Call to challenge institutionalization of art.
Art is most significant when it reflects the cultural zeitgeist of the times; one cannot think of Picasso’s works during the late 1930s without thinking about the Spanish Civil War – they are inextricably linked. So the question now becomes when we ascribe artistic merit to artless actions, to what extent do they become artful actions? We are currently witnessing the fracturing and tribalization of our society, ever accelerated by the online echo chambers that foster digital homogenization. Like an addict, the digital ghettos we get sucked into manipulate our weakness towards confirmation bias and diminish our critical faculties. Political movements around the world reflect this as well. Shouldn’t we expect the art to commentate on these seismic shifts?
The Polish Madonna action was borne out of the impulse to contextualize the feminist fight against the patriarchal structures both during communism and the current right wing Polish government, as well as to stand up for LGBTQ rights in the country ruled by the Catholic religious order. Sometimes a banana is not just a banana; sometimes it represents the fight for gender and sexual equality.
The irony of my experience at this year’s Art Basel was the fact that I arrived with intention of schmoozing through the art fairs as my persona Polish Madonna with her rainbow crown and her bananas in an act of protest against censorship of feminist art. But amongst all the places I performed where the controversy of my actions were clear and loud, it was only at Art Basel Miami where I was threatened with the police arrest and asked to leave, ultimately being escorted out of the fair. Why? Because I smuggled a banana into one of the biggest art fairs in the world, where bananas are apparently forbidden unless they have a clearance of a top gallery.
I’ve been coming to Miami Art Basel since 2014, and every year is different – the difference is magnified by bringing my little toddler with me. Last year after my son was born, I was exhibiting at one of the fairs, which was absolutely exhausting, turning the Art Basel experience into a boot camp with a sick baby and impossibly long hours. So this year I simply wanted the whole experience to be pleasant and easy for both of us, so I decided to come down and see the fairs as one of my performance art personas. I conceived Polish Madonna utilizing literary cut up technique and collaging two art projects that were censored in Poland in early 2019, one by a feminist artist from the 70s Natalia LL, and another one by LGBTQ activist Elżbieta Podleśna. I performed as Polish Madonna this summer in the Polish Pavilion during The Venice Biennale, and also in Poland in my home town Elk and Warsaw. I wrote about it in my article “Polish Madonna”:
With a free pass to most of the fairs I was excited to take my baby with me, see the art, and give away bananas explaining my concept to those interested. It all seemed easy and straightforward. Coming to Art Basel for a few years I knew that people would be taking photos of me dressed up in my rainbow headpiece and a long beautiful blue dress. Instead of being stuck in a booth at some art fair, I wanted the world to see my Polish Madonna and learn about the censorship of feminist and LGBTQ artists in my home country. Little did I know that the fruit forbidden in Polish museums would also create a spectacle at Miami Art Basel!
When I arrived to the fair on Sunday security didn’t want to let me in with my bananas – they took a photo of me and sent it to every security guard, letting them know that I was not allowed to enter Art Basel. They also threatened me with the police, and in general were very unfriendly and uncivil. Even when I checked my bananas in they still didn’t want to let me in, until they did… Once in, I left my headpiece at a friendly British gallery booth filled with Hirst’s dots and butterflies, then I left the fair to change into a new dress to make sure the security wouldn’t recognise me. I came back wearing a pink gypsy dress and…smuggled one banana in my baby’s stroller. It is food after all and baby and I get hungry looking at all the art… I used a different entrance and the security guards didn’t recognize me and were very friendly seeing my VIP pass. I quickly recovered my headpiece, and ask my friend Claire to run Facebook live while I gave a speech amongst an intrigued crowd of Art Basel about censorship in art, and in particular feminist art. I also spoke about art that actually brings some value to the society, as well as art as activism and not simply a decorative object to please the tastes of bourgeoise. Is art that gravitates towards sense of social justice an impossible expectation?
Maurizio Cattelan, the artist behind the $120k sale, has no training in art and is often called an art scene prankster. We listen to the news about meaningless art spectacle with more emotions than to the reports about the climate change, the polarization of our societies, the current uprising in Latin America, the migration emergency, the military conflicts, the inequalities of our world, and yes the censorship of artists in many places of the world: Central Europe, Central and South America, South East Asia, Africa…
Cattelan’s art is entertaining, and that serves the business of art in the Art Basel world. Did someone really pay $120k for a rotten banana or was it for a concept of a banana attached to a wall at an art fair? With a little bit of a celebrity status anything is possible in America. It is enough to have some tv presence and money to become an American president, it is enough to tape the banana to the partition wall at Art Basel to be the main headline of the biggest art event in the US. Cheers Maurizio to your statement about the art world, you know how to play it, indeed.
Plato described the role of an artist as the one who translates the meanings of the cosmic consciousness for the rest of us. But it seems the American public receives only the banana art, funny and meaningless to the crowds of Art Basel, but less so to those in Miami who make $8.46 per hour, the state’s minimum wage.
Jana Astanov is a multidisciplinary artist, a poet and an independent curator living in New York. Born in Poland she studied anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics in France, and arts in the UK. Her work includes photography, poetry, performance art, sound art, and installation. She describes her performance art practice as “mythology vs ideology” referring to her two main interests the political & economic foundations of our civilization and mythological/ religious values. In her work, she utilizes spiritual traditions, dance movement derived from the Grotowski technique, sound art, ritualistic theatre and astrofeminism, term she has developed through her character Yannanda The One Who Speaks With The Stars. Together with her partner Niko van Egten she co-created an electronic music group ASTRALOOP featuring her poetry in dark electronic arrangements. She has performed at Tate Modern, Smack Mellon Gallery, Grace Exhibition Space, Venice Biennale, Documenta 2017, and many other galleries, festivals and independent venues worldwide. She is also the author of five collections of poetry: Antidivine, Grimoire, Sublunar, The Pillow Book of Burg, and Birds of Equinox.
Main photo at the beginning of the article John Pollard from ada gallery in Richmond @the_ada_gallery