By Massimiliano Gioni
THE DEVIL IN DISGUISE
Joker, prankster, revolutionary and pirate, Maurizio Cattelan is also a fine anthropologist, who treats art as a field study or a laboratory, in which reality is reconstructed in all its complexities and contradictions, preserving the excesses of meaning and the dullest nonsense. A bastard son of Boetti and Duchamp, Cattelan doesn't believe in artists as guardians of truth: his role instead consists of setting up an ambiguous situation, before retreating and coldly recording the effects of his actions. Cattelan doesnt take a position: the responsibility for judgement and morality is left to his viewers. Instead, Cattelan holds the privilege of confusion. With his continuous exercises in disappearance and dissemination, he turns art into a slippery territory; a restless world in which borders and definitions must be negotiated and redefined, while roles get subverted and exchanged. With Cattelan on the scene, gallerists get crucified to the wall with duct tape or dressed up as giant penises, and Picasso is turned into a caricature of himself and bound to sign autographs in front of the MOMA: his universe is grotesque and macabre; a carnival of fools that flips the world upside down, and throws it into a forest of paradoxes and lies.
POLICE ON MY BACK
In such a world, even identity becomes uncertain: impossible to say where the universe ends and where the self begins, impossible to distinguish facts from interpretations, for Cattelan has transformed art and life into a theatre of disinformation, a neverending performance of masks and conflicting signs. Like some painting by Bosch, Cattelans' world swarms with deformed characters in search of an author. The artist himself is one, no one and a few hundred others, all walking on the thin red line that separates the self from pure chaos. Super-noi, 1996 is the portrait of this exploded identity. Drawn by a policeman according to the descriptions of Cattelan provided by friends and relatives, Super-noi catches the schizophrenia of our existence, turning the artist into nothing but a pale refraction. There is something extremely tragic in the way Cattelan chooses to represent himself: a weak, fragmented image, as if he was admitting that this is no time for heroes and icons, and we are left with only an approximation of identity, a partial truth.
On the other hand, as Cattelan would say, there is a certain strength in being invisible: if they can't recognise you, they can't catch you you can take them by surprise. With his Super-noi, Cattelan makes up a personal mythology and wears the mask of a criminal, escaping from himself and from the claustrophobic borders of the artworld. Cattelan, in fact, is carrying out a semiotic guerrilla war against art and the dogmas of property and originality. His entire carrier is studded with more or less metaphorical thefts and abuses of power. In 1997 Cattelan perfectly reproduced a Carsten Hollers exhibition and signed it as his own. The year before he was busted by the police while trying to burgle an Amsterdam gallery in a desperate attempt to steal art and ideas from some fellow artists. And finally last year he elevated falsity to a fine art, convincing sponsors, galleries and museums to pay for a holiday in the sun disguised as the Sixth Biennial of the Caribbean for him and his accomplices.
Even when he paints, Cattelan turns into a thief of style. With Untitled, 1996 he publicly admits his total unoriginality, and yet gets away with it. By stealing from both Lucio Fontana and Zorro, Cattelan invents a logo for his own inadequacy, and turns his weakness into a strength, creating a brand out of his chronic lack of ideas. Half parody and half parasitism, Untitled is a shameless embrace of contradiction, suspended between heroism and laziness, failure and success.
EVERYMAN KILLS THE THING HE LOVES
Animals are another obsession of Cattelans: his world in fact proliferates with dogs, birds, rodents, and other quadrupeds, caught in surreal stories and fragile utopias. From the live donkey exhibited in his first show in New York in 1994, to the pigeons welcoming the visitors of the 1997 Venice Biennial, or the little stray dog of Untitled, 1997, Cattelan has created a powerless army of taxidermied creatures, which function as characters of a small theatre of the absurd, where romantic memories mingle with morbid death drives and perverse fables. Cattelans animals might also be a strange portrait of the artist as a dead dog yet another admission of weakness in the face of the artworld with its overachievers and sharks. Mixing pessimism and cuteness, these animals compose a portable, ready-made tragedy, a peaceful way out from the burden of the real.
ART AND OTHER CATASTROPHES
Death coldly contemplated is a recurring theme in Cattelan's work, for it plots yet another means of escape. At the last Venice Biennial Cattelan buried a fakir six feet under: hands sprouted from the soil, perhaps in a gesture of prayer, the only evidence of a more or less apparent death. Not so different was the female dummy that Cattelan threw into the lake Aasee, in Munster, for Skulpture Projekte, writing his own version of an executioners song. But its with La Nona Ora, 1999, that Cattelan turns death into a sublime black comedy, a visual oxymoron that brings together cheap epiphanies and dead pan humour. Synthesizing baroque and pop, sanctity and blasphemy, his stoned pope resonates somewhere between a loony tune and a requiem. Struck by a gigantic meteorite, the holy father falls onto his side, sinking in a red carpet sea, like Titanic or a 3-D version of a Francis Bacon painting. But there are no screams or blood in Cattelans world, maybe just a little lipstick or tomato juice. After all, his pope is just a wax replica, a perfect simulation or an empty simulacrum, made of the same substance as information. And its to information that La Nona Ora returns: in its short life, in fact, La Nona Ora has become an ubiquitous icon, reproduced in hundreds of magazines, covers and pages, and speeding from the Kunsthalle in Basel to the Royal Academy in London, and the National Gallery in Warsaw. Travelling faster than the pope himself, La Nona Ora spreads a new ritual, an Eucharist of vision, a religion of images, that perpetually kills and adores its idols. And, as a perfect conclusion, the pope ends up on the block.
G. Verzotti, Maurizio Cattelan, Milan 1997
F. Bonami, N. Bourriaud, and A. Gingeras, "Maurizio Cattelan", Parkett No. 59, Fall 2000
F. Bonami, N. Spector, and B. Vanderlinden, Maurizio Cattelan, London 2000
Dossier Maurizio Cattelan, Flash Art Italy no. 227, April-May 2001