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The ‘a-peel’ Of the Most Talked About Work of Conceptual Art

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Over the decades there has always been something creating a buzz in the art world, whether it’s record-breaking auction prices, a newly discovered artist, or a controversial piece of art. Art is nothing new but happenings in the art world that make headlines every year are as fresh as an undiscovered artist.

In 2018, renown former anti-establishment street artist Banksy rocked the halls of Sotheby’s when what was considered his most important contemporary art piece, Girl with Balloon, was shredded while it hung framed on the wall before bidders’ eyes. Bidders waiting to witness what they expected to be a record-breaking sale instead witnessed a live memento mori only Banksy could pull off. The buyer kept the piece, renaming it Love is in the Bin.Three years later the stunt continues to fuel vigorous debates. Even still, nothing could have prepared the art world for the art that made headlines all over the world. Enter the “Comedian”.

Banana Here Banana There Bananas Everywhere

Bananas were popping up everywhere. People were duct taping bananas on walls, taking selfies with it, and posting them to Instagram, the visual art king of social media. And it all started in 2018 when a duct taped banana created a stir in the art world. It trended on Twitter and might be the first fruit to ever grace the cover of the New York Post. Celebrities were posting selfies of themselves with bananas. Actress Brooke Shields poked fun of the banana buzz by posting a selfie of herself – with a banana taped to her face.

The art world, and people everywhere, were talking about a work of art that looked to be anything but. A banana. Not just any banana, but a banana duct taped to a wall exhibited during the Miami art fair Art Basel by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. A single banana taped to the wall with a single strip of gray duct tape. While many were dubbing the most unusual piece of art the Art Basel Banana, the simple but ‘a peeling’ work was actually titled Comedian by its creator, Cattelan.

Behind the Banana

Cattelan is an Italian artist considered an absurdist in the art world. He is known for his hyperrealistic sculptures and, especially after the Comedian, his installations. He is considered a prankster within art circles. The self-taught artist is no stranger to attention with international exhibits and another attention getting installation titled America, a solid gold toilet that was a commentary on America under Trump in 2017.

While the banana craze that resulted from the Comedian highlighted the basic fact that anyone could tape a banana to the wall, it emphasized the genius of the artist. Considered conceptual art, debates about its genius continue to be ongoing. It was said that Cattelan had been pondering creating a sculpture in the shape of a banana. Like any artist, he was debating on what medium to work in. The artist made several models including bronze and resin before he went with the most telling medium of all, the banana itself. Ironically, he titled the work Comedian, a nod to the vaudeville days when folks would get a good laugh over the proverbial slip on a banana peel.

Going Bananas

After the Comedian was exhibited during the Art Basel fair in Miami, Florida, it was the sale price that began the flurry of attention sparking a buzz both online and offline that continues almost three years later. Even more astounding than the jaw dropping $120,000 sale was the fact that three buyers bought it. How do you buy a banana duct taped to a wall? Art experts say it wasn’t the art buyers paid for but the concept. Art buyers paid over six figures not for the actual banana, but a certificate of art. It’s conceptual art and they happily paid for an idea rather than the work itself. In fact, the price tag gets the owner a certificate of art and specific instructions on how to correctly display it, all wrapped up in a fourteen-page list of instructions.

The crowds of people that flocked to see the Comedian were so out of control that security was called in. When it was thought the duct taped banana couldn’t garner any more attention, one Saturday afternoon a performance artist made his mark on Castellan’s work. As the crowds pushed in to see the duct taped banana, performance artist David Datuna walked up, grabbed the banana, and ate it. Cell phones suspended in air struggled in the crowd to catch what would be an internet breaking moment. Datuna took to Instagram himself, taking a bow as he said, ‘art performance by me’ and proceeded to profess his love for Cattelan and how he enjoyed this particularly delicious installation. While some speculated it was a planned stunt between the two artists, Datuna made it clear he had never met the artist behind the banana craze.

While the gallery replaced it that day, the next day the installation was removed citing reasons safety risks due to overwhelming crowds. The legacy of the Comedianlives on as Galerie Perrotin, who exhibited the work during Art Basel, launched a social media account filled with memes dedicated to the banana, even going so far as to incorporate the banana with another social media craze, Baby Yoda. 

Sold! Sold! Sold!  

The banana, or Comedian, spurred heated debates over its legitimacy as art. Could it or should it be considered art? Art critics argued over the message of the work. Critic Robert Storr compared Cattelan’s work to that of Andy Warhol. Storr pointed out that while Warhol’s Coca Cola art made a political statement, Cattelan had grasped the rich would pay exorbitant amounts for a bruised piece of art.  

Buyers paid a sum between $120,000 and $150,000 for three editions of the Comedian. What’s more, an offer to buy the duct taped banana from British conceptual artist Damien Hirst was reported as rejected.

Almost two years after the buzz worthy banana craze rocked the art world, the Solomon R. Guggenheim announced it had received the art through an anonymous donation complete with instructions on how often to change the banana (every 7-10 days) and how high above the ground it should be installed. While the Guggenheim was scheduled to reopen its doors in October 2020, after closing due to the pandemic, at the time the dates for the display of the banana remained unknown.

Mainstream media has always been quick to point out how contemporary art confirms the old saying ‘a fool is soon parted with his money’. It was Warhol who said it best ‘Art is whatever you can get away with’. Cattelan’s clever work proved that point and it did so three times over.

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