Our new art series demystifies the artworks we love—or love to hate. First up is a banana taped to a wall that sold for six figures in US dollars
“Even my five-year-old child could have made this.” How often have we overheard this offhand remark at an art exhibition? Despite some people clearly harbouring these assumptions, it’s hard to deny that the art world is burgeoning. According to the 2022 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, the industry is worth billions of dollars—a whopping US$65 billion (or around HK$509 billion) to be precise. Never in its history has art been as visible, influential or accessible as it is today. Not only that, never before have there been more art students, art schools, practising artists, collectors, or consumers.
Yet there’s no silencing the scepticism that surrounds contemporary art—and some of which is valid. Is art a luxury good, an asset, an investment, a status symbol, a scam or all the above? Depending on who you speak to, the answer may vary widely, but one thing is certain: everyone has an opinion about art and its most sensational creations. Our new art series explains the most divisive pieces of work ever made and deconstructs its background, history and context to better understand its significance. Here, we address the good, the bad and the questionable.
Speaking of questionable, one such eyebrow-raising moment in art history took place in 2019 when a banana taped onto the wall sold for six figures in US dollars. Yes, we’re talking about Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian (2019), which is essentially a banana duct-taped to the wall, and it is one of the most inciting, instantly recognisable artworks in the recent past. Not only has it become the subject of memes, selfies and ridicule, it has also inspired many subsequent artworks, including Gavin Turk’s bronze banana titled Giraffe (2022). Oh, and, Comedian became an international sensation when it sold for US$120,000 at Art Basel Miami in 2019.
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Cattelan, whose We solo exhibition is opening at Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul today, is considered a conceptual artist—someone whose art often possesses underlying concepts that supersedes the final object—and boasts a body of work that yields maximum shock value. He first grabbed attention in 1999 with La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), a wax statue of Pope John Paul II hit by a meteorite. The scandalous effect of sacrilege combined with existential angst is an example of his twisted sense of humour that is now signature of his oeuvre. The Italian artist then staged an off-site event for the 2001 Venice Biennale, for which he recreated the famous Hollywood sign in LA on top of a garbage dump in Palermo, Sicily. In 2010, he made L.O.V.E., an enormous sculpture of a hand with its middle finger extended, and installed it in Piazza Affari, a public square in Milan, as a symbol of anti-fascism. He’s also suspended taxidermied horses in palazzos and museums, placed a fully functioning toilet made of 18-carat gold in the washroom of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was later moved to and stolen from the Blenheim Palace in England.
Then came the Comedian, which is consistent with Cattelan’s unique sense of humour and invokes the historical tradition of Dadaism. Born out of anger and frustration towards the horrors of World War I, the Dada movement began in Europe in the mid 1910s. The works which fall under this genre often employ satire to encapsulate a deliberately ludicrous, nonsensical sensibility. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1950), a porcelain urinal, is one of the most emblematic works of Dadaist art, and one which directly influenced Cattelan. By placing a common, everyday object in the context of a gallery or museum, Duchamp questioned the existing notion of art and encourages the audience to reflect on its potential.
Similarly, the Comedian evokes the very same questions. After the initial shock and chuckles wear off, it makes you think about what the scope of art is and also what it can be, as well as how we’re consuming it, and culture, at large. The banana’s relevance and validity as an artwork is further justified by the event where it was exhibited at Art Basel Miami. By showcasing it at a purely commercial art fair, the Comedian asks us to reflect on the value we place on art—both monetarily and culturally.
Prankster or provocateur, Cattelan injects some much-needed humour, in an art world that all too often takes itself a little too seriously. In this way, the banana used in Comedian offers much more than just potassium and magnesium—talk about food for thought. And that’s why it’s art.
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