Turn the lights on Maurizio

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At this year’s edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the most anticipated, prominent and “coolest” contemporary art fairs worldwide – taking place at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 5th to 8th December – Maurizio Cattelan emerged as the main protagonist. Unsurprisingly, his Comedian, the yellow fruit taped on the wall and priced between $120.000 and $150.000, was under the limelight. After being absent from the art fairs’ circuits for 15 years, nowadays most provocative and irreverent Italian artist decided not to let his renewed presence go unnoticed. Among the works he presented, the most striking was certainly his conceptual art installation consisting of nothing but a banana taped on the booth walls of the Perrotin gallery.

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Comedian, Maurizio Cattelan, 2019 (Courtesy: Sarah Cascone).

Despite a legitimate dose of skepticism, the artist’s expectations were absolutely met since two editions have been acquired for $120.000 each by private collectors, while the third one is expected to be sold to an as-of-yet unrevealed museum for $150.000. It goes without saying that, given the perishable and common nature of the object, the intrinsic value is due to the author’s certificate of authenticity without which the installation would return to the simple state of a few-cents banana. The rationale behind Cattelan’s work stems from the so-called Conceptual Art, an artistic movement arising in the mid 1960s and having Marcel Duchamp as one of its most important precursors, most notably with the world-renowned urinal Fontana, presented in 1917 on the occasion of the American “Society of Independent Artists”. 

Since the beginning, the movement was animated by the aim to search for the pure essence of art, putting at its core the “idea” rather than the object per se. In that sense, the conceptualists’ very core is represented by the complete work’s dematerialization cornered around the predominance of the inner concept, in such a way that the object’s material character and its final execution become ancillary, whereas the intrinsic process of creation acquires importance. According to this, the simple and physical presence of the works – e.g. as sculpture or painting – is substituted with documents, photos or written essays aimed at reconstructing the process through which the author comes up with an idea. Considering these premises, Cattelan’s work does not represent an unicum but it aligns with an artistic expression already greatly developed and questioned in the past. The same lack of surprise could be easily adopted looking at the work’s economic and mediatic dimensions. In that sense, even though most observers have legitimately turned their noises in front of the $120.000-banana, it is equally legitimate to question the overall surprise that it generated. In fact, talking about a work’s value, the reason why a contemporary artwork can reach such an exorbitant sum is something that has been thoroughly described and analysed. From a theoretical point of view, the work’s valorization process can be described according to a cyclical logic. The starting point is when the young artist begins their first collaborations with galleries, having the main purpose to support and valorise their works, organising exhibitions, capturing the attention of curators, journalists and institutions to create new valuable collaborations – the networking element is something essential – allowing the works to successfully enter the art market.  In general, it is fundamental that the artist succeeds in being known and recognized by the overall system. In practice, it means to collaborate with ever more important galleries, curators and other professionals, to be included in the secondary market mechanisms (as the auction houses processes), exhibiting in popular public and private institutions (museums, foundations etc.) and starting to be part of important collections. In that way, the value of his/her works will increase, progressively favouring the artist’s passage from being “emergent” to becoming “established”. In this sense, Maurizio Cattelan is one of the most iconic contemporary artists, one whose works have been exhibited in some of the most importantart galleries (as the Italian Massimo de Carlo or the American Marian Goodman Gallery) and institutions (e.g. his striking retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in 2011-2012). It is therefore barely surprising how affluent collectors are glad to spend thousands of dollars on his works.
As said, even when taking into account Cattelan’s artistic proposal there is nothing new. In fact, since the early stage of his successful career he has always exhibited an irreverent, ironic and debated oeuvre. For example, in 1999 he hung his gallerist Massimo de Carlo up on the gallery wall as a one-off performance resembling the act of crucifixion. In 2016 instead, for his exhibition “America” at the Guggenheim in New York, he created a fully functioning 18-karat golden toilet, allowing the users to personally experience the work as a metaphorical materialization of the “American dream”, in the sense of giving opportunities to everyone. Or just think about Untitled, the public installation conceived in 2004 for the space of Piazza XXIV Maggio in Milan, consisting of 3 puppets resembling children hanged on a tree. A metaphor of the childhood as period of both freedom and terror and broadly referring to the violence and cynicism characterising the modern world. In short, a banana taped on the wall simply confirms Cattelan’s artistic expression and stylistic coherence. 

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A perfect day, Maurizio Cattlean and Massimo de Carlo, 1999 (Courtesy: Artnet).

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 America, Maurizio Cattelan, 2016 (Courtesy: Guggenheim).

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Untitled, Maurizio Cattelan, 2004 (Courtesy: Artslife).

Then, what’s the whole point? Simply the fact that the clamour generated by Cattelan’s Comedian is surprising. The huge crowd visiting the Perrotin booth in Miami (forcing the gallery to retire the piece), David Tatuna’s “collateral performance” consisting in the provocative act of eating the banana and the whole mediatic attention generated a  debate around the concept of art and its value. In a nutshell, Cattelan has been able, without proposing anything new, to turn on the lights on this overall wealthy, spectacular and euphoric “circus”, still majorly restricted to a small niche of “dominant” actors able to declare who and what could be part of the system and to easily spend thousands of dollars for a taped fruit. In any case, it is this last point combined with the overall generated clamour that, according to the same Perrotin’s words, reveals the true value reading in Cattelan’s (in)famous banana: “A work like that […] if you don’t sell the work, it’s not a work of art.”

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