage. In 2004, a museum worker at Tate Britain mistook a trash bag in Gustav Metzger’s installation “Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art” for actual trash and threw it out. In 2001, at London gallery Eyestorm, an installation by Damien Hirst meant to evoke the life of an artist — featuring ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, half-drunk cups of coffee, empty beer bottles, and newspapers — was thrown out by a gallery cleaner. And Hirst’s fellow Young British Artist (YBA), Tracey Emin, was targeted by a more righteous cleaner, an incensed mother, who traveled 200 miles to tidy up the artist’s famously messy autobiographical work “My Bed” in 1999. The eager cleaner, who was quickly restrained by security guards, told the BBC: “I thought I would clean up this woman’s life a bit.”