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There’s Always Money in the Banana Stand

On the art world’s weird obsession with fruit

There was a long line to get served at the Whitney on a recent Friday night, even though the menu listed a single item: tiny paper cups of multicolored salad, each the size of a ketchup container. It was all in the name of art, specifically a performance by Darren Bader, whose show fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad includes just this one untitled piece: the display and serving of salad.

Throughout the show’s run, forty items of produce stood on wooden plinths. Pineapples, butternut squash, purple cabbage, apples, and broccoli: a Whole Foods bounty. Four times a week, kitchen staff from the nearby museum cafe brought all of the fruit into the kitchen. The audience watched by a video link projected into the main gallery as two workers in chef’s whites chopped, peeled, and prepped each item into bite-sized chunks before mixing all of it together. Thirty minutes later, they rolled a large silver bowl back and handed it out, one ladleful at a time.

“Oh my god, it’s everything,” said the woman in front of me as we jostled for this thumbnail version of a regular meal, a microportion of yam, pomegranate, and raw red onion all jumbled but somehow still photogenic.

Fruit’s beauty makes it an ideal starting point for a given artwork. Still lifes, after all, look more interesting with the contours and textures of fruit and vegetables (perhaps why Bader calls them “nature’s impeccable sculptures” in the exhibition’s press materials). It’s probably youth that we’re looking for: proof of viability, full and plump, that signals a distance from death we find attractive. Capturing this vitality has been an age-old obsession in artistic practice, and one that isn’t going anywhere. For example, an exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, entitled Feast for the Eyes, explored the nuances of what it means when we photograph our food. Often taking fruit and vegetables as a subject, it argued that luscious fresh produce is as much a symbol of wealth and mortality in the age of photography as it has ever been.

It’s probably youth that we’re looking for: proof of viability, full and plump, that signals a distance from death we find attractive.

The odd effect of stripping fruit of its skin before photographing it—in, for example, Untitled (2000), an otherwise slick shot by Holger Niehaus—reminds the viewer of the nakedness of human vulnerability. Meanwhile Skeen & Company’s still lifes of “exotic” fruit, taken in Sri Lanka in the late nineteenth century and intended to be sold as souvenirs to wealthy visitors, depict fruit as a status symbol. In these bright carapaces, death is inevitable and the wealth of today is temporary.

In line for my salad at the Whitney, I also thought of a recent trend on foodie Instagram: decorating a plate of otherwise delicious food with frozen berries. Although they’ve been called “ghost” or “zombie” berries, to me, they seem more cryogenic, idealizing a pause on the aging process.

“Comedian,” by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (also known for installing a toilet made out of gold as a work of art), had already captured headlines for its provocative proposition: How could a banana command such a high price tag? The $120,000 banana was duct-taped to the wall when performance artist David Datuna decided to eat it. Smart phones, which crowded the Art Basel Miami Beach booth in preparation for those who wanted to take selfies with the artwork, captured his announcement: “Art performance,” he said, smirking to his audience. “Hungry Artist.”

In theory, it was a disaster for the booth’s owners, Galerie Perrotin, whose managers went about kicking Datuna out of the fair immediately. But the performance, even if unsanctioned, clearly just expanded the oxygen of publicity that the work consumed. The brouhaha was important for “Comedian” to function, and therefore, to command sales.

But the intervention had another impact that raised more interesting questions for those interested in fruit’s function. Cattelan’s “Comedian”  was supposed to remain on the wall for two days, shown gently decomposing for selfie after selfie, before being replaced by another bendy yellow friend. Now, earlier than intended, another banana would have to be duct taped onto the white wall—and it swiftly was. This was, it was revealed, always the plan. It was just a matter of when. The banana itself was almost irrelevant. But without Datuna’s intervention, would we ever have thought to ask?

“The banana is the idea,” said the gallery, insisting that Datuna hadn’t destroyed the artwork. So what had he done to it? Upon removal from the wall, the banana instantly become deconsecrated—no longer an artwork, no longer a Cattelan. Cattelan’s approach feels like a philosophical problem of identity, a Hesperus/Phosphorus conundrum. This magic trick that means the artwork always has value, which is to say, financial value. Q: How many conceptual bananas can you sell? A: As many as can maintain their price on the market. Cattelan made this clear: “A work like that, if you don’t sell the work, it’s not a work of art,” the founder of the gallery told Artnet News. Which is why the artist didn’t care about Datuna’s stunt.

Another artist, whose work had a different intention, might have said something different, such as: “How dare this person, you know, mess around with my work?” This was Yoko Ono’s response when John Lennon took a bite out of her work “Apple” in 1966. They met, as infamous couples throughout time have sometimes done, over this bitten apple. By Lennon’s account, he understood Ono’s work immediately: “It was two hundred quid to watch the fresh apple decompose.” Both Ono and Cattelan had their fruits’ death knitted into the work, and they solved the loop with a boring sleight of hand that made the artwork as mysterious and financially viable as possible. It only took Cattelan and Ono, performance artist and musician, to point this out for the audience.

Darren Bader asks: Why not be the impertinent interloper and pull back the curtain on your own work? Indeed, this sleight of hand is nowhere to be found in his work. He is far too interested in the specific and the pragmatic. Bader’s presentation of fruits and vegetables includes the Whitney’s distinctly ordinary if very swanky cafe, and we watch it on every step of its journey to our stomachs. There’s no hiding what’s happening, and there is no magic here. We are not looking at an artwork that clothes itself in the intangible alchemy of money. The banana is, as it were, unskinned.

Q: How many conceptual bananas can you sell? A: As many as can maintain their price on the market.

In Bader’s previous work, he has shown a similar love for this exactitude of gesture. For the work ___GBP, in 2015, he sold nearly $16,000 in British pounds as a work of art at Christie’s auction house. The money, which was crowdfunded through Indiegogo, went for almost $19,000, which was then donated to charity. It’s humorous, but not in a slapstick, banana-peel-under-the-shoe way. It’s funny in the way that some technically good jokes still induce a groan, even from those who appreciate their worth. Like an Onion headline that has outlived its outlandishness and is now simply a description of the truth, some things that are funny are just too correct to be jokes.

Because, no matter whether they have opposite intentions, fruits and vegetables . . . certainly elicits similar responses in audiences to Cattelan’s “Comedian.” On one side rolled eyes, accusations of trolling, the ever-present feeling that a contemporary artist is taking the art world for a ride. On another, enjoyment, reveling in the opportunity to interact with art in such a clear and unencumbered way.

Bader’s work, in the end, has the odd effect of confirming what we know to be true about art. Whether that’s the idea that artists are charlatans, or that art itself is a dropped banana peel depends on the eye of the still life’s beholder.