Recently, there was a dust-up over “The Comedian,” a piece in which Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan taped a banana to the wall of a gallery and sold it for $120,000. A gallery patron made additional news by pulling the banana off the wall and eating it. Interviews made it clear that everyone involved was trolling. The saga was catnip to people who believe that conceptual art is full of shit.
Maurizio Cattelan is clearly full of shit, but his work begs the question: could an artist ever walk into a gallery with some snacks, say “this may look like something I picked up at the bodega on the way here, but it is in fact my Art, behold my Art,” and NOT be full of shit?
In my opinion, the answer is yes.
My opinion is heavily informed by this 1991 piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is a pile of free candy. Visitors are invited to take one piece of candy. Frivolous, right? The piece may be staged in any gallery that follows a few simple rules. The most important rule is that the pile should weigh 175 pounds.
175 pounds was the healthy weight of Gonzalez-Torres’ partner Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS.
González-Torres had a Roman Catholic background, and taking the candy is meant to be an act of communion. The patron partakes in the “sweetness” of Ross while participating in his diminishment and torturous death.
The decision to use candy has political significance. In 1991, public funding for the arts and public funding for AIDS research were both the hottest of hot-button issues. HIV positive gay male artists were being targeted for censorship. González-Torres was desperate to be heard, and part of the logic of “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) was that you can’t censor free candy without looking ridiculous. The replicability of the piece makes it indestructible; González-Torres had an intuitive, ahead-of-its-time understanding of virality that came from dealing with an actual virus rather than the internet.
I’ve never seen this piece staged, but I think about it all the time. The artist, sadly, is no longer with us. But we will always have the most brilliant, heartbreaking free candy to ever be heaped in a corner. The key to conceptual art is storytelling – how well can you tell a story without words OR a “proper” picture? The banana on the wall sucks because it doesn’t tell a story about anything but attention-seeking and greed. I can’t stand Banana Guy or the media coverage surrounding him because stunts like that make people close their minds to unconventional art and storytelling, which can be just as sophisticated and moving as conventional art and storytelling.
[Image description: a corner in a white-walled art gallery. There is a large mound of multicolored candy piled up in the corner.]