Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim

by Carla Sakamoto, December 2011

The dramatic spiral of the Guggenheim museum in New York is currently the home of what looks like a grand scale version of an infant’s toy mobile, but with approximately 130 life-sized art pieces dangling perilously yet harmoniously over viewers’ heads. This body of work, starting from 1989, represents the most comprehensive Maurizio Cattelan retrospective to date, but the sheer spectacle of the alternately shocking and humorous installation, entitled All, may prove to be the finest work of one of contemporary art’s preeminent provocateurs.

Ascending or descending the Guggenheim’s rotunda at one’s own pace allows the museum goer to linger and gaze at one or all of the many suspended objects at varying heights and angles, depending on the viewpoint level. Starting at the bottom, a taxidermied horse the color of deep mahogany still wearing a bridle, strung up haplessly with his bowed head and sad dangling hooves, is the first startling piece. Entitled Novecento (1997), this unsettling image of a horse rendered immobile and riderless is a lamentation on the loss of Italian nationalism and revolutionary fervor in the twentieth century, as represented by Mussolini and the Fascist movement. This is the first of many taxidermied animals (donkeys, cows, dogs, rabbit, birds, etc.) in the show that Cattelan uses to embody metaphors, political or otherwise. Love Saves Life (1995) depicts an iconic moment in a Brothers Grimm fable about a donkey, dog, cat and rooster who band together for survival, fooling and scaring a pack of thieves in order to overtake their home. Taxidermied versions of said animals perched on top of one another braying and barking in unison can be seen as a macrocosmically impactful or sneakily light-hearted symbol of the power of unity.

The sculpted figure of what appears to be a caricature of Pablo Picasso with an oversized head wearing a signature Breton-striped shirt peers out omnisciently from mid-level. Untitled is the artifact from Cattelan’s performance piece from 1998 where a person costumed as the cartoonish, iconic modern artist loitered in the lobby of the MoMA, greeting visitors, taking pictures with them, occasionally panhandling or taking a nap. This good-natured silliness was also a dig at the global museum world’s desperate attempt to create mass appeal for fine art.

Another visually arresting sculpture depicts the body of John F. Kennedy laying in an open coffin wearing a suit but curiously barefoot—perhaps an allusion to human vulnerability. Although it is an uncomfortably irreverential image of the slain U.S. president, Cattelan’s Now (2004) is somehow a peaceful and respectful elegy to fallen American idealism.

Lost amongst the more corporeal pieces is a series of small acetate sheets hanging flatly together, each containing a doodle-like portrait of a man. Super Us (1998) is actually a clever collection of portraits of the artist as these drawings are all police-composite sketches of him based on multiple physical descriptions from his friends and acquaintances. Cattelan is showing us the multitudinous ways that we are perceived by others or that there is a multitude of selves that make up a whole person.

Cattelan began his artistic training as a furniture maker and sculptor, but his biting satire of the art world, religion, politics or humankind, in general, has always outshone his artisanship. The ludicrous and often undignified sights of politicians, public figures and animals in sculptural effigy are never jokes for jokes’ sake as they often intermingle with darker themes of subversion, death and scandal. Cattelan demonstrates that the voice of derision and satire is empowered by comedic empathy. It is easy to dismiss art with humor or a comedic bent as trickery or gimmickry as some Maurizio Cattelan naysayers have done, but isn’t all art a gimmick of some sort? Is “gimmick” not a redundant term in a creative genre based on visceral attraction or repulsion from imagery? Cattelan is more than aware of these critical pitfalls, declaring: My aim is to be as open and as incomprehensible as possible. There has to be a perfect balance between open and shut” (Sophie Arie, “I don’t do anything. I just eat images,” The Guardian, 23 June 2004).

With an oeuvre founded on visual satire and political incorrectness of the highest order, Cattelan’s gleefully unconventional and seemingly chaotic installation of his simultaneously whimsical and disturbing pieces is a dazzling exclamation point to his twenty-year career thus far.

Maurizio Cattelan: All
4 November 2011—22 January 2012
Guggenheim Museum
New York