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  • Love = Love 10, Kent Rogowski, 2006-8

The Art of Failure

Erik Kessels delights in the imperfections found in manufactured items

Let’s face it, we’ve all failed. Maybe not on a grand scale, but in some way, shape or form, we’ve screwed up. And unless you’re hopelessly narcissistic, you’ve probably referred to yourself as a failure at one time or another. So what do we all mean when we say something or someone is a failure? The dictionary definition is ‘lack of success’. In other words, everything from flop to disaster and all points in between.

But what happens if we take this short-sighted view of failure and turn it on its head? What if we re-imagine failure as one of the surest routes to creative success, instead of the road to perdition? Perhaps the mistakes and circumstances that join forces to create failure are not your mortal enemy but are, in fact, the key elements in producing something new and exciting. If there’s one thing a 30-year career in the creative industries has taught me, it’s that no one is immune to failure. You might be brilliant and successful, beautiful and talented, but no one can placate the gods of success for ever. 

Pretty much everyone who has ever tried anything has cupboards full of botched attempts, rejection letters and memories of being passed over and ignored. Me, personally? I’ve screwed up as an artist and designer. I’ve screwed up as an art director. I’ve screwed up as a photographer, editor and curator. If I’ve tried it, I’ve screwed it up. I’ve spent decades watching – and helping – big advertising agencies peddle their diluted versions of perfection. I’m intimately familiar with conventional wisdom’s path to stultifying boredom: boring buildings, boring billboards, boring design, boring people. 

Jar, Found in Stockholm, Heiki Bollig, 2004

Avoiding mistakes by not taking risks might not draw the wrath of your boss or client, but it also doesn’t draw excess praise. Far too often  playing it safe results in shiny, swirling, bland masses of ‘meh’. These major and minor catastrophes I’m referring to aren’t mere learning experiences – after which wrongs are righted, instruments are recalibrated, courses are reset – but are themselves early brushes with success. 

And I’m not alone in abandoning the pointless quest for perfection. I’ve gathered together some of my favourite work by artists and photographers, amateurs and autodidacts, who bask in the glory of imperfection, rule breaking, and show us that right can be wrong, bad can be good and, when everything tells you to turn right, you might be better served by turning left. My new book is about having the courage to fail spectacularly when the alternative is boring conformity and dull ideas. It’s about rejecting the safe and expected in favour of the exciting and unknown. It is dedicated to the art of making mistakes. 

Even robots make mistakes

Whether planned or unplanned, mistakes force us to take a closer look – they catch our attention in a sea of bland excellence. Take the manufacturer’s production line, for example, designed to eliminate errors and make imperfections obsolete. In the past when products were hand-made, they often included small variations in quality or minor differences in construction. And then the robots took over, making everything, well, a bit more perfect. But even robots revolt occasionally.

Artist Heike Bollig has collected a series of familiar objects that have been deformed by their machine creators. The pretzel that refuses to knot. The labels bunched around the jar’s middle like a tutu. The unscrewable screw. The unrollable marble. The fact that they’re manufacturing errors only makes these failures more poignant. They ask us to grapple with complex questions such as: ‘If a pretzel doesn’t knot, is it still a pretzel? Or is it just a Twiglet?’ It’s occasionally worth switching off our own quality control to let some oddballs through.

Put the puzzle back the wrong way

You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s not much one can learn from piecing together a massive jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, reveals a cheerful unicorn in repose. Perhaps they’re challenging for children, but for almost everyone else they’re merely a perfect image disassembled, only to be reassembled into a perfect state. And there isn’t much mystery involved, either; the target image of the completed puzzle is always printed on the lid of the box. Perfection, fragmentation, perfection. It’s a satisfying sequence. But not for American artist Kent Rogowski.

He realised that some puzzle companies use the same die cut patterns to create all of their puzzles – making the pieces interchangeable between puzzles, whatever the picture. Rogowski used this exact correspondence to blend different puzzles combining disparate images. The results are startlingly beautiful: bucolic wonderlands where flowers burst in colourful blooms from landscapes, out of buildings and from the sides of animals. Perfection, fragmentation, stunning imperfection. Now that’s the more satisfying sequence.  

Carve things up. Break things down. Scatter the pieces. Throw away the instructions and put the pieces back together in whatever way you damn well please, all the while remembering that things that aren’t meant to go together can still work together. And, like Rogowski, you might end up with a creation that is technically wrong, but aesthetically just right. 

Failed It! How to turn mistakes into ideas and other advice for successfully screwing up by Erik Kessels is published by Phaidon, £6.95 hb