Italian Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Maurizio Cattelan
In the grand kingdom of the art world, Maurizio Cattelan has established himself as its court jester. With a fool's irreverence and the freedom of a Conceptual artist unbound to singular voice or traditional medium, he seeks to jostle the status quo. Whether he guides us toward interrogating socially ingrained norms, or pinpoints our darker human struggles and uncomfortable emotions, he does it all with a misfit's mischievous sense of humor. Whether the joke is on us, or flipped back upon him, his work pokes fun at, and helps connect us to, our common human foibles.
- Although the title fits, Cattelan has always refused being called an artist-provocateur. Instead, he claims that he is merely holding a mirror up to society, and in fact, considers himself more of an "art worker" than artist. In fact, many times he doesn't make his own work and often his work is contrived of nothing but temporary actions or statements.
- The concepts of failure and mortality appear often in Cattelan's work. His investigations into these heavier themes of the human condition, though, are fraught with a morbid sense of comedy that allows for an overall lightening of the load.
- Cattelan often works in contradiction or double meaning, making work that points out one perspective, yet simultaneously leads us to reflect upon its opposite. In this regard, he tricks us into experiencing dual roles of our common humanity; judge and accused.
- Although his work can be seen as post- Duchampian, Cattelan evolves the ready-made, or the concept of art as absurdity, by layering it with intentional messages of underlying cynical or social implication.
- Cattelan often works with taxidermy animals and hyperrealist sculpture to stage his visual jokes. Both lend themselves well to his niche of constructing realistic settings that upon closer inspection become quite uncanny.
Progression of Art
Southern Suppliers FC
For this work, Cattelan assembled a real soccer team of North African immigrants, who were then dispatched to play local matches across Italy (all of which they lost). In classic Cattelan tongue-in-cheek style, he made up a fictional sponsor for the team, which was emblazoned on the men's shirts. RAUSS is the German word for "get out," as in the phrase "Ausländer raus," or "foreigners get out." When considered in light of the artwork's name, Southern Suppliers FC, we find the artist referencing both the controversial use of cheap immigrant labor and the irony in hiring foreign sportsmen to play on Italian teams. The work draws a contrast between two types of imported labor at different ends of the economic spectrum: celebrity vs. working-class.
In her 2012 book of the same name, Claire Bishop wrote about Southern Suppliers FC as an example of "delegated performance.". According to her, delegated performance refers to "the act of hiring nonprofessionals or specialists in other fields to undertake the job of being present and performing at a particular time and a particular place on behalf of the artist, and following his or her instructions." She also notes that quite often, people are hired "to perform their own socioeconomic category, be this on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, disability,
or (more rarely) profession." She explains that "through this work, Cattelan fulfills the male dream of owning a football club, and apparently insults the players by dressing them in shirts emblazoned RAUSS. At the same time, he nevertheless produces a confusing image: the word RAUSS, when combined with the startling photograph of an all-black Italian football team, has an ambiguous, provocative potency, especially when it circulates in the media, since it seems to blurt out the unspoken E.U. fear of being deluged by immigrants from outside 'fortress Europe.' Southern Suppliers FC is a social sculpture as cynical performance, inserted into the real-time social system of a soccer league." Cattelan succeeds, through the co-opting of the players, to participate in the same practice his work intends to highlight and mock.
In this work, a taxidermy squirrel lays slumped over a miniature kitchen table with two miniature chairs. At its feet lies a miniature revolver, and on the back wall of the diorama are a kitchen sink and water heater. The suicidal squirrel represents an alter ego based on a replication of the artist's childhood kitchen. Cattelan has confessed of being terrorized by the concept of failure, implied here by the squirrel's demise. It is a key element in both this work and a recurring theme in his oeuvre. He has also stated, "Sometimes it's not easy being yourself."
Interestingly, Cattelan's sister Giada also feels a connection to the work, recalling that shortly before its creation, she had been going through a challenging time in her life, and instead of offering comfort, her brother asked if she had considered suicide. A little while later, when she first saw the piece, she says that it freed her of that idea, made her smile, and allowed her to move on. Being that both siblings were raised in a lower-middle-class home rife with financial struggle, and that their mother passed at an early age, it can also be said that this piece might weave insight into Cattelan's feelings of failure from his own childhood.
