15 Works of Art That Were Just One Big Troll
The art world is silly, but there’s a kind of collective agreement that we pretend it isn’t. Someone who seems fairly clever, uses eight-dollar words and has a startlingly detailed haircut produces some work, and patiently explains why even though it looks exactly the same as a picture you could get for $40, it’s worth a hundred thousand. And we all just go along with it. It’s a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes scenario, where nobody wants to be so ill-mannered and un-profound that they can see the Emperor’s tiny trembling willy. It’s kind of like that. Right?
Occasionally, though, artists themselves admit that it’s all a big load of bullshit, and decide to have fun with that very idea, to turn the machine upon itself and produce work they know is stoopid, either for the notoriety, the appeal of in-joking to a crowd that’s massively clued-in, purely for the lols or just to see what will happen.
Other times, equally silly points are reached through absolute sincerity — people make deep, meaningful statements in manners that, due to the people involved being artists and therefore thinking in unusual ways, seem kind of daft.
Artist’s Shit: Not Just a Clever Name
Italian artist Piero Manzoni claimed to have filled 90 cans with his shit, the concept being that art buyers wanted something truly intimate from artists, and what more personal than dumps? They may actually be full of plaster, nobody knows.
Fountain: The Masterpiece You Can Wee-Wee In
Marcel Duchamp made art history in 1917, signing a urinal (as “R. Mutt”) and presenting it to the Society of Independent Artists. The concept of “readymades,” proclaiming preexisting objects to be art, was key to the avant-garde and Dada movements.
Piscio D’Artista: A Whole New Can of Piss
In 2021, British artist Gavin Turk canned his own piss and sold that for its weight in silver in tribute to Manzoni. One of Turk’s first works was a plaque commemorating his own success, self-created notoriety which seemed to work.
The Void: Very Little There
Yves Klein was famous for his ever-so-blue monochrome works. In 1958 he debuted his reputation-changing La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l'état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide — an empty room that thousands of people lined up to see.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: Jawesome
Damien Hirst is king of having his cake and eating it — challenging the art world’s fixation on spectacle and shock value by selling a shark suspended in formaldehyde for a huge amount of money.
The Cremation Project: Urning a Living
John Baldessari’s early work involved trolly messages painted on canvas poking fun at the “rules” of art. Then, in 1968, he decided to reinvent this work by burning it, turning the ashes into cookies and presenting the cookies as art.
Enigma of Isidore Ducasse: Sew Sew
Man Ray, the pioneering surrealist and visual artist, produced some absolutely incredible work and some stuff that he absolutely knew was a piss-take. Enigma of Isidore Ducasse was a sewing machine wrapped up in a blanket.
Balloon Girl: Ready, Steady, Shreddy
Anonymous street artist Banksy sold a print of his Balloon Girl image for a staggering $1.4 million in 2018, at which point a shredder hidden in the frame was triggered, slicing the artwork up before a horrified Sotheby’s audience.
New Portraits: ‘Gram Theft Art-o
Richard Prince’s 2014 exhibition New Portraits consisted of screengrabs of other people’s work — on Instagram — printed out and displayed in a gallery. Clever trolling of what art can and can’t be? Shameless theft? Or both, but mainly the latter?
The Jogging: Shitposting to the MOMA
Artist Brad Troemel blurs the lines between fine art, memes and full-on shitposting. His website The Jogging featured nonexistent Photoshopped sculptures presented as galleried works — partially in attack toward the gatekeeping nature of the traditional art world.
‘David Hammons’: Art Within Tent
Artist David Hammons said, “I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never ever liked art, ever.” His self-titled 2019 installation — filthy sheets, dirty tents, a half-formed theme — was described by Frieze as “a trap: a parody of pious, politically activist art.”
There Is a Criminal Touch to Art: Good Artists Borrow; Great Artists Steal; Other Artists Film Them
Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s film shows Ulay — later to become enormously famous for his collaborations with partner Marina Abramovic — stealing Carl Spitzweg’s Der arme Poet (1839) from Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and and installing it in a local Turkish family’s living room.
Another Fucking Readymade: Nice Installation, I’ll Take It
When Maurizio Cattelan had two weeks to put work together for a show in Amsterdam, he took the unusual approach of stealing an entire Paul de Revs show from another gallery, in boxes, and claiming it as his own work.
True Copy: Picassholes
In 2018, art historian Mira Feticu received a tip about Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin, stolen six years earlier. She followed clues to Hungary and tearfully dug it up, only for performance art duo BERLIN to reveal they’d faked it. Dicks!
Nailed to A Wall: A Cash-Hemorrhaging Statement
Distressed by how commercial the art world had become, complicated electronica/art duo the KLF presented one million pounds in £50 notes nailed to a wall, to be sold for… half a million pounds. Baffling, balls-out and financially irresponsible.