In Conversation

CHARM LIKE A DRUG
MAURIZIO CATTELAN with Jarrett Earnest

This interview was conducted on October X and appeared in an altered form in the December issue of Stilletto Magazine.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

In the late 1980s Maurizio Cattelan emerged on the international art circuit with sculptures that appeared equal parts sight-gag and natural history diorama. Combining taxidermied animals, wax figures, and the tears of a clown, he has reigned as court jester of the art fair set for the better part of two decades. His retrospective Maurizio Cattelan: All, currently at the Guggenheim Museum, presents the artist’s complete oeuvre suspended from the center of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling rotunda. Fully conscious of the lineage of artist-as-playful-provocateur he embodies, from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol, Cattelan is notoriously reluctant to talk about his art, aims, and process. When he does, it is hardly seriously. As such, interviews—part of the job of a contemporary art star—are a form he has played with extensively. Sometimes he has a surrogate do the interview for him, or answers questions with explicit slipperiness: “Oh, that isn’t true; some writer made that up; it was copied from somewhere else,” or if nothing else “to be really, really honest, I don’t know.” The missing key to these exchanges, which always read as terrifically annoying, is the realtime experience of Cattelan’s intoxicating personal charm, the kind in which everyone involved knows they’re being played, but likes it nonetheless. On some level we all love being seduced, and in his personal demeanor, like his art, this seduction transcends to a peculiar kind of sincerity. On both sides there is a tacit understanding of the roles being performed, and Cattelan demands that the interaction be carried out with a great sense of fun. After a frolicking photo shoot in which he borrowed glasses from a stranger sitting at a neighboring table, and posed on a NYPD police car parked outside, Cattelan sat down in a Chelsea cafe to discuss, if often obliquely, his work and the retirement from art making he has announced will accompany this retrospective exhibition.

[Both laugh and dash across the street.]
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): It’s so part of your performance that you don’t like interviews, it’s almost boring at this point, so let me know if there is anything I can do to make this more fun or interesting for you.

Maurizio Cattelan: You can write the interview yourself, if you like!

Rail: We’ll see how it goes, if I need to—thanks, it’s nice to have that freedom. So you were at the Guggenheim this morning overseeing the preparation? I understand that everything is going to be hanging.

Cattelan: Yes.

Rail: Are they hanging from nooses?

Cattelan: No, that would be too much. Although there are three that do hang from nooses, because that is part of the piece.

[This work is a controversial sculpture of Cattelan’s from 2004 of three children hanging by their necks from a tree in the Milan, which was cut down by an enraged citizen.]

Rail: Nancy Spector has said you can look at the hanging retrospective like a gallows—with the announcement of your retirement, is this also the execution of Maurizio Cattelan?

Cattelan: I see it more as a family reunion, in time for Thanksgiving.

Rail: It seems that seeing all these things suspended in the center of the rotunda, walking around them, will be a very cinematic experience. I feel that cinema is something that your work is very much about.

Cattelan: The Guggenheim Museum has a cinematic quality; if you work in that space it unwinds. I would say that my installation is static but the way the visitors see it could be a personal cinematic viewing. I love movies. Yes. Well, more than cinematic, it’s like the sculptures are movies compressed into one still, suggesting a scene sometimes. Or suggesting a story. A movie is more articulated, many scenes together. Maybe the whole show can be seen as a movie—unconnected scenes with themes. If there is a movie it can be only in the Guggenheim.

[In 1992 Cattelan exhibited the sculpture “-157.000.000.,” a broken bank safe.]

Rail: You’ve said before that the safe piece was also about your love of cops and robbers movies.

Cattelan: Ahhh! Someone made it up. There is a story behind how the safe was picked up as a work and it is everything but a movie. The first year I arrived in Milan I was inside a furniture shop. The shop shared one wall with a jewelry store. One of those weekends I was there and the jewelry store was robbed. The following Monday there were cops all over the place. I walked in and asked, “My God, what happened?” They just said, “A robbery, do you know anything about it?” I hadn’t heard a single thing—everything had been stolen. I knew the jeweler and I went to see him inside and saw the actual safe that had been picked. I asked him what would happen to the safe—“It needs to be replaced.” So I asked if he minded if I took the broken one, which of course he didn’t, saying that I spared him having someone take it away.

Rail: So that is going to be hanging too—it must be very heavy.

Maurizio Cattelan, “Untitled,” 2001. Wax, pigment, human hair, fabric, and polyester resin, 150 × 60 × 40 cm. © Maurizio Cattelan. Photo: Attilio Maranzano, courtesy of the artist.