The irony of the squirrel's situation is enhanced by the title Bidibidobidiboo, the magical words that a fairy tale Cinderella spoke to summon her fairy godmother while yearning to transform her life. However, no magical words, nor mystical creatures, nor collaborative social efforts were able to change this squirrel's fate.
Cattelan's early works frequently employed taxidermy, which, according to Nancy Spector, Deputy Director of the Guggenheim, "presents a state of apparent life premised on actual death."
Many, like Tom Eccles, former Director of the Public Art Fund, find Cattelan's work particularly effective because of the use of humor to explore dark issues. Some of his other works that deal with death and mortality include Now (2004), which places a deceased John F. Kennedy in a coffin, All (2007), which is comprised of nine sculptures made of white Carerra marble that appear to be supine humans shrouded in sheets, and Untitled (2009), which features a taxidermy horse, dead on the ground with a wooden sign staked in its flank bearing the Latin inscription that appeared on Jesus' cross, "INRI." By presenting such lifelike visions of death, Cattelan forces viewers to consider their own mortality, and to question the flimsy line between life and death.
Taxidermy squirrel, ceramic, formica, wood, paint, steel - Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
If a Tree Falls in the Forest and There is No One Around It, Does It Make a Sound
This work is a farce on the biblical Christian holiday, Palm Sunday; the day when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey as worshippers celebrated his arrival by laying cloaks and palm fronds in his path. The donkey was a symbol of peace, an alternative to the horse, which was more associated with war. In Cattelan's work, however, Christ has been replaced by a television, allowing the artist to employ a familiar tactic of manipulating something familiar into something absurd in order to make a social point.
Cattelan's substitution of the television speaks directly toward society's numbed veneration of mass media and Spectacle Culture, a concept laid out by Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. According to Debord, the advent of mass media and advertising around the 1920s, caused people to become more transfixed by commodities and their representation, "images detached from every aspect of life," as a distraction, or substitute for, real life.
Conceptually, Cattelan's work recalls earlier pieces by Korean artist Nam June Paik, who often juxtaposed mainstream technological devices with religious or spiritual imagery in order to also critique the worship of mass media, as in TV Buddha (1976). Cattelan's work was later referenced by contemporary Spanish artist Pilar Albarracín in Fabulations (2010), wherein she placed a taxidermy donkey atop a pile of books to represent the modern human, inundated and overwhelmed with information and media.
Taxidermy donkey, television, bridles, cotton cloth, cord - Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
La Nona Ora
This work consists of a life-sized sculpture of Pope John Paul II lying on a red carpet, clutching the papal cross, and being crushed by a meteor. The original installation at the Kunsthalle Basel was located directly under a shattered skylight, with shards of glass around the fallen pope. The work is a prime example of Cattelan's hyperrealist sculpture, wherein he creates the illusion of reality to lure in the viewer, and then adds elements of the uncanny to tweak the viewer's perspective, or even complacency.
In this case, the title of the work refers to the Liturgy of the Hours of the Catholic Church, that is, the official set of prayers, palms, hymns, and readings that mark the hours of, and sanctify, each day with prayer. Within this cycle, the ninth hour is the supposed hour of Christ's death on the cross, shortly after crying out "Father, father, why hast thou forsaken me?"
The work has been interpreted in various ways. Some see it as a condemnation of the Catholic Church's reputation for scandal and immoral behaviors beneath its sanctified veneer. It may also suggest God's own condemnation, via heavenly meteor, of a church that has become bastardized by the ego, greed, and sins of man. The apparent survival of the Pope, and the stern determination upon his face, also signifies that he will rise again and speaks to religion's eternal presence among man.
