‘He was hiding from the exhibition. It was a sort of exercise – I was taking part in a show while trying to keep a distance from it, just like an ostrich, with his head buried in the ground and his arse sticking out’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in F. Bonami, N. Spector, B. Vanderlinden (eds.), Maurizio Cattelan, London 2000, p. 24).
In Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (Ostrich) a taxidermied ostrich buries its head in the wooden floor of an art gallery, a collar of wood chips and sawdust collected around its tunnelling neck, conveying the animal’s desperation to be anywhere but the exposed environment of a museum. Created in 1997, the year that Cattelan finally threw off his mantle as the enfant terrible of Italian art and made his official entrance into the international art world, Untitled (Ostrich) reveals the artist’s conflicting feelings towards his burgeoning success. First exhibited in Fatto in Italia (Made in Italy), an exhibition of Italian art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1997, Untitled (Ostrich) represents a surrogate for the self, an anthropomorphic self-portrait that embodies the paradoxical nature of success. Running concurrently with the groundbreaking Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy, where Damien Hirst exhibited The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, his provocative shark preserved in formaldehyde, Fatto in Italia, and particularly Cattelan’s contribution, offered an alternative strategy to the confidence of his British counterparts. Cattelan explained of the work, ‘He was hiding from the exhibition. It was a sort of exercise – I was taking part in a show while trying to keep a distance from it, just like an ostrich, with his head buried in the ground and his arse sticking out’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in F. Bonami, N. Spector, B. Vanderlinden (eds.), Maurizio Cattelan, London 2000, p. 24). Making a frantic bid for escape, Cattelan’s flightless bird hides in plain sight, an absurd figure by virtue of its ridiculous proportions and laughable predicament. Yet, the work’s comedy is tinged by the insecurity, fear and anxiety that accompany prosperity, a tragicomic nod to the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition with which the artist is often compared. Well known for his role as court jester of the art world, in 1997 Cattelan’s trademark buffoonery earned him a place in the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where alongside more established artists, Ettore Spaletti and Enzo Cucchi, Cattelan exhibited Turisti, 1997, a collection of tongue-in-cheek taxidermied pigeons that both challenged and paid tribute to the legacy of Arte Povera.
Cattelan’s taxidermied animals function as physical symbols of human emotion. Untitled (Ostrich) belongs to a body of work in which the artist projects his own ideals and anxieties onto animal proxies, endowed with human traits. In Bidibidobidiboo, 1996 (Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin) a suicidal squirrel slumps over a formica-topped table, a gun dropped on the floor beside him. Modelled upon the kitchen of Catellan’s own childhood home, the work simultaneously evokes a sense of comedic melodrama and pathos in its representation of deep human despair. Playing with the anthropomorphic strategies of Disney cartoons, Cattelan produces an alter-ego that perhaps hints at an alternative storyline. As in Bidibidobidiboo, in Untitled (Ostrich) Cattelan infuses serious subjects with humour. Working in tandem with Hirst, whose beasts cast in formaldehyde bear formal similarities to Cattelan’s taxidermied animals, Cattelan presented his viewers with an alternative to Hirst’s unambiguous morbidity. While Hirst’s shark is a symbol of fearsome power, Cattelan’s ostrich is absurdly ineffective, a nonsensical bird which epitomises the humour inherent to Cattelan’s irreverent practice. Yet, in the mortality of his frozen creatures, Cattelan uncovers a vulnerability that empathises with the fragility of the human condition. Confounding his viewers with his life-like sculptures, in 1997 Cattelan participated in Delta, a group show at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. His contribution was Stone Dead: two taxidermied Labradors. Curled up innocuously in corners of the museum the dogs appeared at first to be sleeping. On closer inspection, however, the cosy domesticity of their presence is interrupted by the revelation that they are lifeless. ‘Animals are not so funny’, Cattelan has said, ‘I think they have a dark, morbid side’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in F. Bonami, N. Spector, B. Vanderlinden (eds.), Maurizio Cattelan, London 2000, p. 30). This pervasive undercurrent of death runs throughout Cattelan’s animal works, which with their evocative human mannerisms embody the full scope of human fear and angst.
Untitled (Ostrich) explores in detail the aesthetic of failure that characterises so much of Cattelan’s early work. Displaying his discomfort with critical appraisal and public exhibition, much of Cattelan’s artistic ouput is motivated by feelings of inadequacy. Indeed, Cattelan was so disappointed by the work produced for his first solo exhibition at Galleria Neon in Bologna in 1989 that he simply posted a sign on the locked door of the gallery that read ‘Torno subito’, or ‘Be back soon’. In an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Cattelan clarified, ‘I have been a failure for most of my life. I couldn’t keep a job for more than two months. I couldn’t study: school was a torture. And as long as I had to respect rules, I was a disaster. Initially art was just a way to try a new set of rules. But I was very afraid of failure in art as well’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in T. Boutoux (ed.), Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews, Milan 2003, p. 146). In this way, Cattelan has more in common with Tracey Emin, who in 1997 created Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, which explored her fear of artistic failure. Buried deep in the gallery floor, Cattelan’s ostrich hides its face from observers, fearing their judgemental gaze. With the creation of an alter-ego Cattelan gives a narrative to his insecurities. Invoking an empathetic identification on the part of the viewer, we see ourselves reflected in the petrified ostrich’s comical pose. Yet, despite its innate humour, Untitled (Ostrich) explores very real human anxieties. Cattelan has observed, ‘I’m not really sure satire is the key to my work. Comedians manipulate and make fun of reality, whereas I actually think that reality is far more provocative than my art … I’m always borrowing pieces – crumbs really – of everyday reality. If you think my work is very provocative, it means that reality is extremely provocative, and we just don’t react to it’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in F. Bonami, N. Spector, B. Vanderlinden (eds.), Maurizio Cattelan, London 2000, p. 17).