Maurizio Cattelan <em>Comedian</em> 2019. Courtesy of Perrotin and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Photo: Zeno Zotti<br/>
© Maurizio Cattelan

Peel slowly and see1

Amita Kirpalani

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Comedian is exactly like an apple for Cézanne: the minimum common denominator that everybody recognizes. But you need to alter its condition. Cézanne does it with brush strokes, I do it with gaffer tape.’ Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian was first installed at the 2019 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. This wasn’t the first time the Italian artist had deployed duct tape. In 1999 Cattelan taped his gallerist, Massimo de Carlo, to the wall of his Milan gallery in the work A perfect day. Part Renaissance pastiche, part living sculpture, part insider artworld gag, Comedian is a continuation of a strategy begun in one of Cattelan’s earliest works, where he rented out his allotted exhibition space at the 1993 Venice Biennale to an advertising company with the aim of skewering art-world authority figures, economic structures and power dynamics.

Comedian is less stuck to the wall than it is in regular motion. The work must be remade each time it is shown, requiring vigilance on the part of the gallery or museum and an observance of Cattelan’s instructions. The banana should be replaced every seven to ten days. The banana, native to South-East Asia, is linked to movement, trade and disparate economies and has specific cultural resonances. Arab traders in the Middle Ages bought and sold banan, Arabic for ‘finger’. The OG banana was the Gros Michel (Musa acuminata), also known as ‘Fat Mike’. Fat Mike was the banana – as distinct from the plantain – until the 1950s, when it was rendered almost extinct by Panama disease, which took hold and spread across the world’s plantations. Comedian features our contemporary Cavendish banana, Fat Mike’s understudy – less resilient, more easily bruised and reportedly less banana-ry in flavour. The Cavendish will continue to be the top banana among the 1000-odd other varietals eaten around the world until, like its predecessor, it is subject to the next virus. Bananas: they are just like us, bendy cogs in the economic order.

In this internet age we are hardwired for biography: the art will not be separated from the artist (Vasari said it first). But comedians, like artists, deal in the sacrilegious and the sociopolitically combustible. To quote the oft-quoted American comedian and satirist Bill Hicks, ‘It’s always funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.’ Hicks, like Cattelan, uses the art form against itself, and toys with the fraught nature of spectatorship for contemporary art in an acknowledgement of its own (patriarchal) history. What is spoken is crafted, its form entirely calculated. Comedians, like artists and bananas, are bellwethers, revealing the signs of the times. Cattelan’s Comedian is not a tribute to frivolousness but pointed recklessness, a carefully staged conceptual vaudevillian slip.

AMITA KIRPALANI is a Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria.



Original copies of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s 1967 LP – with cover art and ‘production’ by Andy Warhol – are now rare collector’s items. Each record cover had a little note at the top right that read ‘peel slowly and see’. The yellow and black sticker could be removed to reveal a pink-coloured banana underneath. The printing of the stickers apparently contributed to a delay in the album being released.