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The controversial art works that sent the world into a spin

From Duchamp’s urinal ‘Fountain’ to Bowie trolling the art world with his own publishing house, and Insta-art that isn’t all that it seems

The art world means serious business. Paintings and sculptures sell for hundreds of millions of pounds at the drop of a gavel, works are stolen and sold on the black market, and the authenticity of others have divided elitist circles worldwide. Naturally, all this lays the groundwork for some good old fashioned trolling. From surrealists to web-savvy pranksters, art history is plagued with examples of tricks and jokes that at best, have provoked laughter, or worse, stirred international outrage. And yet, beyond their immediate effects on people’s nerves, the most controversial works of art often voice essential critiques to the art world and society.

To celebrate artists' dedication to trolling everybody, we’ve penned a guide to some of the best controversial works that divided opinion.


At the beginning of January, artist Damien Hirst released a documentary about his Venice ‘comeback’ show – that colossal and highly controversial exhibition that took him a mere ten years and $65 million to put together. In April of 2017, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable filled two museums with “long-lost treasures” that the artist had supposedly rescued from the bottom of east African seas. Was Hirst fooling visitors with yet another comedy show labelled as Art? Objects that the artist salvaged from the sunken ship of Cif Amotan II – an anagram for “I Am Fiction” – included “Made In China” imprinted bronze figures alongside busts of Ancient Egyptian deities that looked suspiciously similar to Pharrell Williams and Rihanna, amongst other contemporary celebrities. Unsurprisingly, the show caused an uproar. But whether Hirst’s work was “fake news” or “art for a post-truth world”, audacious or kitsch, history or fiction, doesn’t matter. “As an artist,” Hirst told Vulture, “the best you can hope for is people arguing, mixed reviews. Love it and hate it. If you get that, then you’re on the right track. If everyone loves or everyone hates it, you’re in trouble.” This is not the first time the Bristol-born showman has divided opinion. Looking back, an underwater fantasy is what one would expect from a man that exhibited a 14-foot embalmed tiger shark, a tacky diamond encrusted skull and once made Sienna Miller smear herself in blood for a music video.


Amalia Ulman – aka “The First Great Instagram Artist” – took performance art to the next level by reinventing herself online. Like any 20-something riding the zeitgeist of the internet age, Ulman started posting photos on Instagram in 2014. What first seemed like commonplace new-age narcissism was later revealed to be a provocative and entirely staged work of art. Without any knowledge of the prank, one could have assumed she was yet another of those posing, spammy “hot girls” on the app's explore page. Titled “Excellences & Perfections”, Ulman carefully crafted a fictionalised Instagram persona living the high life and at once calling attention to how we view and judge women online while showing how malleable identity is in the social media echo-chamber.


In 2014, Richard Prince put up a show – ironically titled New Portraits – consisting of other people’s photos that the artist had just screenshot and printed off of Instagram onto six-foot tall blank canvases. The only changes he made were cryptic remarks that Prince added to the comment threads. Was this “genius trolling”? Or vulgar appropriation? The American artist “rephotographed” the images – without permission – and turned them into museum pieces. Depicting scenes of everyday self-obsession, girls in their underwear and stock-like photography, the artworks would not have caused such outrage had they not been sold for as much as $100k at Frieze. One of the women on the photos, Missy Suicide from pin-up collective Suicide Girls, began selling the Prince-appropriated image for $90 on the social media platform, with the caption “Do we have Mr. Prince’s permission to sell these prints? We have the same permission from him that he had from us. ;)” A bargain! Same thing, just about 99.9 per cent cheaper than Prince’s ‘original’ copy.


Known for his culture-jamming graffitis, Banksy has also pulled a few pranks on the industry. In 2003, the artist, hammer and nail in hand, managed to hang his own work on one of the Tate Modern’s walls alongside a caption that read: “This new acquisition is a beautiful example of the neo post-idiotic style. Little is known about Banksy whose work is inspired by cannabis resin and daytime television.” The work, titled, “Crimewatch UK Has Ruined the Countryside For All of Us”, dropped off the wall and was quickly discovered to be an imposter. In 2013, as part of the 13th daily installment of Better Out Than In, his one-month residency in NYC, Banksy set up a booth in Central Park that sold authentic original canvases of his for just $60. Amidst the many stalls selling tourist junk and cheap art replicas in the area, the price tag was deemed too high and only a few passers-by purchased the works. It was later revealed that the art on sale was authentic and estimated at $225,000. One fortunate buyer auctioned their $60 ripoff for a cool £125,000. If one thing, Banksy's prank confirmed that as much as the anonymous artist has infiltrated and cashed in on a multi-million industry, he seems very aware of the shady, often absurd commodification of art by the market's all-powerful hedge fund dudes.


