With an origin that no one can quite pin down, (some historians suggest the custom originated in 16th century France, while others have linked it to festivals celebrated in ancient Rome) people all over the world have been observing the hoax-filled unofficial holiday of April Fool’s Day for centuries. Needless to say, the day of trickery—where basic schoolkid pranks include Vaseline on doorknobs or replacing the breakfast table sugar with salt —needs little introduction.
And while we might feel like 2020 has been one huge, twisted practical joke so far, no one can deny that we could all use some light relief. So, in honor of April Fool’s Day this year, we’re remembering 6 pranks played on the art world. From fake art to phony artists, these stunts will make you chuckle (nervously, as you question whether you need to reassess what constitutes art).
The “Acclaimed” Artist, Nat Tate
When Jeff Koons hosted an extravagant party at his New York studio in 1998 to honor the late American artist Nat Tate, guests should have been suspicious—the event took place on the eve of April Fool’s Day after all. However, it took roughly one week for people to figure out that the allegedly troubled Abstract Expressionist was entirely made-up. Scottish writer William Boyd created the character, and David Bowie (who was in on the hoax) read aloud from Tate’s fake upcoming biography Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 at the party, fooling much of New York’s art and literary scene. The phony artist’s name was a combination of London’s National Gallery and the Tate Gallery.
Glasses Art at SFMOMA
Two California teenagers—Kevin Nguyen and TJ Khayatan—pranked visitors at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2016 when they left a pair of eyeglasses on the floor underneath a placard describing the gallery’s theme. When museum-goers began gathering around the glasses, some loudly art-analyzing them, the teens posted about it on Twitter. The post, which went viral, caught the attention of news sites such as Huffington Post, NBC Bay Area, and the New York Times, sparking the age old debate 'what constitute art'.
IKEA Art at Museum Arnhem
In 2015, the Amsterdam-based online TV channel LifeHunters wanted to see if they could trick museum-goers into believing that a piece of IKEA design costing roughly €10 was, in fact, a work of fine art. Spoiler alert: they did. The group placed the IKEA artwork in the Netherlands’ Museum Arnhem and had a well-dressed man named Boris Lange present the piece as a work from the supposedly renowned Swedish artist, Ike Andrews. Viewers responded to the work with comments like, “it’s modern, it’s shocking” and “it’s especially a beautiful spirit of an artist who can put all his emotions in this painting.” One observer even valued the work at €2.5 million! The playful prank clearly showed how context influences how art - or anything, for that matter - is perceived.
Harvey Stromberg’s MoMA Photo “Exhibit”
One of the most well-known pranks in art history happened in 1971 when Harvey Stromberg pasted roughly 300 life-sized photographs of utility objects—such as bricks, keyholes, and light switches—around the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in what he deemed a photo exhibit. It became the museum’s longest-running one-man exhibition as it eventually took museum personnel two years to discover and remove the photographs. Stromberg even threw himself an official show opening, formally inviting guests and media to MoMA to celebrate with champagne. The New York Times joined in the fun labeling him, “photographer, or a media manipulator, or a self-made chance factor, or a guerilla artist or a fraud. All of the above. None of the above.”
Banksy’s Girl with Balloon Shredding at Auction
The British-based street artist Banksy is perhaps the art world’s most notorious prankster—and we're still not even sure of his true identity. In his most recent stunt to instantly go down in art world prank history, Banksy secretly built a shredder into his painting Girl with Balloon, triggering it to self-destruct immediately after it sold at a 2018 Sotheby’s auction for approximately $1.4 million. On his Instagram account, Banksy posted a video clip of the event (which was viewed more than 10 million times within a couple of days) with a caption quoting Pablo Picasso, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”
Doug and Mikael’s Tate Modern Performance
In 2013 Doug Fridlund and Mikael Alcock stood amongst Gerhard Richter masterpieces in Tate Modern—with ping-pong balls in their mouths, dressed in matching outfits—and convinced people that they were performance artists. The stunt went viral after being uploaded to YouTube, garnering the duo reverent comparisons to Gilbert & George and some of the Dada artists. However, in an interview with The Independent newspaper the two men revealed their intention was simply to find out “what it felt like to be art.” They added that it would also be cool to be sold as art, ideally by Sotheby’s. That didn't happen. . .