For the nouveau riche, Miami’s annual Art Basel festival is an opportunity to take Instagram photos on yachts with rappers and show off your mistress’s new butt implants. It is also, incidentally, one of the biggest and most prestigious art shows in the country, even if many of the people there don’t actually know or care much about art.
This dissonance was on full display on Sunday afternoon, when a prankster graffitied a controversial exhibition with the phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” — prompting many attendees to believe his actions were simply performance art, according to the Miami Herald.
Identified as 46-year-old Roderick Webber from Massachusetts, the artist managed to scrawl the phrase “Epstien [sic] didn’t kill himself” in red lipstick before being arrested on charges of criminal mischief. In a video taken by an onlooker, he can be heard saying, “This is the gallery where anyone can do art, right?,” just before a security guard hauled him away.
— Giancarlo Sopo (@GiancarloSopo) December 9, 2019
Webber wrote the phrase on the white wall that previously featured a notorious duct-taped banana exhibit by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. The piece, “Comedian,” had been sold for $120,000 earlier that week to a French collector, prompting widespread mockery and criticism of the absurdities of the art world.
On Saturday, performance artist David Datuna ate the banana, to the horror of well-heeled onlookers. (Unlike Webber, Datuna was not arrested.) At first, representatives for the gallery tried to appear unruffled, simply replacing the banana with another one. (The original banana came with a certificate of authenticity, as well as specific staging instructions for exhibition.) “He did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea,” Lucien Terras, director of museum relations for Galerie Perrotin, told the Miami Herald.
Yet the incident apparently prompted the gallery to make the decision on Sunday to remove the banana altogether. “This morning, following recommendations, we removed the installation at 9 a.m.,” the gallery’s statement said in a statement, adding that “several uncontrollable crowd movements and the placement of the work on our booth compromised the safety of the artwork around us, including that of our neighbors.” Apparently undeterred by the absence of the infamous banana, Webber scrawled his statement about Jeffrey Epstein just a few hours later.
“Epstein didn’t kill himself” is a reference to Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced billionaire (and former Palm Beach artists’ patron) accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls. Last summer, Epstein was found dead at New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) while standing trial on charges of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy.
While an official autopsy determined the cause of death was suicide, due to his wealth and his powerful connections — including former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and President Donald Trump — many have questioned whether Epstein took his own life. The arrests of two guards accused of failing to supervise Epstein the night of his death have only fueled speculation. Since then, the phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” has become something of a meme, reaching its cultural apex with a Navy SEAL closing out a Fox News interview with the phrase, seemingly apropos of nothing.
This is far from the first time that pranksters and performance artists have targeted Art Basel, which is perceived by many as a symbol of the excesses of the uber-wealthy. In 2014, protester Kalan Sherrard was arrested for wielding a dildo that cops initially mistook for a gun. In a statement he issued at the time, Sherrard said that the protests were intended to “decry the colonial irony, privatization and commercialization of potentially transcendental forms and ideas by bourgeois elites.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to identify Roderick Webber as an artist.