It's clearer than ever that Maurizio Cattelan was trolling us when he announced that he had "retired"; it was just last week when the Italian artist and professional provocateur staged one of his biggest stunts yet. Rather than contribute a sculpture or painting like the majority of the artists showcased at Art Basel Miami Beach like the rest of the fair's artists, Cattelan opted to affix a banana to the wall of Perrotin gallery's booth with a piece of duct tape, title it Comedian, price it at $120,000, and call it a day.
Of course, like the solid 18-karat gold toilet that Cattelan cheekily titled America, there's more to Comedian than meets the eye. The work is a meditation on how we assign worth and how we choose which objects to value, making the pandemonium that ensued all too fitting—though ultimately too distracting for most fairgoers to realize they had become a part of the work itself. Comedian was such a sensation that Perrotin decided it wasn't worth the risk to leave it up for the final day of the fair. "Art Basel collaboratively worked with us to station guards and create uniform lines," the gallery said in a statement. "However, the installation caused several uncontrollable crowd movements and the placement of the work on our booth compromised the safety of the artwork around us, including that of our neighbors."
How did we get to this point? How could a banana, purchased at a local Miami grocer, cause such mayhem? Here, a day-by-day breakdown of the banana's journey from a local Miami grocer to a phenomenon so popular it became a safety hazard.
Wednesday, December 4: The VIPs eat it right up.
It only took a matter of hours on Wednesday, the fair's VIP preview day, to prove that yes, people willing to fork over $120,000 for a banana and a piece of duct tape indeed do exist. Two editions of Comedian sold so quickly that the gallery upped the price of the third and final edition even further, to $150,000. (Artnet News was there to witness the moment that Emmanuel Perrotin proposed the price hike to Cattelan via text.) The priciest Comedian of all will apparently go to a museum. Like its banana brethren, it includes instructions from Cattelan to swap out the banana every 10 days.
Thursday, December 5: Here come the memes.
The stampede of fairgoers, often with their own bananas in tow, clambering to get a selfie with Comedian was, well, comedic. The internet also got in on the fun from afar, creating memes ranging from the requisite take on Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam to emphases on the phallic nature of the fruit (and its ego). Eventually, Perrotin even created an official @cattelanbanana Instagram account.
Friday, December 6: The New York Post enters the fray.
Not many artists can say they've landed a cover of the New York Post—let alone two within just a few years. (Cattelan's solid gold toilet also graced the tabloid's cover, with the cover line "We're No. 1! (And no. 2)." With the banana, the Post took things up a notch: "Art world gone mad," read the text accompanying the banana (which took precedence over an update on the impeachment inquiry.)
Saturday, December 7: The forbidden fruit meets its fate.
Somehow, it took until Saturday for the inevitable to happen: A fairgoer took it upon themselves to steal the banana off the wall, eat it, and call it performance art. The rule breaker was quickly escorted off the premises, as documented in a video posted to Twitter has since been favorited more than 181,000 times. Meanwhile, TMZ wondered: "Can he do that???"
Sunday, December 8: The banana bids farewell—and the post mortems pour in.
At 9 a.m. on Sunday, the final day of the fair, Perrotin gallery prematurely removed Comedian from the wall of its booth. "We sincerely apologize to all the visitors of the fair who today will not be able to participate in 'Comedian,'" it said in a statement. "'Comedian,' with its simple composition, ultimately offered a complex reflection of ourselves." (Luckily, a completely silver Kanye West was all too happy to fill the void of mayhem it left behind.)
Tragic as its unexpected removal may have been, the opportunity to reflect on the work's nuances arose at long last. Cattelan first had the idea to create a sculpture of a banana a year ago, and had been meditating on how best to execute it ever since. (He made models out of resin, bronze, and painted bronze before returning to the concept of a regular ole fruit standing on its own.) "Bananas are important. As humans, they remind us of a lot of other things," Cattelan and his frequent collaborator, Pierpaolo Ferrari, told Vice earlier this year, describing the fruit's strange familiarity as "uncanny and uncomfortable." "It is also a topos of modern and contemporary art—from Giorgio de Chirico's 1913 canvas The Uncertainty of the Poet to Andy Warhol’s 1967 cover for the Velvet Underground & Nico’s debut album—many artists played with the peculiarities of its shape, politicizing it and carving out meanings in their own right."
At the same time as spectators were familiarizing themselves with the work's backstory, critics got to work on explaining its implications—and, in the case of the New York Times, publishing a "grudging" defense of the work. Comedian, the critic Jason Farago notes, is not without precedence; in 1999, Cattelan made an even bolder gesture with duct tape by using it to fasten his dealer, Massimo Di Carlo, to a wall, "like a grotesque but not less striking crucifixion." Titled A Perfect Day, it was yet another instance of Cattelan cheekily critiquing the art world—and, crucially, taking care to implicate himself.