We’ve all been there: wandering the halls of an art museum, when suddenly hunger strikes. But when one South Korean art student got peckish at the Leeum Art Museum in Seoul, he made the bold decision to eat one of the artworks: Comediansa banana taped to the wall by the notoriously prankster artist Maurizio Cattelan.
“The student told the museum he ate it because he was hungry,” a spokesperson for the Leeum told CNN. “It happened suddenly, so no special action was taken. The artist [Cattelan] was informed of the incident but he didn’t have any reaction to it.”
Noh Huyn-soo, a student of aesthetics and religion at Seoul National University, had a friend record a video of him eating Cattelan’s Comedians. Someone can be heard in the background shouting “excuse me” as Noh removes the banana from the wall. It took just over a minute for him to consume the fruit, after which he taped the peel back on the wall and smiled for the camera.
“There was a buzzer sound when I got close to other works, but there was no problem with it Comedians when I got close,” Noh told Artnet News in an Instagram message. “After eating the banana, I went back to looking around. The bananas were fresh.”
It’s not the first time such a fate has fallen Comedians. The infamous conceptual artwork, which absurdly elevates an inexpensive perishable item into the realm of fine art, debuted at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair in 2019, on sale for an eyebrow-raising $120,000 from the Perrotin gallery.
The piece became an immediate sensation, with two editions selling in the early hours of the fair’s VIP opening. Then Perrotin raised the price to $150,000 for the third edition. As word of Comedians spread, the booth had to set up a velvet rope in front of it as a means of crowd control—but such measures didn’t stop artist David Datuna from unsticking the work from the wall, and promptly peeling and eating it.
“I have traveled in 67 countries around the world in the last three years, and I see how people live. Millions are dying without food. Then he put three bananas on the wall for half a million dollars?” Datuna said to the Guardian. He claimed that eating the notorious sculpture was not vandalism, but a performance art piece in its own right—which he christened Hungry Artists. (He later teamed up with Dole on a banana-themed NFT.)
Noh had similar thoughts about his actions. “In a way, Cattelan’s work is a rebellion against a certain authority. But in fact, it could be another rebellion against rebellion… I wondered how the damaged work could become a work in a way,” he told KBS News. “Isn’t it taped there to be eaten?”
In both incidents, Cattelan was unfazed. Eating the banana cannot destroy the work, he said in 2019, because “the banana is the idea.” The incident at the Leeum Museum was “no problem at all,” he told the BBC.
Neither the artist nor the gallery opted to press charges against Datuna, who died in May 2022. But the next day, the gallery had to remove the installation, which the fair dubbed “a serious health and safety risk,” from view.
In Seoul, it took about 30 minutes for the Leeum Museum staff to procure and install a new banana. (Normally, the fruit changes every two or three days.) The institution has no plans to pursue disciplinary action against Noh.
Comedians is one of 38 works by Cattelan on view in his first South Korean solo show. The exhibition, which opened in January, is the largest showing of the artist’s work since his 2011 retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. An anonymous donor gifted an edition of the Comedians to the institution in 2020.
In creating the artwork, Cattelan had originally experimented with creating a banana sculpture in bronze and resin before ultimately deciding that the genuine article couldn’t be topped. The gallery was dispatched to a local supermarket to buy a banana and to carefully affix it to the wall according to his precise specifications—about 68 inches above the ground, at a 37-degree angle.
If you own the artwork, you are responsible for sourcing both the banana and the tape, but you do get the instruction manual for installing it, as well as a certificate of authenticity. Among the collectors are Billy and Beatrice Cox—who promised to donate theirs to a museum—and Sarah Andelman. Perrotin held on to two artist proofs, despite numerous offers, including from Damien Hirst.
Cattelan is currently battling a lawsuit from American artist Joe Morford, who claims Comedians infringes on his copyright for the 2000 artwork Bananas & Oranges. Both works feature a banana duct taped to the wall at a similar angle. Cattelan has maintained that he never saw the earlier work.
“Maurizio Cattelan: We” is on view at the Leeum Museum of Art, 60-16, Itaewon-ro, 55-gil, Yongsan-gu, 140-893 Seoul, South Korea, January 31–July 16, 2023.
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