After its original run at Kunsthalle Basel, the piece was shown in 2000 at the Royal Academy in London, and later that year at the Zacheta Gallery of Contemporary Art in Warsaw. The latter exhibition in Poland was bound to be problematic, as it was the homeland of its subject, Pope John Paul II. It was also a time when the country was making a return to conservative right-wing politics. Indeed, the work caused a great deal of controversy when two members of Poland's Parliament, Halina Nowina-Konopka and Witold Tomczak, removed the meteor and attempted to stand the wax Pope upright. The two politicians also led a petition with ninety other members of Parliament, demanding the dismissal of the gallery's director, Anda Rottenberg. Cattelan later commented on the Warsaw controversy, saying "what happened in Poland was a sort of upside down miracle: salvation wasn't coming from the sky but from the earth, from the people".
Cattelan also defends the work by saying, "To me it's like when you are telling a joke, but no one would laugh: most of the time, provocation lies in the eye of the beholder. I believe there's nothing wrong with showing people's vulnerable side, moreover if they're icons. It might help blur some lines but I don't think it undermines their status. Quite the contrary, it reinforces their position as well as the belief that they are powerful or sacred icons."
Wax, clothing, polyester resin with metallic powder, volcanic rock, carpet, glass - Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
Another hyperrealist sculpture, Him depicts a petite, kneeling Adolf Hitler in a grey suit, gazing upward, hands interlaced in front of him, in a pose suggestive of seeking forgiveness. Most of the time that the work has been installed, it has been located at the far end of a room or hallway, with its back turned to the entrance, so that viewers have to approach the sculpture and come around the other side to see the true identity of the figure revealed. From behind, viewers expect to encounter a small boy in prayer. Unsurprisingly, Him has become known as one of the most shockingly inflammatory artworks of the past century, enraging audiences through its seemingly compassionate placement of history's most unforgivable villain within a repentant light.
The work was included in the equally controversial Partners exhibition at the Munich Haus der Kunst in 2002. Partners was organized by the newly appointed director of the museum, Chris Dercon, and the new chief curator, Thomas Weski, who both felt it was time for Germany to stop repressing its troubling past, and instead face it directly. Him could not have been more perfect for this mission, since as Cattelan states, "Hitler is everywhere, haunting the spectre of history; and yet he is unmentionable, irreproducible, wrapped in a blanket of silence."
Cattelan also says of the piece, "I wanted to destroy it myself. I changed my mind a thousand times, every day. Hitler is pure fear; it's an image of terrible pain. It even hurts to pronounce his name. And yet that name has conquered my memory, it lives in my head, even if it remains taboo." Yet, regardless of these concerns, the piece lived on, cementing the artist's mission to hold a mirror up to society.
Wax, human hair, suit, polyester resin
Untitled (all five horses together at once, for the first time)
In this work, we see five taxidermy horses hung in a row. But unlike traditional animal trophies that hunters place on their walls comprised of large heads, we are confronted with the horses' rear quarters, their heads seemingly disappearing into the wall. Two of the horses are artist's proofs from Cattelan's 2007 work Untitled, and the other three are 2007 Untitled pieces, on loan from various private collections around the world. In this version, he brought together the five lonely horses into a herd that now, as a pack, have come to make a group decision on how to escape their tragic conditions by jumping into this wall.
The stance of the horses almost imply that they leaped willingly into this space, perhaps out of fear, or attempt to escape some danger, or even with a desire to commit suicide. In any case, the dangling bodies also conjure the phrase "horse's ass" which is used to denote a person who is stupid, incompetent, or a blockhead - something we know that Cattelan himself was always deathly afraid of being considered in his role as an artist.
This work first appeared in the Kaputt exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. The title refers to the novel kaputt primavera by Curzio Malaparte. In the book, the author recounts the tragic death of a thousand horses in WWII who jumped into Lake Ladoga in Finland in order to escape the forest fires caused by aerial bombardments. While in the middle of the lake, it suddenly froze over, trapping them in place.
Art critic Francesco Bonami writes, "the jump [of the single 'untitled' horse] is delusional and yet heroic. The five horses transform delusion into panic and individual effort into a feverish crowd. It's an exodus we're witnessing, not a search for freedom. Like Malaparte's horses in Finland that run away from the burning wood into the frozen lake, Cattelan's horses do not seek freedom but survival."
