Just a week ago, the art world went crazy for a new work by Maurizio Cattelan titled Comedian at Art Basel Miami. Shortly after the opening, a banana duct taped to a white wall was purchased for a sum of $120,000 and it caused numerous reactions by other artists, one of them even eating the fruit and presenting it as a performance, while the art fair forced Parisian gallery Perrotin to withdraw Cattelan’s artwork from their booth due to too many people visiting their booth and obstructing the workflow of other galleries.
This particular intervention or gesture if you like revamped a lasting debate regarding the originality of an artwork that permeates the art since the beginning of the 20th century. This particular method of gimmick or ridicule has its history and recalls the initial impulses which appeared in the early 1960s. Perhaps the best possible example for articulating Cattelan’s banana is the work Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility) by the iconic French artist Yves Klein.
This particular in-situ project consisted of the artist's book and performance and was based on the ongoing sale of ownership of empty space (the Immaterial Zone). Klein offered a cheque e.g. certificate of purchase in exchange for gold. According to the buyer’s wish, the piece could be completed in an elaborate ritual in which Klein would throw away half of the gold into the Seine river while the buyer would burn the cheque. The ritual would be conducted in the presence of a distinguished dealer or an art critic, an art museum director, and at least two witnesses.
By 1959 when this project was launched, Yves Klein was already engaged in experimentation and was famous for his blue monochromes, balloon happening and 1958 exhibition/happening La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void), centered on a large white cabinet dramatically staged for the opening night.
The artist was thrilled with the idea of offering/selling nothing, and it was his way to question the art system contaminated with consumerism, as well as to tackle the notion of an artwork and its authenticity. Therefore, the piece made the following year, in 1959, was aimed to go even further in the mentioned exploration.
In general, Klein managed to sell eight Zones in between 1959 and his death in 1962, and the three sold pieces involved the ritual. In a 2004 monograph, Olivier Berggruen, Max Hollein, and Ingrid Pfeiffer emphasized this gesture:
Klein's receipts verify the existence of an invisible work of art, which proves that a formal sale has taken place. As Klein establishes in his 'Ritual Rules', each buyer has two possibilities; If he pays the amount of gold agreed upon in exchange for a receipt, Klein keeps all of the gold, and the buyer does not really acquire the "authentic immaterial value" of the work. The second possibility is to buy an immaterial zone for gold and then to burn the receipt. Through this act, a perfect, definitive immaterialization is achieved, as well as the absolute inclusion of the buyer in the immaterial... Klein presents capitalist trading strategies and illuminates his ideas about the indefinable, incalculable value of art.
Editors’ Tip: Overcoming the Problems of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein
Yves Klein (1928 - 1962) was the most important French artist of the second half of the 20th century. Born in Nice, he spent his formative years studying Judo in Japan for a time, before settling in Paris and beginning to exhibit his work there. Many of these early paintings were monochrome and in a variety of colors. By the late 1950s, Klein's monochrome works were almost exclusively in a deep blue hue which he eventually named International Klein Blue (IKB). This is the first complete collection of the writings of the visionary French conceptual artist Yves Klein published in English translation.
Klein made eight books of the receipts in form of an actual parody of a banker's cheque book, but only five of them survived. Each book consisted of ten numbered receipts prescribing the exchange for gold. The gold that didn’t end up in a ritual was used by the artist for his series of Monogolds; Klein was generally transfixed with this material and had encountered its use in art while working in a framing workshop in London during 1949-50; he associated gold with immateriality ever since.
On the other hand, Klein previously used the ritual in his work; such a fascination came from Catholicism and Buddhism, as well the artist’s involvement with the archaic group the Knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian. The void is also a topic that haunted him constantly and is present in his other works such as the mentioned Le Vide (The Void) or his second solo exhibition for which he presented an emptied gallery painted white with Republican Guards standing in front of the space as sentries. Regarding nothingness in 1961 Yves Klein wrote:
Having rejected nothingness, I discovered the void. The meaning of the immaterial pictorial zones, extracted from the depth of the void which by that time was of very material order. Finding it unacceptable to sell these immaterial zones for money, I insisted in exchange for the highest quality of the immaterial, the highest quality of material payment – a bar of pure gold. Incredible as it may seem, I have actually sold a number of these pictorial immaterial states . . . Painting no longer appeared to me to be functionally related to the gaze, since during the blue monochrome period of 1957 I became aware of what I called the pictorial sensibility. This pictorial sensibility exists beyond our being and yet belongs in our sphere. We hold no right of possession over life itself. It is only by the intermediary of our taking possession of sensibility that we are able to purchase life. Sensibility enables us to pursue life to the level of its base material manifestations, in the exchange and barter that are the universe of space, the immense totality of nature.
Although at the time it was produced Klein’s iconic Zone project was considered scandalous by the media, it attracted a significant circle of fans. The documentation made after Michael Blankfort's ritual transaction suggested that the whole event was very inspiring ending with chimes ringing from nearby Parisian churches.
The artist apparently wanted to question the very notion of the artwork and make a sort of a reaction to a modernist proposition that an artwork should be authentic especially the celebrated essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin. For this and other actions, Klein is non-arguably considered as the predecessor of Conceptual art, especially its fundamental task to dematerialize an art object.
This conclusion brings us back to the contemporary moment and the frenzy which happened after Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian was revealed. The similarity with Klein’s happenings and gestures is apparent, yet we have to take into consideration the difference in the context.
Namely, after so many years of various examples coming from Conceptual and Appropriation art, other propositions made throughout the 1900s and early 2000s, and the fact the very consumption of art has changed in the digital era, it seems that Cattelan’s intervention is less sincere then Klein’s was.
It has to be admitted that the younger Italian artist did bring up an important art world subject of originality and fakes in a consumerist world contaminated with click baits, endless social media shares and viral presence where anything and everything can be considered art. However, the question is what should be the definite effect of this particular action?
Does Comedian raise awareness regarding the enormous production and distribution of food by Third world countries for the use of First World countries or does it speak about the absurdity of the art system or all of that plus some other things? Cattelan's agenda remains slightly mysterious regardless of Perrotin’s press release which is not the case Klein’s profoundly subversive project, delivered by the artist as a manifestation of his own explorations of nothingness.
Although the practice of Maurizio Cattelan is rooted in satire, this particular intervention was purchased like any other artwork while the money was not rejected, disintegrated or subverted by the artist yet. At this point, Comedian operates solely on the basis of its name, but the time will reveal its impact or it will be remembered simply as a viral meme.
Featured image: Yves Klein and Dino Buzzati engaged in the ritual transfer of immateriality, January 26, 1962. Via Wikimedia Commons.