Maurizio Cattelan’s banana artwork eaten by art student in Seoul

SEOUL — Art enthusiasts and curious onlookers alike have gone bananas for an exhibition here by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, with tickets getting snapped up as soon as they become available.

Since the exhibition, “WE,” opened in January, visitors have converged on the Leeum Museum in the posh Hannam neighborhood to gawk at — and take selfies with — taxidermied horses, eerily realistic mannequins and a banana duct-taped to the wall.

But an art student at one of South Korea’s top universities has brought even more attention to the exhibition by eating the banana — or artwork if you’d prefer to call it that — other copies of which have sold for $120,000.

In a video published last week by Korean broadcaster KBS, the Seoul National University art student, Noh Hyun-soo, is seen pulling the banana off the wall as a voice is heard calling out, “Hey, you there!” Disregarding the plea, Noh peels the banana and then calmly devours it in a matter of seconds before taping the peel back on to the wall and posing for the camera; his friend was recording the stunt, according to KBS.

“I found it fun in that defacing a work of art could be seen as a work of art itself,” Noh told KBS, adding that he told the museum he had eaten the banana — which is replaced every few days, as it is a real, ripening banana — because he was hungry. “And I don’t think I saw anyone else do something like this, so I just went ahead and did it for fun. Don’t they put [the banana] on the wall for eating, anyway?”

But Noh was not the first to make a snack of “Comedian.” Performance artist David Datuna ate one of the bananas at Art Basel Miami in 2019.

A rogue artist ate the $120,000 duct-taped banana at Art Basel. ‘It’s performance,’ he said.

When “Comedian” sold for $120,000 at Art Basel, it renewed a debate in the art world and beyond about what exactly constitutes art.

To some critics, Cattelan’s work is lazily simple; to others, it is deliberately austere, or tongue-in-cheek. The Guggenheim offered to lend one of his pieces, a gold toilet titled “America,” to the White House after the Trump administration had asked to borrow a Van Gogh to furnish the president’s living quarters. When asked about the toilet by The Washington Post at the time, Cattelan said in a rare phone interview, “What’s the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die and then it makes sense.” The functioning toilet was stolen while on exhibition in Britain in 2019.

At the Leeum on Tuesday, a replacement banana was intact as an attendant stood watch over it. She reprimanded one woman who got within inches of the fruit, apparently trying to get a closer look, and another who stood near it for a picture. One woman observing the banana mused to her group about eating it before jokingly lunging at it with her mouth agape. The attendant didn’t budge but did say if this reporter were to attempt to eat the banana, she would have to intervene.

Joo Ha-yeon, a student on an arts high school field trip (scheduled before the caper), stood next to a classmate as she observed the banana. She wasn’t impressed by Noh’s stunt.

“It was kind of obvious because the first one already did it,” she said, referencing the 2019 feast. “So I just thought he was wanting the attention of Koreans.” But Joo and her classmate agreed that because of the media attention, the feat was, in fact, art.

Don’t ask if the duct-tape banana is art. Ask if it’s any good.

Cattelan could not immediately be reached for his thoughts on the matter, and Perrotin, a gallery that represents him, did not respond to a request for comment. The museum told Cattelan about the stunt but he “didn’t have any reaction to it,” CNN reported.

As for Noh, the Leeum is not pursuing “any special actions” against him, a spokesperson for the museum, Miso Han, said in an email. The artwork was “replaced right after the incident,” which Han said “happened unexpectedly.”

Jintak Han contributed to this report.

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