In 2016, Cattelan installed this 18-karat solid gold, fully functional replica of a standard Kohler toilet in a small bathroom at the Guggenheim in New York City. Paying museum patrons were welcomed to use the toilet, an item of vast luxury and richness usually reserved for only those who could afford it, otherwise coined in America as 1% of the population. A guard was stationed at the door to answer any questions.
America directly references the famous Fountain (1917) by Cattelan's idol, Marcel Duchamp while also becoming a critique of excessive wealth. Upon installation, Cattelan said "I'm happy because it's not on a pedestal, it's not in a gallery. It's in a little room, just waiting for you whenever you need it. When I saw it in there the other day for the first time, I cried. Well, almost." He sees a certain democratic appeal in the work, as it causes the user to realize that "Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise."
It was also a groundbreaking piece in the way that it evolved a viewer's intimacy with a work of art. Not only was a person contained in close personal quarters with an object of extreme value, they were invited to partake in one of their most private moments in direct interaction with it. This created an unprecedented experience, crafted by Cattelan's trickster mind, to express the inescapable commonalities of our physical reality, even in light of our social and economic differences.
Although it was conceived before Donald Trump entered the running for the U.S. presidential election, it is now impossible not to associate the solid gold receptacle for human waste with the signature gold aesthetic of Trump's corporate branding.
18-karat gold - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Biography of Maurizio Cattelan
Maurizio Cattelan grew up in the northern Italian town of Padua. His father was a truck driver, his mother a maid, and the family struggled financially. Always a misfit, he disliked school, received poor grades, and constantly found himself in trouble. Art Historian Sarah Thornton explains that Maurizio's mother was ill for most of his childhood and died when he was in his early twenties. The artist feels that she blamed him for her illness, perhaps sparking his early conflicts with the concepts of failure and mortality that would later pepper his artwork. After dropping out of high school, he worked a series of unfulfilling jobs in post offices, mortuaries, and kitchens in order to support his family. Through all of these early experiences, he learned to mistrust authority and to abhor the monotony of manual labor.
From these experiences, an artistic rebel was born. Cattelan's sister Giada remembers that she used to be embarrassed to mention that she had a brother because he was just an artist, which equated to being a "lazy do-nothing." In his autobiography, Cattelan recounts his first artistic exploits, which mirror the outcast archetype being penned upon him from that time. He drew moustaches on the church statues where he was an altar boy, an act that eventually got him expelled from the parish.
Early Training and Work
Cattelan had no formal arts education. Perhaps initially compelled by his distaste for menial work, he moved to Milan in his twenties and became intrigued by art. He was fascinated with the status that came along with being an artist, and the idea of having one's work seen on magazine covers. In 1989, he decided to fake his own cover of FlashArt magazine, which was highly popular at the time. He created a house of cards sculpture comprised of copies of FlashArt, which he then photographed. He pasted this image on the front of actual copies of the magazine, resulting in very convincing fakes, which he then distributed in magazine stores and galleries. This launched his career, doubly reinforcing his idea that being an artist would allow him to work for, and be true to, himself. In 1993 he relocated to New York and ever since, he has alternately lived and worked both there and in Milan.
Without a proper academic background, Cattelan retained a freedom to wing it in the art world and rapidly established himself as an artist with a strong sense of humor and irony. Even though his work often grappled with serious themes, the art was presented tongue-in-cheek. He has always considered himself more of a worker in the art world, eschewing the preciousness bestowed upon the stereotypical or traditional artist. Since early on, he has culled widely from a conceptual based toolbox from which various mediums, forms, objects, and materials are used to express his underlying messages. In his early work, many times the message of the work formed the crux of import rather than the finished piece.
