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The 10 Most Bizarre and Unlikely Works of Modern Art

Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts, and nature.

Bizarre modern art  Ur-Sphinx, 1978, by Ernst Fuchs

Bizarre modern art Ur-Sphinx, 1978, by Ernst Fuchs

The Unlikely Works of Modern Art

There are many bizarre works of modern art out there, unlikely creations that stretch our definition of what art should be, that upset, puzzle and delight. They come in all sorts of different forms and arguably have the ability to affect us in all manner of weird and wonderful ways.

Through the ages, artists have been doing their thing—painting on cave walls with natural dyes, sculpting naked Gods out of marble, dripping paint onto massive canvases, draping rocks with tons of plastic—whilst the rest of us go about our daily business.

Unlikely works of modern art can get under our skin and cause controversy. Who wants to look at a urinal, for instance, placed on a plinth in a gallery? What's with those random lumps of meat suspended on string posing as art?

A minority of modern artists, for whatever reason, break new ground in their efforts to understand the world we inhabit and create. Crazy art is born, for good or bad. But what does it mean for us, the people who go to galleries, museums and shows? A great artist once said:

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

– Pablo Picasso

A cynic might reply: So, art has a purpose?

An abstract pioneer, Malevich painted this piece titled “White on White” in 1918.

An abstract pioneer, Malevich painted this piece titled “White on White” in 1918.

Modern Art and the Pursuit of Controversy

Some modern artists will go to extremes in their quest for meaningful (or not) expression. Whatever the reasons, you have to admit that if it wasn't for artists being controversial, our world would be a humdrum, boring and robotic place in which to live.

Artists give us space to breathe, think, meditate and investigate our minds, heart and environment. They help release us from the mundane tasks we all have to go through to exist.

That's some responsibility!

Perhaps deep inside, we're all artists just waiting to peel off the layers and reveal our inner Picasso, Van Gogh, Malevich or Romero! I hope the following choices of bizarre art will help make your mind up one way or the other.

Should you find yourself in a modern art gallery, this fine modern art book might prove invaluable.

Boris Romero   (Uruguay) Reactor de Sentimientos

Boris Romero (Uruguay) Reactor de Sentimientos

Frontal view of preserved shark.

Frontal view of preserved shark.

1. Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Damien Hirst, the British artist, has produced some incredulous artwork, none more outrageous than this tiger shark in formaldehyde, commonly called His Pickled Shark.

Created in 1991, it caused a mild sensation in the art world, but many observers thought it a con, nothing more than a weird zoological display.

So what's a shark doing in a tank of preservative? What's the point?

Clever Mr Hirst got people thinking and talking about the environment. It stirred up the debate about the human response to nasty predators and all others at the top of the food chain. Stare long enough at those teeth, and you see the shark move.

Damien Hirst went on to become one of the wealthiest artists ever.

Of late, though, he isn't doing so well. His stock is falling, as they say. Another of his works, For The Love Of God, a diamond-covered platinum-plated skull, sold for about $100m, but the artist was part of the consortium that bought it!

Some think him more of a businessman than an artist; some think his placement at a mortuary as a student should not have ended.

Hirst continues to delight, shock and tease with his over-the-top artworks.

The Physical Impossibility..........

The Physical Impossibility..........

2. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

Born in France in 1887 but gaining American citizenship in 1955, Marcel Duchamp is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Why? His radical views and ideas helped form the Surrealist movement, for one, and his innovative 'readymades'—found art in objects or found objects as art—opened the doors for young experimental artists.

'The nineteenth century ends with Picasso, the twentieth begins with Marcel Duchamp'.

– Pierre Cabanne, art critic

When Duchamp produced his artwork—a urinal—at a New York exhibition in 1917, it was considered too outrageous a piece to show in public, so it was hidden behind a screen. It was meant to be a kind of practical joke, but Duchamp had the original photographed by Alfred Stieglitz (the only known image of the original), so he must have thought it of some 'worth.'

More importantly, Duchamp signed the urinal R.Mutt, 1917 and wrote later in a magazine:

'He (R.Mutt) took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.'

So works of art did not need to be created; they could be merely found. The creation was in the idea. Art would never be the same again.

What happened to the original Fountain? No-one knows. It got lost. All subsequent urinals seen in galleries throughout the world are replicas based on the 'Bedfordshire' model Duchamp purchased from a New York plumbing company!

Marcel Duchamp, in one brazen act of outrageous simplicity, changed everything.

The original Fountain photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1917.

The original Fountain photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1917.

3. Susan and Pete Hill: Sleeping Green Maid

Susan and Pete Hill from the UK specialise in green sculptures made out of moss, grass, clay and other natural materials. This beautiful figure sleeps in the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Mevagissey, Cornwall, UK.

This is a growing artistic field—sorry about that—there are some incredible green sculptures and installations out there, well worth checking out.

With artists becoming ever more conscious of the environment, green artwork is sure to feature heavily in future indoor and outdoor exhibitions.

Ssssccchhhh. Don't wake her.

Ssssccchhhh. Don't wake her.

Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

4. My Bed by Tracey Emin

British artist Tracey Emin is used to shocking people, but even she must have been surprised by the reaction to her 1998 piece My Bed. She exhibited her unmade bed and left the rest to our imaginations.