Doubtless, some of art history’s first stunts can be traced back to Dadaism and Surrealism. Beginning in the 1910s and 20s, Surrealists searched to expand the materials and methods employed to make people laugh all the while brutally rejecting society. The likes of Dali, Man Ray, Buñuel and others were constantly challenging the viewers’ tolerance to radical viewpoints as they pushed the boundaries of what could and should be considered art. One such example is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a standard urinal of the time, unaltered, upturned, that the artist – signing as “R MUTT” – put on a pedestal in 1917. Submitted to the Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York, it was the French Surrealist’s attempt to put at test the committee’s founding principle, “to reject no work”. Even if it was indeed rejected, Duchamp made a small amount of replicas that today sit in museums and galleries across the world. From Duchamp's urinal to Magritte's The Treachery of ImagesSurrealism’s absurdist humour has permeated our cultural memory everywhere from Pop Art to the punk project of the Young British Artists.


“Is this art?” is a question that one often contemplates when faced with conceptual art. Can some old bricks laid in a rectangular shape on bare floor be art? This puzzle arose in 1976 when the Tate purchased Carle Andre’s Equivalent VIII, more commonly referred to as “a pile of bricks”. Thirty years have passed and The Independent admits: “We still can’t decide”. Back in the 1970s, the American artist’s work was slammed by critics asking why “taxpayers’ money” had been spent on “a load of bricks”. Like it or not, visitors rushed to the museum, as Arthur Payne, a Gallery Assistant described to the Evening Standard “...these bricks have really brought the public in. They can't make head or tail of them. Nothing has attracted as much attention as they have.” As you can guess, the bricks controversy anticipated many more scandals to come including Turner prize winner Martin Creed’s shredded paper balls or his WORK NO. 227 subtitled “the lights going on and off. While these works draw on humour, no stunt was necessarily intended. If fans of these works are scarce, at least some have found inspiration in them to produce their own brand of artsy pranks with everyday objects such as a pair of glasses, a pineapple or a trash can.


Celebrated for his extensive musical career, David Bowie was a multi-hyphenate artist. He played Andy Warhol in the film Basquiat and danced on Soul Train, the TV show, but very few know him as the founder of a small art book publishing house called 21 Publishing. The British pop star envisioned it as a platform to mock art world elitism and make art accessible to the masses. In a 1998 interview with ArtNews, he explained: “The great freedom within a small indie company like ourselves is that we get the last word on how something is presented and which books we publish.” And so he did. As William Boyd narrates for The Guardian, Bowie published Nat Tate: an American Artist 1928-1960, the biography of a completely made up American artist. A few years in the making, Boyd had constructed a credible persona, that of a troubled prodigy who, as it happens, destroyed most of his own work and killed himself at the age of 32 in 1960. The author of the book himself created the ‘surviving’ artworks and found in antique shops the necessary photos to illustrate Nat Tate’s life story. On April Fool’s Day, 1998, David Bowie organised a launch party in Jeff Koons’s studio where he read extracts from the book, “absolutely deadpan, to the assembled New York glitterati.”


Last November, Leonardo Da Vinci made the headlines after Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, acquired “Salvator Mundi” for $450.3 million. At that price, “Mundi” became the highest-priced work of art sold privately or at auction. Originally commissioned by the French royal family in the 16th century, the painting went missing for hundreds of years, before popping up in private collections in the late 19th century. First attributed to Boltraffio, one of Leonardo’s pupils, the painting sold for £45 when it showed up at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1958. It’s only in 2011, after a New York art dealer purchased it at an estate sale that the piece was authenticated as a bona fide Da Vinci. The resurfaced painting generated enormous hype, described by connoisseurs as the “holy face of the 21st century” and “an art world miracle”. Some scholars, however, have questioned its authenticity, The Guardian reported, due to the glass orb that Jesus Christ, depicted in the painting, holds in his left hand. It is said that the bubble does not refract or distort light the way it should, which is surprising for a painter and scientist like Da Vinci who was obsessed by optic effects. Others claim that the artwork is authentic, but that Da Vinci purposely painted an incorrect glass globe not to distract the viewers from the truly important subject of the work, Christ himself.


Okay, not “technically” an “artwork”, but a good story nonetheless. Eighty years ago, Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast – an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1898) – resulted in mass panic, as listeners believed the country was legit under a deadly Martian attack. For the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the event, Slate questioned whether the nation-wide hysteria the press had reported had in fact been that massive – concluding that it had been exaggerated. Whatever the number of beguiled fools was, Welles’ brilliant radio performance of alien invasion remains a classic example of artistic mischief – whether the prank was intended or not.