Art stunts deliver reality check
Two art pranksters who stole fragments of works by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, reinvented The Vatican website and passed off one of their works as that of Maurizio Cattelan, have opened their first UK exhibition.
Visitors to Eva and Franco Mattes' show Lies Inc in Sheffield are greeted by a small stuffed canary perched on top of a bird cage, looking down at a forlorn cat that is stuck inside.
It is a classic Tweety Pie scene, the sweet revenge of the small fry.
It came about after an argument between Franco and an artist friend over what could be considered art.
Franco contested that all the creativity that happens on the internet in a single minute was worth more than an artist could produce in his or her lifetime.
"He was laughing at me like I was fooling myself," Franco recalls. "He's way more romantic than Eva and I, more into the idea that the artist is somebody who has some kind of vision or inspiration that other people do not have."
So Franco and Eva, artists themselves, of a sort, who go by the moniker 0100101110101101.org, decided to prove him wrong.
The brother and sister promised to take the first random picture they found on an image website and turn it into a work of art.
And up popped the Photoshopped picture of the bird keeping watch over its feline prey.
They had a three-dimensional version made, credited it to the satirical Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan, put it in a gallery in Houston, Texas, last year, and waited to see if anyone would call their bluff.
"Not only did we get away with it, but everybody loved it - and people were willing to buy it," Franco says disbelievingly.
"A Cattelan work goes for $2m, $5m, $8m. The very day the gallery opened, we had three people who were interested. They were huge collectors."
Given that their reputation is built on pulling the wool over peoples' eyes, you can never be entirely sure that the Matteses are telling the whole truth.
But they came clean about the Cattelan stunt after a month, and swear that fabrication always ends when the projects end.
People were willing to believe this image, plucked at random from the internet, was a great work of art when it was put in a gallery with a great artist's name attached, they say.
So does that prove that any old rubbish can be called art, and that, conversely, art is no different to other random creations?
"I don't want to say it's all meaningless because that's not true - there is good art and there is non-art," Franco replies.
"What I think is the context is way more important than we think. Having a caption saying that a particular object is done by a certain person, and therefore its value is what it is, may influence our judgement on the importance of that piece.
"I'm sure that if you put a Van Gogh in the hands of a homeless painter on the street, nobody would stop and buy that."
The Cattelan fake is typical of the Matteses, who have become masters of suggestion and subterfuge during 15 years of playing practical jokes while exploring the nature of art.
In 1998, they created a fictional artist called Darko Maver, who they say was invited to exhibit in the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale the following year.
After planting a Nike-branded kiosk in Vienna's Karlsplatz, they convinced some that the square had been bought by the US sportswear corporation and was to be renamed Nikeplatz.
That particular prank attracted legal action from Nike. They also angered The Vatican by copying and subtly altering its website.
The Sheffield exhibition includes footage of users of the video chat service Chatroulette, which connects webcams from around the world at random, as they watched Franco, who appeared to have hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment.
Some looked horrified, some laughed and took photos, while others guessed it was fake. Just one called the police.
One of their most infamous stunts was a two-year mission to steal small chunks from revered works.
There are a few threads from an Andy Warhol, a chip taken out of one of Duchamp's Fountain urinals and a sticker from the exterior of Jeff Koons' famous floating basketballs.
They were usually procured when one of the pair obstructed a security guard's view, and their scavenged pieces were so small that the galleries often did not notice for some time, Franco says.
He pulls a Swiss army knife out of his pocket to show how they were obtained. The spree was undertaken "out of love", Franco insists.
"I used to think that it's not fair that only money is what makes the difference between who can own art and who cannot," Franco says. "If I want it more than you, I deserve it."
It was also a statement on the inflated importance given to "masterpieces".
"I think we all totally overestimate the value of objects," he continues. "Art is clearly not about the object - it's just the idea."
After proving how easy it is to fool the masses, he is also hoping that their work will make people more sceptical about what they are being told by figures of authority.
But he admits that strategy may have backfired somewhat.
"People tend to be very sceptical, but just with me," he says. "Like anything I do or say now is a lie.
"Which I'm OK with - I started the game so I'm to blame for that."
Eva and Franco Mattes' Lies Inc is at the Site Gallery in Sheffield until 30 July.