How a Humble Pineapple Became Art

In a moment of whimsy, the students Lloyd Jack and Ruairi Gray placed a piece of fruit on a table at an arts festival in Aberdeen, Scotland.

LONDON — How did a pineapple become a postmodern masterpiece?

The aesthetic merits of tropical fruit inadvertently entered Britain’s national cultural conversation after two students jokingly placed a store-bought pineapple on an empty table at an art exhibition this month at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, a port city in northeastern Scotland.

When they returned a few days later to the exhibition — part of the Look Again festival, which aims to highlight Aberdeen’s cultural heritage — they were shocked to discover their pineapple protected by a glass display case, instantly and mysteriously transformed into a work of art.

After one of the students, Lloyd Jack, 22, who studies business, put a photograph of the pineapple on Twitter, along with the words, “I made art,” the image was shared widely on social media, turning the fruit, fairly or not, into a cultural sensation. To some, though, the stunt was a self-promoting social media prank befitting the digital age.

Mr. Jack’s post received nearly 5,000 likes on Twitter. Before long, the work, which the two students titled “Pineapple,” had been deconstructed on art blogs and social media worldwide; parsed in Paris, Texas and Tokyo; and even featured on Canadian television. Some on Twitter lauded its “genius,” while others ridiculed it as the latest example of conceptual art’s plodding banality.

Mr. Jack said he and the other student, Ruairi Gray, also 22, had been stunned by the attention afforded the pineapple, which he said the two had put on the table in a moment of lighthearted whimsy, slanted slightly to the left to give it a bit more gravitas and flair. He said the “work” was on display for nearly a week before it was removed.

“We weren’t sure how the glass case got there, and initially assumed it was bungling curators,” he said. “We couldn’t believe our eyes, and didn’t expect our lowly little supermarket pineapple to become a global star.”

The fruit cost one pound, or about $1.30.

Nevertheless, he said, the pineapple, alone in its display case and destined to rot, was a poignant symbol of Britain in the era of “Brexit,” the nation’s decision to leave the European Union. (Unlike England, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain.) “The pineapple symbolizes the U.K. leaving the E.U., standing alone, attempting to survive, cut off from the outside world,” he said.

Others saw hidden meaning in the pineapple, including an art professor at the university who, Mr. Gray said, enthusiastically lauded the “purposeful way” in which the display case had pressed down on the fruit’s leaves.

“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, in a London exhibition in 2013.

“It just goes to show the ludicrousness of conceptual art and how anything can become art,” Mr. Jack said.

Others were not altogether amused, including the organizers of the Look Again festival, who found their exhibition suddenly hijacked by a fruit. After investigating the renegade pineapple, they discovered that the glass case had been placed at the exhibition by a janitor — though it was unclear whether the act had been motivated by humor, artistic sensibility or both.

“This pineapple was nothing more than a prank,” said Hilary Nicoll, an associate director of the festival, with amusement tinged with slight irritation.

“The pineapple is playful, which is in the spirit of the festival. It shows Scottish cheekiness,” she said. “There are better metaphors for a decadent Britain than a pineapple. And there are no cultural connections between Scotland and pineapples that I am aware of. We grow potatoes or turnips.”

The artistic aggrandizement of the pineapple has echoes in art history, including the tradition of found objects’ becoming art. Some cultural observers said the pineapple recalled Marcel Duchamp, a French artist and pioneer of the Dada movement who famously turned a urinal upside down, signed it with the fake name “R. Mutt” and proclaimed it art.

Peter York, an author and cultural commentator, noted that the pineapple display, consciously or not, wittily reflected Duchamp’s notion that if you declare something art, it becomes art.

“I rank pineapples quite highly as they are quite decorative objects, sort of colonial superfruits, with leaves that look like green fountains at the top,” he said. “But you wouldn’t really want a pineapple exhibited in your home.”

The pineapple was also reminiscent of other recent artistic pranks.

In May last year, visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art seemed to believe a pair of glasses on the floor was part of an exhibition. Two teenagers had left them there as a joke, apparently unimpressed by the simplicity of some of the museum’s exhibits, including two stuffed animals on a blanket. Several visitors stood transfixed, staring at and photographing the Burberry glasses, which soon became a cause célèbre.

In 2003, the enigmatic artist Banksy, disguised as an older man, placed an oil painting he had bought on the street — a rural scene which he defaced with blue and white tape to represent a police line — on the wall of Tate Britain in London. Next to it, he put the caption: “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 ruse was discovered, but only hours later, after the work, “Crimewatch UK Has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us,” crashed to the floor.

Excerpt from The New York Times, “How a Humble Pineapple Became Art” Written by Dan Bilefsky, May 11, 2017