Cattelan is constantly worried that his work will not be well received saying, "You don't want to see your work because you might find out that you do not like it." This consistent fear of failure was prominently highlighted in a series of artworks that were about avoiding making anything. "They were basically about embracing failure before even beginning," says Victora Armutt, Director of the Cattelan Archive. In 1989, his deep anxiety toward having an unsuccessful first solo exhibition led him to simply close the gallery and hang a sign on the door which read, "Torno subito," ("Be back soon"). In the following years he created other "performative escape routes," as Nancy Spector, Deputy Director of the Guggenheim, calls them. Una Domenica a Rivara (A Sunday in Rivara), which was his contribution to a group exhibition at the Castello di Rivara near Turin in 1992, consisted of a rope of knotted bed sheets, dangled from an open window, as though he had just fled the scene. Then in 1993, he rented out his allotted space at the Venice Biennale to an advertising agency who installed a billboard for perfume with the title slogan Working Is a Bad Job. In 1996, he even went so far as to steal the contents of another artist's show from a nearby gallery and attempt to pass them off as his own, until the police forced him to return the work. The effort was hilariously titled Another Fucking Readymade.
Cattelan's constant obsessions surrounding survival and success formulated a strong minimalist impetus in both his artwork and his personal life. His first roommate in New York says that he had absolutely no furniture, and that he was always "trying to have less and less." He also says that it was very difficult at first because Maurizio didn't know anything about New York City, nor anything about American culture. He continued to struggle financially, living on five dollars a day at the beginning. One thing the artist knew for sure though, was that he wanted to someday show his work at Marian Goodman Gallery. He finally achieved this goal in a 1997 summer show with his work Untitled. The piece featured two small taxidermy mice in chaise lounges under a beach umbrella. This work launched him into the next stage of his career, by piquing the interest of many key players in the art world. The work also grabbed the attention of Dodie Kazanjian, art critic for Vogue, and Calvin Tomkins, art critic for the New Yorker, who sought Cattelan out and formed an instant friendship with him. Kazanjian says, "there's something about Maurizio that just gets under your skin."
Minimalism also informs Cattelan's social sphere and relationships. Many of his friends, colleagues, family members, and romantic partners note that he prefers to be alone, and does not like to get close to or be intimate with many people.
When in public, Cattelan's known to be enigmatic and slippery, dancing between the same type of emotional extremes he presents in his artwork - from sad depressive to class clown all in a matter of moments. Perhaps the fact that he feels this need to always be "on" in social situations, as the human embodiment of his artistic ideals that spurs constantly shifting gears, is the reason for his otherwise sparse personal life. "Sometimes I see myself as a locked box," he has stated, "very detached from myself and others. But I feel lucky, because I am the owner of my time, and you cannot buy time."
However, some friendships have been central in his life and professional development. An important shift in Cattelan's career came when he met Maurizio Bonami, Director of the Venice Biennale. They became fast friends, in part because they were both Italian immigrants trying to navigate the New York art world, and in part because they were both living on the same street in the East Village. Bonami gave Cattelan a prominent spot in the 1993 Biennale.
In 1997, Catalan met Italian-American curator and art critic Massimiliano Gioni. Gioni has impersonated or stood in on Cattelan's behalf (in interviews, lectures, and other appearances) for nearly a decade, not unlike the way that Andy Warhol enlisted a friend to appear on his behalf on a lecture tour of the United States in 1968.
Another one of Cattelan's friends is Milan gallerist Massimo de Carlo, who says, "Maurizio is the perfect connoisseur of many different aspects of the art world." In one noted work, A Perfect Day, 1999, he duct taped de Carlo to the wall for nearly two hours "like a strange, profane crucifixion." The length of time mixed with the hot lights of the gallery caused de Carlo to faint and he was taken to a hospital by ambulance. In another piece, Errotin, la Vraie Lapin, 1995, Cattelan had Paris gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin dress up in a pink bunny costume shaped like a large penis. In both these instances, Cattelan found a way to make people "complicit in their own abuse."
