5 Surprisingly Famous and Unique Artworks of All Time

Some artworks can be quite atypical, fun, and quirky! Take a look at five unique artworks that defined the history of modern and contemporary art.

May 1, 2021By Jessica Jacob, Certified Anthropologist
my bed tracey emin lobster telephone
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998; with Lobster Telephone by Salvador Dalí, 1938


Throughout history, the art world has seen numerous changes both in general artistic movements and even in the very definition of art. Artists from all around the world have challenged preconceived notions about what art can be; household objects, tools, and even dead animals among recent exhibitions. From Salvador Dali to Marcel Duchamp, here are 5 unique artworks that broke the mold for what art can be. 


Here Are Top 5 Unique Artworks Of All Time


1. Song Dong’s ‘Waste Not’ (2005)

waste not exhibition
Waste Not Exhibition by Song Dong, 2009, via MoMA, New York


Over ten thousand objects fill the room. The art installation contains everything you’d expect to find in an average home: shoes, pots and pans, bed frames, chairs, umbrellas, and televisions to name a few. That’s because this unique artwork has quite literally all of the possessions from the home of an average person. And who was the person? The artist’s mother. Created by a Chinese conceptual artist, ‘Waste Not’ is a hoarder-esque collection of belongings his mother acquired throughout five decades. Some of the items could even be described as garbage, plastic bags, pieces of soap, empty water bottles, and toothpaste tubes all included, while others are deeply personal and sentimental objects, like the frame of the house the artist was born in.


Created in 2005, this unique artwork was a collaboration between the artist, Song Dong, and his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, meant to deal with the grief they faced after the passing of Dong’s father. After her husband’s death, Zhao’s tendency to save items in the name of frugality quickly became a hoarding obsession. Her house was filled to the brim with these objects, most of which weren’t at all useful.


waste not song dong
Details of Waste Not by Song Dong, 2005, via Public Delivery


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 When her son questioned her actions, she replied, “If I fill the room, the things remind me of your father.” The items are sorted, similar objects grouped together and meticulously stacked into piles. The installation is astonishing, the massive collection as beautiful as it is large. The visual amazement of the piece is only surpassed by the knowledge that every item was purchased and saved by Zhao. 


One of the most personal parts of the collection was the laundry soap gifted from Zhao to her son as a wedding gift. When Song Dong told his mother he didn’t need the soap because he uses a washing machine, she decided to save them on his behalf, a gesture that showed Dong it was about much more than soap to her. Each and every object carries with it a complex array of emotions and meaning, all tying back to one single person. 


Zhao passed away in 2009, four years after the completion of the artwork. Even after her death, the piece holds with it her grief, pain, care, and love. It is currently being exhibited in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art. 


2. Salvador Dalí and Edward James’ ‘Lobster Telephone’ (1938)

lobster telephone
Lobster Telephone by Salvador Dalí, 1938, via Tate, London


‘Lobster Telephone’ is exactly what it sounds like: a black rotary phone with a lobster as the handset. Created in 1938, this unique artwork was made entirely of steel, plaster, rubber, paper, and resin; a classic display of Salvador Dalí’s surrealism. The unique artwork was made for Edward James, an English art collector, and poet. The telephone was entirely functional, the tail made to fit perfectly over the receiver. 


Lobsters and telephones were not uncommon motifs in Salvador Dalí’s work. A telephone appears in a painting he created in the same year titled ‘Mountain Lake’, and lobsters were used in a multimedia piece called ‘The Dream of Venus’. The two were pictured together in a drawing Salvador Dalí published in the magazine ‘American Weekly’ in 1935. The drawing showed a man horrified to find himself with a lobster in hand after reaching for the phone, an idea that seemed to have stayed in Salvador Dalí’s mind for years afterward. 


Many versions of the object were created, some featuring lobsters painted white and others lobsters painted red. In some exhibitions of the concept in the late 1930s, a live lobster was used. Salvador Dalí seemed to associate lobsters with eroticism, fashioning them over female genitalia in ‘The Dream of Venus’ and titling the display of the live lobster exhibit ‘Aphrodisiac Telephone’. The unique artwork is now on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. 


3. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ (1998)

my bed tracey emin
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998, via Tate, London


A messy bed with sheets clumped at the end. Paper plates, tissues, dirty clothing, packs of cigarettes, and bottles of vodka next to it. To some, this may be an all too familiar scene, but in 1998, one artist displayed it as a work of unique art. Tracey Emin is a British artist born in 1963 known for her deeply personal, almost confessional work, utilizing various mediums to share her message. 


The artist conceived of the idea for this unique artwork while sitting in her bed following a bad break up, realizing what an agonizing picture just something as basic as her bed painted of her life. While some critics and art lovers have praised Emin for her vulnerability, she received a great deal of backlash for ‘My Bed’, some claiming that it was self-absorbed, disgusting, or even that it wasn’t real art. Despite the harsh criticisms, a few heralded Emin and her work as daringly feminist, claiming that the piece shines a light on the painful truth held within the bedrooms of millions of women all across the world.


