‘Maurizio Cattelan: All’ at the Guggenheim Museum

By Cressida Smart

Wow. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents Maurizio Cattelan: All, the first retrospective of the internationally acclaimed artist’s work. Provocateur, prankster and tragic poet of our times, are three of the far-ranging descriptions used to describe Maurizio Cattelan. A permanent fixture in contemporary art, he focuses on history and politics, organised religion and modern day living to create works that strike a balance between challenging and amusing his audience.

Cattelan’s sculpture are realistic in their depictions, exposing his contempt towards authority and the abuse of power. Maurizio Cattelan: All brings together 128 works—examples of virtually everything the artist has produced since 1989—and presents them en masse, strung seemingly haphazardly from the oculus of the museum’s rotunda in a site-specific installation.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure of the Guggenheim is an infamously difficult venue for many art works since it refuses to recede into the background and let the art sit alone in a white box. It is tempting to see the exhibition as the artist once again flaunting his super-sized ego by one-upping the great architect himself. Much of Cattelan’s work is performance-based or site-specific and he was reluctant to display his works in the conventional chronological format. In its hung state, there is no hierarchy of the works, creating an egalitarian arrangement of viewing his oeuvre.

For the traditionalists yearning for the information plaques, a paper map of the installation listing each work is available, alongside a fully illustrated catalogue, printed like a school text book or a Bible. For the first time, the Guggenheim has produced an interactive, multimedia mobile app offering both museum visitors and users off-site an enhanced experience of the exhibition that includes images, texts about the works, and video commentary by many of the artist’s key collaborators.

One of the many joys of this exhibition is the ability to view each work from all angles. My eye was drawn to La Nona Ora 1999, a sculpture of Pope John Paul II hit by a meteorite, which is one of the first sculptures to be seen when looking up at the installation. I first saw this work in 2000 at Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art, Royal Academy of Art. On a surface level, the piece is humourous.  However, probing further, it speaks of science versus religion. The meteorite serves as a deus ex machina that asks Catholics to probe their relationship to the divine through the vehicle of irony. For non-Catholics, it can be read as a joke at their expense, or more generously, it is just a reminder of how logic or physics flies against religion, literally in this case.

Responding to xenophobic sentiment in Italy, he formed a soccer team composed entirely of North African immigrants who played in both outdoor competitions and in exhibition settings on an elongated foosball table, Stadium 1991. Their uniforms bore the emblem Rauss, which recalled the Nazi phrase Juden raus, or “Jews get out.”

One result of this joke, and something that pervades throughout the exhibition, is that the works evade close scrutiny and seem to mock any attempt at serious contemplation. Visitors who try to look at anything for too long will eventually be distracted by Untitled 2003, a small toy drummer hanging in the towering cloud of art that periodically breaks into bursts of noise.

Humour is one of the constants in Cattelan’s sculptures. However, he also incorporates a fixation on mortality, seen particularly in the use of taxidermy, which presents a state of apparent life premised on actual death. Look at Bidibidobidiboo 1996, in which a despairing squirrel has committed suicide in his grimy kitchen. Death stalks the artist’s psyche and creeps into all manifestations of his production.  Taking it one step further, it could be argued that the theme of suicide surfaces on several levels in the exhibition, especially given that Cattelan’s works literally hang from the ceiling. Retrospectives, too, can often kill an artist and don’t necessarily amount to success.

Maurizio Cattelan has declared that this retrospective marks his retirement from the art world. Even this announcement could be seen as a work of art, a performance piece, as well as a homage to the greatest artist of the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp, who at a certain point in his career declared that he no longer wished to continue making art, but wanted to focus on playing chess. However, it was only after he died in 1968 that his final masterpiece, which he had secretly been working on for over 20 years, was unveiled by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Can we expect the same from Cattelan?

Through irony and humour, Cattelan’s work has provoked and challenged the limits of contemporary value systems. He has teased the art world without ever falling into the naive trap of thinking he can subvert a system of which he is part. The characters and personas inhabiting Maurizio Cattelan’s world are ghostly appearances in a personal theatre of the absurd, suspended between reality and fiction. He simulates and subverts the rules of culture and society in a continuous game of detournement, acts of insubordination and symbolical theft.

Love or hate Cattelan, I challenge anyone not to be astounded by the pure magnificence of this exhibition. Praise is undeniably due to the Guggenheim for taking a risk that has not only paid off, but has raised the bar in curating and installing art.

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