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Discover the artist Maurizio Cattelan and the emotions behind his artworks.

Article by: Mariam Qureshi

People often associate Maurizio Cattelan with Marcel Duchamp. Both dealt with the ready made in art and how putting a ready-made product in an art gallery will change the context, value and meaning of the whole object. Both dealt with the absurd and unsettled viewers with art work that digressed conventional boundaries. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” was a ready-made urinal which he purchased and placed on a gallery wall. “This decontextualization of the object functional place draws attention to the creation of its artistic meaning by choice of the setting and position ascribed to the object.” (Wikipedia 2021). Marcel Duchamp’s point being  anything can become art if one plays with its context. On the other hand Cattelan used the readymade in his toilet made out of gold in 2016 and had it placed in the rest room at the Solomon R Guggenheim museum. Viewers lined outside the rest room to use the toilet in this participatory art. The artist claims the toilet becomes a piece of art when people perform their call of nature in it. The gold toilet is a comment on the gross economic inequality in the society.

Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp

Another ready made by Cattelan is a banana attached to a gallery wall. This was titled “Comedian” and was sold three times for $120,000 each and the client was given a written warrant that the banana was actually a piece of art and not an ordinary banana.

Comedian, 2019

But unlike Marcel Duchamp Cattelan’s work is much more dark and the interplay of abject humor predominates Cattelan’s work. His is a personal journey in which his childhood, fears and insecurities and angst seeps very quietly into his art. He is sarcastic without being offensive yet his works makes one shudder and even send shafts of unsettlement down ones spine.His fascination with the morbid reminds one of the morbid fascination which one might feel while looking at a mutilated corpse and curious how it happened and the pre death predicament of the hapless dead bodies. The morbid curiosity that violence incurs resonates in Cattelan’s work. But still Cattelan’s work is not completely devoid of aesthetics. His wax dummies will look realistic and appropriately colorful to attract the eye. His play with positioning his dummies would be in sync and somehow blend in well in a macabre way with the surrounding it is exhibited in. Hence in Cattelan’s work there is violence but in a somewhat aesthetic manner. Catellan’s obsession with death and childhood nightmares could be influenced by the fact that as a young boy he worked in a morgue as an embalmer.

Bambini Hanging from The Tree, 2004

Cattelan Maurizio was in Padua Italy on September 21, 1960 in a humble home to a mother who was a cleaning lady and a father who was a truck driver. His mother died of a prolonged illness at a time when he was only 20 years old. It was very traumatic for the artist and had left him permanently unsettled. He had no formal training in art and got interested in sculpture after working as a furniture builder.

Cattelan had a constant fear of artist’s creative block and often subverted from the conventional etiquette of attending his own exhibition. He was comical in his attempts to escape not only from lack of ideas but also a desire to work. Once he even tied up a cloth into a rope and threw it from  the gallery window. A symbol of escape from all the audience at the gallery. In 1993 Cattelan had the opportunity to present his work at the event of Venice Biennale. He impulsively let out his space to an advertising agency that exhibited a billboard of a perfume. He titled it “Work is a foolish business.” He had an obsessive fear of failure absolving him from all responsibility.

Some of his most darkest work is “Daddy Daddy” a Walt Disney cartoon character Pinnochio lying heads down in a fountain area at a group show at the Guggenheim Museum. The hapless puppet is obviously a victim of foul play who has plummeted to his death. “A filial cry for protection and approval” 2 (Guugenhiem n.d.) Springing from childhood insecurity. 

Daddy Daddy, 2008 
H:14 3/4 x w 38 1/2x D:34 1/2 inches

“La Nona Hora” was another piece he made in 1999. Depicts a very well made wax figure of Pope John Paul 2 and he is a victim of a freak accident by being hit by a meteor. personally the meteor uncannily resembles a piece of excrement. “It is ambiguous work not necessarily sacrilegious” (Indrisek 2019) Cattelan unsettling reminder that even the holiest men in Roman Catholic tradition may not be safe from tradition. He could also be taking about the hypocrisy underlying the holy facade of the church.

La Nona Hora, 1999

“JFK in a coffin” again shows a very well made wax figure of 35th US president John F Kennedy in a coffin. The sheer act of placing the coffin in a public gallery and the viewers automatically become a part of the participatory art. The people who come to see the sculpture are paying a homage to the celebrity figure who assumed a reputation of a saint. The artists statement is a loss of hope at the demise of JFK. Strongly reminiscent of Andrea Mantegna- an Italian Renaissance artist’s violent depiction of the “Passion of the christ” The tragic spirituality that is evoked in the image.

The darkest of his works is uncannily titled “Bibbidi bobbiddi boo” It depicts a taxidermied squirrel who happened to have committed suicide. “Slumped on a kitchen table, dishes unwashed, empty spirit glass and gun on the floor”. (Brown 2012) It is unsettling, ambiguous and dark. Bibbidi bobbed boo is a chant word that Cinderella fairy god mother chants to make magic happen. The paradox of the image and title is morbid. It is probably a reflection of some deep hidden childhood angst of the contrast between stories and realities. 

Bibbidi bobbiddi boo, 1996

Novecento which means twentieth century in Italian.  This work was shown at Castello Di Rivoli in Turin. A taxidermied horse hanging from a baroque museum ceiling with its long legs elongated to give the impression of the force of gravity. it is a depiction of how we feel when a horse which is a power of grace and power is seen slumped dead hanging from the wall. This horse is a symbol of the decadence of the last century. A country exhausted by a century of violence and upheaval.

One of his most shocking pieces is an installation involves three plastic child dummies hanging from a noose from the branches of an old oak tree in Milan. “They appeared unperturbed, their faces calm and angelic and their wide eyes turned to the sky.” (Milan artist’s installation sparks outrage – and injury 2004) in 2004. It reminds me of scenes of judgment from images of of 15th century painter Hieronymus Bosch in his nighmarish depiction of people hanging from noose. Scene of the day of judgment which is forboding and frightening. Looking at these children hanging in a public place caused traffic jam and people stop in their tracks and stare and debate on the meaning of such a macabre sight. Again Cattelan plays with peoples intrinsic curiosity of the morbid. Some people found his work offensive and outrageous.

A perfect example is his statue of Hitler on his knees. This artwork titled ‘Him’ is a wax sculpture that sold at Christie’s auction house for 17.2 million dollars. This piece caused a large amount of controversy as the fascist leader is in a kneeling position, perhaps trying to absolve from his sins.

Him, 2001

Cattelan disguises his melancholia with a garb of clown in the art world. It is probably to overcome a sense of incessant vulnerability. it is this constant angst and an urge to disguise it that gives rise to the brilliant artist that he is. He is a sad clown with an uncanny ability to shock and unsettle viewers.