The public outcry over her work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, aka My Tent, was loud enough, but this arrangement of bedsheets and rubbish seemed to hit a raw nerve. Didn't this turn every teenager who'd ever lived into a great artist? And every parent who'd ever had teenagers a curator of great art?

(Tracey Emin did have to point out that not all the names were those of ex-lovers. Some were family members, including an aunt she slept with when very young, friends of her family, plus a foetus that tragically she lost.)

I'm not sure if the bed is made now or waiting for fumigation in some gallery storeroom.

Now a grand dame of the modern art world, Emin has mellowed over the years. We wait with bated breath for her next artistic controversy.

You make your bed and you lie in it?

You make your bed and you lie in it?

5. Dali Atomicus by Salvador Dali

No list of outrageous artwork would be complete without a Salvador Dali piece. This photograph, taken by American photographer Phillipe Halsman in 1948, shows Dali and other artefacts suspended in time and space.

There are cats, water and other paraphernalia 'floating' as if being levitated. A wonderful black-and-white image that has lost none of its intensity.

'One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.'

– Salvador Dali (1904-89)

Salvador Dali suspended in reality or dream?

Salvador Dali suspended in reality or dream?

Camila Caneque

Camila Caneque

6. Dead End Performance by Camila Caneque

Camila Caneque is from Barcelona. She's one of the more accomplished younger conceptual performance artists but also finds time to write and take photographs.

DEAD END PERFORMANCE has been seen around the world at various shows and venues. It's a spontaneous 'death' and is said to represent Spain. She dresses as a flamenco dancer and carries with her 27 red carnations. Camila sometimes stays for three hours rooted to the floor.

'This is the vanquished, the local identity of people crushed by globalisation'.

Quite a statement from one of the genuine street artists still performing.

Camila and Her Red Carnations in Madrid.

Camila and Her Red Carnations in Madrid.

7. Favela Painting in Brazil by Haas and Hahn

Santa Marta favela is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a few years ago was in need of a facelift. Two young Dutch graphic and visual designers stepped in with their idea!

Haas and Hahn, with the help of the whole community, transformed 34 houses in this very poor part of Rio into bright, colourful homes.

Their motto is 'to bring outrageous art to unexpected places.'

It could catch on. Others are interested in giving dull walls and surfaces more of a Brazilian look. How about painting some of the world's worst concrete monstrosities, you guys?

The favela in all its glory.

The favela in all its glory.

34 houses, lots of colour.

34 houses, lots of colour.

8. Waste Not by Song Dong

Song Dong is a Chinese conceptual artist. His work Waste Not is a collection of things his late mother accumulated over fifty years! That's a total of nearly 11,000 objects.

Song Dong arranged them in a room and put them on show, first in Tokyo and then in New York and London.

He sees his mother's love in the objects, especially in the bars of soap that she saved for him should his washing machine ever fail.

There are hundreds of medicine bottles, tea boxes and cooking pots. There are chairs, cupboards and radiators. It seems more a work of nostalgia than a concept.

This is basically clutter arranged in straight lines.

Waste Not (Want Not?)

Waste Not (Want Not?)



9. Embankment by Rachel Whiteread

The first woman to win the coveted Turner prize in England, artist Rachel Whiteread has many controversial works to her name.

Embankment is a sculpture consisting of hundreds of white plastic cubes arranged willy-nilly, it seems, in London's Tate Modern's huge space.

Critics were undecided about the recyclable blocks:

  • 'With this work Whiteread has deepened her game, and made a work as rich and subtle as it is spectacular. Whatever else it is, Embankment is generous and brave, a statement of intent.'
  • 'Looks like a random pile of giant sugar cubes....'
  • 'This is another example of meritless gigantism..'

10. Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre

Carl Andre, the American sculptor, was born in 1935 and presented the world with some bricks in 1966. They weren't ordinary bricks, there were 120 of them, and they were placed on the floor in the shape of a rectangle.

Titled Equivalent VIII, they were purchased by the Tate in the UK for a then enormous amount of money. Some people were not impressed. The bricks caused one of the biggest debates about contemporary art the UK has ever witnessed.

Minimalist Andre has said 'I have to start with a set of physical realities that I order in a way which I find satisfying to me.'

Some critics see Carl Andre as a pioneer, others think him bland, rigid and unimaginative.

We should let the bricks speak for themselves.

Exactly. I couldn't agree more.

The bricks laid out in a neat rectangle

The bricks laid out in a neat rectangle

Sources and References

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls-Pablo Picasso — canary gallery (

Damien Hirst: For the Love of God | Tate

How Duchamp’s Urinal Changed Art Forever | Artsy

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

‘My Bed’, Tracey Emin, 1998 | Tate

Dali Home - Salvador Dalí Museum (

Camila Cañeque (

Haas & Hahn | Widewalls

Song Dong's Waste Not at the Barbican – in pictures | Art and design | The Guardian

Rachel Whiteread - Artists - Luhring Augustine

Carl Andre | Biography, Art, Sculptures, Minimalism, Wife, & Facts | Britannica

© 2013 Andrew Spacey