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Maurizio Cattelan: All Things Considered

Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York is famously rough on the artists exhibiting their work there. Indeed, Wright’s 1959 building inaugurated a tradition of magisterial designs of art institutions by major architects—examples would include Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao—that seem intent upon outclassing and even rendering insignificant any of the artworks they might contain. In Wright’s building, the ramp, corkscrewing up the central rotunda all the way up to the famous glass skylight, literally pulls viewers away from the claustrophobic nooks in which artworks—especially paintings and photographs—are typically displayed. The only way to compete with Wright’s architecture is to engage with it directly. A petroleum-jelly-slathered Matthew Barney literally scaled its curving inner walls, death-metal bands and topless nymphs populating the ramp, for the final segment of his Cremaster cycle; Daniel Buren dropped his inscrutable striped flags directly from the ceiling. Now, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, whose retrospective “All” opened on November 4, has suspended more than 20 years of production from the museum’s ceiling in what amounts to a giant, cascading and strangely morbid mobile.

Maurizio Cattelan’s art-world reputation is as a kind of trickster figure in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Broodthaers, though brasher and more punk rock, creating works that are by turns comic and critically potent and sometimes rudely aggressive. In L.O.V.E., for instance, he fashioned a massive, phallic, vein-engorged hand from beautiful white Carrera marble—the marble with which Michelangelo carved David—with the middle finger sticking up in an angry and defiant salute and installed it on a pedestal in front of the Milan stock exchange. Given the way it’s positioned, it’s unclear whether it’s bankers getting flipped off, or everyone else, or both. For Another Fucking Readymade at de Appel in Amsterdam, he stole the entire contents of a show from a neighbouring gallery and exhibited it as his own, returning the work only on threat of arrest. Both of these works, and many others like them, are, on the surface, impudent one-liners, the kind of obnoxious gestures that create buzz in an otherwise bored art world, but they also have a surprising poetic grandeur in their exhaustive absolutism and existential futility, as well as a kind of despairing earnestness that seeps through their vulgar slapstick comedy: maybe all art really is just another pointless reiteration of Duchamp’s readymades, maybe we all really are, in the end, simply fucked. Cattelan’s most provocative work was made for specific places and occasions, and, afloat in the Guggenheim’s dizzying central rotunda, it is out of context to say the least. But rather than being denuded of meaning, the work in “All” takes on new meanings and associations, and it turns out that the work is less aggressively iconoclastic than circumspect, humane and even elegiac. At 51, Cattelan may still be a prankster, as the show’s deadpan encyclopedic catalogue and downloadable app suggests, but, like Duchamp and Broodthaers, he is also a poet.

Standing at the bottom of the Guggenheim’s rotunda gazing up through “All,” one encounters a big, fuzzy black box, the hoofs and drooping head of a taxidermied horse, a donkey pulling an old wagon, another horse prancing at an impossible angle, and a kaleidoscope of other less identifiable objects suspended from ropes attached to a circular truss on the ceiling. The ropes are, in a way, an integral part of the work, forming taut, elegant lines of varying length and creating the impression that one is looking at an elaborate marionette: in “All,” every piece plays the role of Pinocchio, except here there’s no Geppetto and everything seems suspended in a dream, ready to crash heavily down into life—or death. Once one begins to slide up the museum’s ramp, however, individual works begin to fall into sharper focus.

Cattelan’s iconic La Nona Ora is an uncannily lifelike sculpture of Pope John Paul II, decked out in silken ecclesiastical robes, upended by a big grey meteorite on a length of red carpet; in “All” he rests on a narrow suspended plinth. While in the late 1990s the piece was inevitably read as an attack on the aged and desperately reactionary pope that many in the art world reviled for his stances on homosexuality, birth control and abortion, it now has a tragicomic quality—delusions of grace and universal knowledge struck down by a wholly random cosmic incident. In Him, Hitler, dressed in a grey suit and tie, is down on his knees, his hands clasped together, his face gravely gazing out in the distance; in the current show, he is held in place with a strap around his waist and nothing beneath his knees. He appears to be praying, or begging, but whether it is for forgiveness for his crimes or for victory and vindication is unclear. Strung up in the Guggenheim, Hitler looks like a puppet, less like the incarnation of human evil than diminutive and pathetic, a creepy and frightened choirboy. Like Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in Our Hitler: A Film From Germany, Cattelan understands that evil can only begin to be grasped through the uneasy dance of pathos and comedy. And in La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, a facsimile of Cattelan, himself dressed in a grey felt suit of the kind Joseph Beuys made famous, hangs from a coat rack, his big-nosed, wide-eyed face at once sheepish and mischievous, and a little demonic. Cattelan clearly enjoys playing the fool, but as one knows from Scaramouche in the commedia dell’arte and the fool in King Lear, clowns and fools are never benign. If to repudiate authority is to stand outside the shadow of its demands, that is a place only a fool, wily and unpredictably, can occupy.

As one strolls up the Guggenheim’s spiralling ramp, objects and images accumulate, echoing and clashing one with the other. A topless woman juts out of a white board; two New York City police officers hang upside down; sheeted bodies rest on floating stretchers; a tyrannosaurus skeleton pounces on one of Cattelan’s foils, huge jaws agape; an elephant is swaddled in a white sheet, its long trunk lolling. There is a floating eye; a placard with a newspaper headline announcing Aldo Moro’s kidnapping by the Red Brigade; a sculpture of Picasso with a giant head and a midget’s arms and body; and a big photograph of Cattelan in a fashionable suit and sneakers, curled up in the fetal position, grimacing in either laugher or disgust or both, his tongue sticking out. “All” has all of this and a good deal more, and unlike most retrospectives, “All” is far more than the sum of its parts.

If looking up at “All” from the bottom of the Guggenheim’s rotunda is bewildering and a little frightening, contemplating it from the top is to be pulled into the vortex of an entire world at once, Shakespearean in its dimension and diversity, now ribald, now obnoxious, now tragic, now sentimental, now totally absurd. While Cattelan’s invectives against the Catholic Church, reactionary politicians in the United States and Europe, and the bloated pretentions of the art world itself are hardly softened, in “All” these provocations assume a broader perspective: at the end of the day, Cattelan is less an anti-authoritarian bad boy than a classical humanist in the venerable tradition of other anti-authoritarian bad boy humanists like François Villon, François Rabelais and Giovanni Boccaccio. If Cattelan has solved the problem of exhibiting in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, he has also solved the problem of having a “retrospective” without being entombed by it: he has treated his work not as a collection of objects in linear time, but as a living organism, each of whose parts exists simultaneously and is continuously transforming. Cattelan has remarked that “All” marks the end of his involvement in the art world, which, like all such statements (Duchamp gave up art too), should be taken with more than a grain of salt. What one takes away from “All” is that the work of a major artist like Maurizio Cattelan doesn’t really have a beginning or an end.

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