Alternatively regarded as an boisterous prankster and ingenious revolutionary, Cattelan is embraced as the enfant terrible of the Contemporary art establishment. Primarily a conceptual artist, he operates on multiple levels, often using hilarious, bemusing and innocuous objects to veil incisive commentary about society and philosophical statements about the human condition. In a sense, he revives the traditional role of court jester, town clown or village idiot, who through the hilarity of his own gestures provided an inverted or ironic mirror of his milieu.
Cattelan's oeuvre includes a number of taxidermied animals, including horses, squirrels, dogs, mice and pigeons, at times employed in a narrative and at other times isolated and suspended without context. Executed in 1998, the present work relates to two previous works featuring stacked animals: Love Saves Life (1995) and Love Lasts Forever (1997). The first manifestation was inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairytale, The Musicians of Bremen (1812-15), in which the featured animals escaped a cruel owner who threatened them with death, made their way into town to become musicians, but on the way tricked robbers out of their hideaway and found an abode to live the rest of their days in freedom. As with many children's fables, The Musicians of Bremen was embedded with a moral tale that encouraged cooperation as a means of attaining a Utopian state. However, he undermined this idea in the paradoxical Love Lasts Forever, which featured the animals having disintegrated into skeletons, contradicting the "forever" in the title and the hopeful message of the prior work, essentially stating the unsustainability of a social ideal based on collective effort.
Seen together, the three stacked works are symbolic of the three ages of man. Although concluding the series, the present work features the animals at their youngest and smallest; Love Saves Life features them older and more mature; and Love Lasts Forever features them dead and withered into skeletal relics. Like the inevitable evolution and dissolution of man, the underlying idea of finding strength and victory in cooperation eventually crumbles into a vestige of history. Disguised in an uplifting children's story with the proverbial happy ending of a fairy tale, Cattelan's version adopts the brutal reality of life. However, the fact the he executed the present work last suggests a silver lining, a metaphoric resurrection of the original idea embedded in the tale.
Much like the anthropomorphic and empathetic creatures that populate fairy tales and contemporary Disney creations, Cattelan's work feature animals that act as surrogates for humans. However rather than sharing with the joyous personas and narratives that characterize these popular creatures of childhood, Cattelan's seemingly adorable animals personify the tragic-comic plight of the human condition. One of his recurring themes is the tragedy of the human inability to effect change; his strung up horse in the The Ballad of Trotsky, 1996 epitomizes this idea of impotence and his suicidal squirrel in Bidibidobidiboo (1996) surrenders its life in the face of inevitable failure.
The present work shares a visual affinity to Jeff Koons' Stacked (1988) of his Banality series. Both Cattelan and Koons are conceptual artists who outsource the actual execution of their works and infuse them with broad ideas that transcend their physical form. However, Cattelan evokes the memory of childhood beliefs, youthful ideals and their pragmatic dissolution with the concurrent aging of the body, while Koons satirizes rampant consumerism through purposeless, kitsch objects in highly skilled, polished porcelain executions. Damien Hirst's sharks, dissected cows and lambs in formaldehyde sdare a similarity with Cattelan's work on the basis of materials and ability to transform "found objects" from their context in the real world. However, Hirst's preserved animals function more as contemporary vanitas pieces, proud in their nihilism. Since Cattelan's taxidermied animals embody universal human feelings, they appear familiar and resonant, and are less about death in the abstract.
According to Cattelan, a work that he deems successful "becomes an image." He states, "I make a distinction between works that function as an idea or a project and those which get transformed into a memorable image." (Bonami et al., op. cit., p. 22). The First They Said Should Be Sweet like Love; the Second Bitter, like Life; and the Third, Soft like Death is a powerful image, simultaneously redolent of childhood and humorous, yet strangely surreal and disquieting. Appropriating an illustration and story from a familiar children's story, and re-contextualizing it to morbid effect, Cattelan creates an unforgettably striking work that is infused with layers of meaning. By his own definition and ours, the featured work is one of his most successful creations.