In 1999, Cattelan decided to organize his own biennial, 6th Caribbean Biennial, which acted as a sort of farce on the concept of biennial. Several artists including Olafur Eliasson, Chris Ofili, and Gabriel Orozco were invited to a hotel in the Bahamas, along with other art world elites. However, there were no artworks at all, and the event was essentially an art world holiday. Jenny Liu, a journalist for Frieze magazine, was absolutely horrified. She described the event as "a surprising hypocrisy" and "an impish act of art world sabotage." Cattelan explained simply that it was "an exhibition of everything that surrounds art."
Around the turn of the millennium, Cattelan began working with hyperrealist sculpture. Artists working within Hyperrealism (also referred to as Photorealism when used in painting) create convincing simulations of objects, figures, and situations but add other elements that are unlikely to exist in reality. In this way, they create a convincing false reality. Other hyperrealist sculptors who came before Cattelan include Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck, although both those artists tended to use fiberglass, whereas Cattelan uses wax. Many hyperrealist works act as social critique and Cattelan's sculptures, indeed present strong social commentary. For example, in Untitled (2000), a male figure sits at a dining table, slumped over with his face fully submerged in a plate of pasta, conjures thoughts of consumption and gluttony in the viewer?. In Betsy (2002), we find a sculpture of an elderly woman who sits uncomfortably inside a refrigerator. Some of his hyperrealist sculptures are more provocative, and have even been called blasphemous and offensive for featuring famous religious and historical figures in a critique of their abuses of power.
In 2004, Cattelan received an honorary degree in Sociology from the University of Trento, Italy. Between 2005 and 2010, he focused more on publishing and curating. He curated the 2006 Berlin Biennale, and has collaborated as editor on various publications including the magazines Permanent Food, Charley, and Toilet Paper, with Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, Paola Manfrin, Ali Subotnick, and Massimiliano Gioni. Charley was a DIY publication aimed exposing emerging artists. According to the publisher, "Prominent curators, writers, artists, and other arts professionals from around the world were asked to suggest up to 10 up-and-coming artists and/or submit materials on the artists for inclusion in Charley. Four hundred art makers from around the globe responded, and each of them is represented by one page." Toilet Paper is an extension of the work begun with Permanent Food, a sort of "cannibal magazine" comprised of provocative images that Cattelan and Manfrin ripped from other publications. Now, Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari are creating their own bizarre, provocative images for Toilet Paper, inspired after working together on a shoot for W magazine's 2009 Art Issue and discovering they had a strong artistic chemistry. Christopher Bollen of Interview Magazine describes Toilet Paper as "a magazine that is a wild photographic odyssey of surrealist misbehavior, shot with a high-fashion aesthetic and a mind for tumult, distaste, hilarity, hijinks, and a no-holds barred culture-war mentality. (A 21st-century glossy version of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (1929) seems an apt description). In other words, the imagery was pure Cattelan set in ink." Cattelan describes the publication as "the representation of the digestive process following an overdose of images." He continues, saying "I am fascinated by the idea of employing beautiful images as a device to convey something extremely disturbing in an apparently harmless way."
In 2011, during his massive retrospective All at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, Cattelan announced his retirement from the art world, stating, "I started to feel such a distance from the things I was doing, as if I was under some kind of anesthetic." To confirm this intent, he promoted the All retrospective with images of himself carrying around a tombstone that read "The End." However, he soon changed his mind, stating in 2016 that, "it's even more of a torture not to work than to work."
The Legacy of Maurizio Cattelan
For nearly three decades, Cattelan has been leading a generation of artists who use sardonic, sarcastic humor to critique the art world itself as well as the broader ills of society. For instance, the British street artist Banksy surreptitiously placed an inflatable of a hooded Guantanamo Bay prisoner at the Big Thunder Mountain ride in Disneyland in 2006, causing shock and confusion in passersby, much like in Cattelan's untitled work from 2008 wherein he hung the figures of three children with nooses from a tree branch in downtown Milan.
ArtForum journalist Emily Hall sums Cattelan up well, "He is eminently known as a prankster, a holy fool whose jokes reveal us to ourselves." Because he has done this while rising to shocking levels of success, he remains an inspiration to artists who wish to eschew the confines of a traditional art career. According to friend and documentarian Maura Axelrod, his work "is always super prescient."