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Going Bananas: Artwork Eaten By Museum Visitor

May 3, 2023

dog with a banana in its mouth

Banana Bandit

For years, I’ve been hearing the pros and cons of having breakfast. But this may be the first time one of the benefits of having breakfast in the morning includes that I'm less inclined to destroy an artwork at the museum I’m visiting. This is what happened to Maurizio Cattelan’s work Comedian, which has been one of the most divisive works of art in the last several years. And now it’s back in the news again because someone ate it.

In 2019, Maurizio Cattelan gained wider recognition after he adhered a banana to a wall using duct tape at the Art Basel art fair in Miami Beach. It prompted widespread discussion on what art is and what some people are willing to spend on it. Many were insistent that Comedian was not even art at all. In that way, Comedian might even be following in the footsteps of Dada and absurdism, or possibly what Marcel Duchamp called “anti-art”.

While almost anyone can recreate Comedian if they choose, Cattelan issues certificates of authenticity for authorized versions of the work. He instructs that the banana must be affixed to the wall at a 37-degree angle 68 inches above the ground. One such version is at the Leeum Museum in Seoul, South Korea. This is where a student named Noh Huyn-soo was visiting when he started to get hungry while passing through an ongoing Maurizio Cattelan exhibition. He removed the banana from the wall and began to eat it, taking him less than a minute to do so. Everything happened so quickly that the museum staff could not react in time. While Noh explained that he was just hungry, this was likely a planned stunt since one of his friends filmed the entire incident and posted it to Instagram. This is not the first time someone has eaten a version of the work. At its original showing at Art Basel, artist David Datuna did the same thing, bypassing the velvet rope the Perrotin Gallery had put up to keep viewers at a distance. Datuna later claimed that it was not vandalism but rather a piece of performance art he later called Hungry Artist.

Art can be a lot of things, but among art’s greatest qualities is its ability to make a statement about the world and lead people toward discussion about the work itself and what it’s addressing. Comedian does just that. You can spend decades of your life learning the ins and outs of an artistic medium, applying yourself to create something beautiful, and getting the recognition of your peers and the public. Or, you can buy a banana for fifty cents at a grocery store, tape it to a gallery wall, and let the viewers do all the work for you. But probably one of the most interesting aspects of Comedian is the banana’s perishability. Think of the Ship of Theseus: a ship that becomes so old that you’ve had to replace every piece of wood, every fiber of rope, and every scrap of sail. Is it still the same ship that existed when you first built it? The same thought applies to Comedian. Bananas don’t last long on the kitchen countertop, so I don’t expect it would fare too well under gallery lights. If you have an authorized version of Comedian, I would guess you would have to replace the banana occasionally. So is it still the same artwork if you have to replace the banana? The Leeum Museum replaces the banana every two or three days. The day Noh visited, it took museum staff about half an hour to replace the banana.

When asked by the Guardian about the incident, Cattelan said, “No problem.” But I don’t think Cattelan will be overly concerned with this incident, as he’s in the middle of some legal troubles. An artist named Joe Morford is suing Cattelan for copyright infringement. Morford claims that Cattelan stole the idea for Comedian from his work Banana & Orange. Cattelan claims that he had never seen the work and had never heard of Morford before. The Leeum Museum’s Cattelan exhibition is running through July 16, 2023.