I saw my first banana in Cologne at the Museum Ludwig. My second was at the K21 in Düsseldorf, the third at Museum Kuntspalast. By the time I passed a fourth on a tiny gallery in the Alstadt, I was starting to feel like they were haunting me. Was this divine punishment for all those unkind things I’ve said about the Velvet Underground over the years? Of course, as is the case with most things that you assume revolve entirely around yourself, my bananas were but a mere drop in the ocean of 4,000 bananas spread worldwide.
The bananas are the work of Thomas Baumgärtel, a Cologne artist who has spent the past thirty years spraying this symbol on the side of art institutions he admires; a Michelin star for the art world, if you will.
Taking only a few minutes to apply, the bananas are usually posted under the cover of darkness, but such is their reputation, galleries and museums have been known to request replacement bananas when theirs have grown old. A graduate of both art and psychology, Baumgärtel has built a career out of his banana iconography. For him, the banana is a perfect symbol: “It’s the best sign of change, when you think about it, everything in life is like a banana. Nothing is straight or
logical.” In 1998 he positioned a four tonne banana in the heart of Cologne to mark the cathedral’s 750th anniversary. A similar collaborative work involving the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin is also underway. The Baumgärtel banana now appears in sculpture, installation, and has spawned it’s own art movement in the form of banana pointillism.
With Baumgärtel’s international recognition has come not only a greater liberty to create his art, but also a platform for public statement, in this case in the form of the exploding banana. While a whole banana is a resounding endorsement, the exploding banana has been used over the years as a means of protesting against either poor presentation or policies. In 2000, for example, the Museum Ludwig incurred Baumgärtel’s banana wrath over the museum’s personnel policy.
While Germany is Baumgärtel’s permanent home, if you’re visiting a major museum
around the world, keep an eye out for a banana. Chances are, Baumgärtel’s been there before you.