Emin was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2020 and underwent numerous surgeries and treatments in the summer. Even while fighting her disease, Emin remains brutally honest through her art, having discussed topics like trauma, rape, and abortion throughout her career, and maintains that her best work is still on its way. 


4. Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of The Broken Arm’ (1964)

in advance of the broken arm
In Advance of the Broken Arm by Marcel Duchamp, 1964 (fourth version), via MoMA, New York


A snow shovel, composed of just wood and iron, hanging from the ceiling. Yes, that’s right. Marcel Duchamp created ‘In Advance of The Broken Arm’ in a series of unique artworks of mundane, practical objects. With a number of his works, Duchamp challenged the idea that artists have to have an incredible skill or that artworks even have to be directly created by the artist. Marcel Duchamp emphasized the intention behind art, the act of shining the spotlight on an item, designating it as art, and displaying it for all to see. This attitude is reflected in many popular, unique artworks of the time, such as Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, a famous series of 32 paintings depicting everyday soup can labels. Pieces like Warhol’s give the audience no choice but to wonder about the inner workings of the artist’s mind, and Duchamp’s snow shovel is no different. 


readymade in paris moma
Installation view of “Readymade in Paris and New York,” 2019, via MoMA, New York


Marcel Duchamp also fought against the idea that beauty was a necessary characteristic of art, subverting many commonly-held ideas about the very definition of art. “An ordinary object,” Duchamp explained, could be “elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of the artist.” In the first version of the piece created in 1915, Marcel Duchamp included the phrase “From Duchamp” at the end of the title, suggesting that the artwork isn’t made by him, but a concept that came from him.


The title of the unique art piece comedically refers to the use of the snow shovel, implying that without the tool one might fall and break their arm whilst attempting to remove the snow. Unique artworks like Marcel Duchamp’s have had an undeniable impact on the evolution of art and its many movements. Inspirations from Marcel Duchamp and artists similar to him can still be seen in art created today, over fifty years after the creation of ‘In Advance of The Broken Arm”. The piece is currently a part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.


5. Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living’ (1991)

damien hirst shark
The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991, via Damien Hirst’s Official Website


Using only glass, steel, formaldehyde, silicone, and a bit of monofilament, English artist Damien Hirst preserved a dead tiger shark in a white box and exhibited it as art. The animal is suspended in a blue-ish formaldehyde solution, framed by white steel, with columns on each side dividing the box into thirds. The thirteen-foot shark stares straight ahead, its teeth bared, ready to attack. Standing at over seven feet tall, the tank weighs a total of twenty-three tons. 


Originally displayed in the first of Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Young British Artist’ exhibitions in London, the sculpture attracted great attention from the press and pushed the boundaries of contemporary art. Hirst wanted more than shark imagery, “I didn’t just want a light box, or a painting of a shark,” he clarified, expressing that he wanted something “real enough to frighten you.” By introducing the viewer to such an alarming sight in the middle of their peaceful gallery stroll, Hirst forced his audience to face the inevitable. “You try and avoid death, but it’s such a big thing that you can’t. That’s the frightening thing isn’t it?” the artist said. Death is a common theme in Hirst’s work, a number of dead animals including sheep and cows displayed in other pieces of his. 


damien hirst shark
The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991, via Damien Hirst’s Official Website


Even with a shark directly in front of the viewer, its jaws positioned perfectly in preparation to bite, fully comprehending death and its permanence remains a challenge. The reality of an animal that threatens the lives of humans, an animal that itself is dead, with the knowledge that the shark was once alive, and that it remains nearly perfectly preserved forces us to confront our own mortality. However, whether the piece fails to successfully accomplish that task or not is up for debate.


The New York Times wrote in 2007 that “Mr. Hirst often aims to fry the mind (and misses more than he hits), but he does so by setting up direct, often visceral experiences, of which the shark remains the most outstanding. In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank.” 


The Legacy of Unique Artworks 

my bed tracey emin
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998, via Tate, London


Unusual and out-of-the-box artworks like Tracey Emin’s and Song Dong’s have had a significant impact on the art world. By challenging the idea of what art is, these artists have opened up new possibilities for artists everywhere. While some may scoff at contemporary art, the impressive displays of talent shown in museums aren’t all that the umbrella term of ‘art’ encompasses. It’s often stated by those critical of contemporary art that pieces shouldn’t be displayed in museums if a person with an average artistic ability could replicate the piece, but that idea still leaves the question of why on the table. 


Non-traditional art doesn’t allow the audience to walk away without first considering the intentions of the artist behind each and every artwork. More than anything, unique artworks cast the spotlight onto the purpose each artist had in mind, an intimate confession from artist to the viewer that extends greatly beyond the physical materials used to create the piece.

Author Image

By Jessica JacobCertified AnthropologistJessica is an anthropologist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She worked with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on various anthropological projects ranging from Native American archaeology to biology, ecology, and ethnography. Her research has been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and recognized by the Enquirer Journal. Her areas of interest are paleoanthropology, human evolution, art history, ethnography, and prehistoric art.