Dead Darlings #9 'Entropy', 2017. Photo: Kyle Tryhorn

Micro Art Initiatives #24: Sold! This failed work goes to... – Talking to the anonymous art auction Dead Darlings

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

What happens to the darling works artists so often have to kill? Dead Darlings sells them to the highest bidder at anonymous auctions. In conversation with Tania Theodorou artist and co-founder of Dead Darlings.

Fourteen years ago, on a night out, a group of students from the Rietveld Academy came up with the idea to start Dead Darlings, an anonymous art auction. Often the next morning these ideas turn out to be not as great as you thought they were, but Dead Darlings is still going strong after more than ten auctions. Tania Theodorou: ‘When I look back, the first edition already captures all the ambiguities, critical reflections and questions around the concepts of failure and value that we discovered throughout the years.’

—Lotte van Geijn What is a ‘dead darling’?

—Tania Theodorou In art school they often tell you to ‘kill your darlings’, a term introduced by the writer William Falkner. When you have a series of work, sometimes you have to kill the best one in order to not downgrade the rest. It can also be a first draft of something that is very close to you and that you can’t be very critical about, or an idea that never came to full fruit. It can also be something you couldn’t throw away. Sometimes it’s something that is too good-looking or atypical to your practice. At times we have a thematic auction to explore more specific possibilities, such as in Dead Darling #4: ‘Inadvertent Copy’. An inadvertent copy can be an artwork of yours that later you find out is really similar to a work by a colleague or established artwork. In this case, the artwork is not killed by the artist, but by the discovery of a previously created look-alike.

—Lotte van Geijn Why are artists willing to give their ‘failed’ artworks up for auction?

—Tania Theodorou They have different motivations. We start with an open call and often, we get more submissions than objects we can auction. This is something we struggle with, because it means that we have to select from the ‘failed’ artworks - a paradox. Sadly, we usually have to adhere to time and space limitations, so we’ve often had to leave out beautiful darlings. Some artists send in their dead darlings because they love the work they made but haven’t yet found the context to show it in. Others might just be looking for exposure. Throughout the years some artists that participated have become famous, and others have faded into the background. Often artists participate more than once. We do however, have a set of rules: the work must be a one-off and not for sale or display elsewhere; our auction must be the only reason for this work to come to the surface and out of the shadows; artists have to write a story about the work which will be read out loud during the auction; and you must be willing to offer it for selling at a very low starting price. Sometimes artists get upset afterwards when their work has been sold for a very low price. For us, that is beside the point, but in this sense taking part in Dead Darlings can be confronting.

—Lotte van Geijn Is Dead Darlings an artwork in itself? A ’failed’ one perhaps?

—Tania Theodorou You could see Dead Darlings as a collective artwork. At this point we are a team of four artists and designers: Lina Ozerkina, Hanna Mattes, Jessie Yingying Gong and myself. The group has changed over the years. We try to organize at least one auction a year which is a lot of work. For every auction we create a publication as part of the process. It turned out that my main role in Dead Darlings is the one of auctioneer. The performative gesture really appeals to me, although it can be very exhausting when we have a three-hour auction. The next day I always lose my voice. This is the consequence of trying to auction as many dead darlings as possible. We have set those rules I mentioned before, but throughout the years we have learned that it pays off to be flexible. To give you an example: it happens that artist picks up on the idea of his/her dead darling a few years after it was auctioned at Dead Darlings, and turns it into a new series of now established works. Those things happen: the dead darling has been overtaken by time. We try to reflect on what’s going in the present moment and respond to it. That’s why I think Dead Darlings can never fail in itself. One of these instances was in Dead Darlings #8 called ‘Occupational Hazard’ where we reflected on the side jobs artists often have to maintain next to their practice to sustain a living. This is often seen as a failure, but for some artists this side job is also an inspiration to their work. We tried to explore the borders of artistic identity.

Dead Darlings #7 in Ghent, 2011. Photo: Thomas Janssens

Dead Darlings #7, 2011 Photo: Thomas Janssens

—Lotte van Geijn How do you make sure that the success of Dead Darlings will not result in its own death?

—Tania Theodorou This is something I’m a bit worried about myself. Jessie Yingying Gong, our most recent member, is very good with social media. This has created a whole new audience we have to relate to. Sometimes I’m a bit nostalgic about the early days, but we do still organise DIY auctions at off the grid locations. And even at more established locations the core idea of Dead Darlings is accepted. An interesting development, because it means that we are now able to reflect on the system from within. Currently, we are planning to take Dead Darlings abroad to see what could happen there. I remember that already during the third auction we faced a loophole: one person bought a lot of the artworks. Probably just because they could and wanted to buy an artwork from an established name cheaply. This is not something we prefer since we try to create the opportunity for everyone to buy a work of art. Also, once, a bigger institution invited us to do an auction in their space but when we found out they expected us to rise the auction’s starting prices because of their status, we decided to decline. I think that is most important; to stay critical, flexible and close to the concept we once started with. It doesn’t always need to be a ‘success’, in fact, rather not!

Dead Darlings is an anonymous art auction put together by Lina Ozerkina, Hanna Mattes, Jessie Yingying Gong and Tania Theodorou. For more information and open calls check their website: .

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021