Art hoaxers or modern masters? The extraordinary case of the Connor Brothers.
This is a true story, or as true as can be established. In 2012, two London art dealers passed off their art as that of American twins who had escaped from a pseudo Christian cult called The Family.
The elusive brothers, Franklin and Brendan Connor, sold out at the London 14 Art Fair and shows in Sydney and Los Angeles and set an auction record at Bonhams in London.
Later that year, the brothers confessed their backstory was a fabrication and said they made it up to cover the shame they felt about their real lives. One was an ex-heroin addict and the other suffered from bipolar.
True to the modern meme of public confession, they continued to show their art as themselves, turning their practice into a dissertation on the nature of truth and fiction.
Their next Sydney show, All This Happened, More or Less, appropriates the opening line of Kurt Vonnegurt's masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five, asking the question: "What is truth and what is fiction, and what's it matter anyway, so long as you understand the message?''
So who are these hoaxers, Mike Snelle and James Golding? The ruse began, says Snelle, when he experienced a mental breakdown in 2012.
The owner of the Black Rat gallery in fashionable Shoreditch, Snelle received an emergency referral to a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with bipolar. He gave up his gallery and moved into the studio of fellow art dealer and one-time heroin addict, James Golding, whom he had met studying philosophy at Cambridge University.
"We were dicking about on his kitchen table and we decided to make some things," says the quick-talking Snelle by phone from London.
"James, was like, 'oh, we should show these', and I said, 'no chance', because at that time I definitely wanted to keep the lowest profile possible. I was pretty much hiding until I could recover so we made up some fictional background. I had always been interesting writing, I thought it would be fun to do."
The first time the brothers exhibited, Snelle was too nervous to stay in the room. ''I went next door.'' Everything sold.
Truth Is Weirder Than Any Fiction I've Seen - Hunter S. Thompson The Connor Brothers
Very quickly the lies became normal. "The first couple of decisions are really quite small, of, 'let's do this', 'oh, that would be cool', and suddenly you're two years later and it feels like it's slightly got out of control."
Art Equity, which staged the original sold-out Sydney show in March last year under the Connor Brothers, has stood by the duo since they broke cover last October.
We Must Be Careful About What We Pretend To Be - Kurt Vonnegut, from The Connor Brother exhibition, All this Happened, More or Less.
Their recanted backstory, says Equity's art director Ralph Hobbs, does nothing to diminish the impact of the art itself, which stands on its own as "fresh and exciting" with a subversive British quality.
Hobbs regards Snelle as a clever writer - he's in the throes of a novel - and had heard of Snelle's struggle with mental illness third hand. Before the disclosure, Hobbs had once wondered if Snelle was Banksy, Britain's best known graffiti arti
All this Happened, More or Less - Kurt Vonnegut, from The Connor Brothers exhibition, All this Happened, More or Less.
"I actually knew Mike from many, many years ago. Adam Cullen had his first Ned Kelly show in Black Rat in 2010 and I wrote the essay for the catalogue. I've cross-checked and cross-referenced him and I have absolute confidence in Mike. One hundred per cent."
The pair reference contemporary pop and pulp culture in collages and oils of pulp fiction books overlayed by thought bubbles taken from Snelle's favourite authors: outsiders like David Foster Wallace and Hunter S. Thompson.
On an old Penguin paperback of Shakespeare, they changed the title to A Load of Fuss About F*** All and sold it to the Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet who is a fan and will launch their second Sydney show.
Snelle and Golding have assistants to paint the covers. Hobbs says the duo operates "with the same sensibility of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Bansky of multiple mediums and multiple works".
Both Snelle and Golding hail from the urban street art scene in which creative subversion is a raison d'être. Banksy, a pseudonym protecting the identity of one or more graffiti artists, stands at the core of its lawless mystique.
"Is it my greatest ambition to be credible with the art world?" asks Snelle. "Probably not. I would prefer to be more interested in making things we like... than worry too much about making things for an imagined audience."
Art has always existed in an internal battle with itself: it's a fine line between fiction and truth, intention and interpretation. Caveat emptor is as true for commercial art as it is in literature but in conceptual art is author identity part of the fantasy a purchaser buys into?
The deception seems not to have harmed the duo's selling power. Between the Sydney shows, Hobbs estimates on-the-wall prices for Snelle and Golding's work has risen up to 20 per cent. Bigger collectors now seem interested in their shows, says Snelle.
"With a little distance from the events, the whole thing, in my opinion, was an art experience and, certainly, I've come to understand how much I'm invested in the idea of fiction."
Snelle doesn't feel he has done anything immoral.
"It's not a masterminded plan, you know, it was just something that happened along the way. And I don't even think it's the weirdest thing that ever happened in my life.
"Being 15 and thinking people could see through your eyes, that was weird. And James has been a heroin addict. Those experiences have been pretty extraordinary, you know."