Cattelan: Yes. 24,000 pounds. It’s heavy to hang, to move, to install it, to transport. Sometimes you should think before making a work.

Rail: I’m also interested in your relationship to dolls and puppets—almost all the work relates to these in one form or another.

Cattelan: When I was little I didn’t have toys or games so you could say it’s like adult games that I didn’t have when I was young.

Rail: [Laughs.] That isn’t true!

Cattelan: Yes, it’s very true.

Rail: There is a connection between the dolls and the taxidermy animals as surrogates.

Cattelan: I call them puppets, not dolls. I don’t call them dolls because I see them as active, as in theater where you have people moving puppets. I relate them to street performance.

Rail: What does it mean that you are going to retire after this exhibition? What are you going to do?

Cattelan: What I will do after retirement is something I ask myself too, and there are no answers because I’m still working.

Rail: Are you retiring from making art because you find being the clown is no longer fun as it once was?

Cattelan: No, I found that there is a moment when it’s nice to leave your place empty for someone else. I think there is a moment when you begin to see yourself start repeating. When you see a pattern maybe it’s time to reinvent yourself. I would say before this decision the old work became a little bit unbearable. It’s that you don’t see the point of doing it another time. The day the show will open I will start to think seriously on how to employ my free time—to waste my free time.

Rail: It seems like you have been figuring out what to do with your free time for a long time now. I’m thinking of the Caribbean Biennale.

[In 2000 Cattelan collaborated with curator Jens Hoffmann to produce the Sixth International Caribbean Biennale—an awkward island vacation for themselves and some artists, curators, and professionals of the art fair set; Vanessa Beecroft, Gabriel Orozco, and Pipilotti Rist were a few of those included. The concept behind the Caribbean Biennale was that there was nothing exhibited, just advertisements, press coverage, and cocktail parties stripped of their already marginalized raison d’être—“art.”]

Cattelan: The Caribbean Biennale developed because I was hanging out with Jens Hoffmann. We were talking about a lot of stupid things like opening up a branch of the Guggenheim in Brooklyn. So we were looking for someone else named Guggenheim in Brooklyn for the rights to use the name. But then I thought instead of doing something about an institution. We should do it about something broader, that would relate to my experience at biennials. A joke can take you to an unexpected place.

Rail: What was the experience of the Caribbean Biennale—was it fun?

Cattelan: It was horrible. The first four days were horrible. But then a hurricane came and the biennale became so alive. What was a problem for so many people on the island was for us the missing element that transformed the whole project.

Rail: What was so bad about it at first?

Cattelan: It was really weird. It was so difficult to be there and not do anything; to vacation and not feel guilty. It was like each of us was checking the other one suspiciously. Afterwards, it was received and discussed extremely negatively. I would say the whole Caribbean Biennale was reconsidered later on when the proliferation of biennales was so obviously in front of the eyes of everybody.

Rail: Don’t you see a foreshadowing in the failure of the Caribbean Biennale, which was a mini-vacation, a mini-retirement, and your formal announcement of quitting the art world?

Cattelan: I hate vacations. Whenever I’m on vacation after two or three days I get so bored. So the Caribbean experience was dramatic: Imagine a world without creativity. This is what we were facing—a meeting of good minds, good artists with, for once, no need to show their egos or their art. I mean it was de-powering people, but at the same time with the hurricane it was showing the real stuff. I remember people crying. It wasn’t a joke. Have you ever been in a hurricane? The whole place was barricaded, with no connection to the outside world for three days. It was a really memorable time. We played, we talked, we played again. And then there were a few groups and we got to know each other very well. We were lucky to have that.

Maurizio Cattelan, “Novecento,” 1997. Taxidermied horse, leather saddle, rope, and pulley, 201.2 × 271.3 × 68.6 cm. © Maurizio Cattelan. Photo: Paolo Pellion di Persano, courtesy of the artist.

Rail: Something that marks your work is that it might seem like a joke but isn’t, or that is a very serious, mean, or ultimately sad joke.

Cattelan: I don’t know why. Maybe on the surface my work may seem nice or funny, but if you scratch it you see the sadness, the bleakness. You see everything but happiness.

Rail: Your work very often takes the form of memorial. Like the black stone wall with the inscriptions of all of England’s football losses carved into it. But also the taxidermied animals and the puppet itself have so much melancholy attached to it.

Cattelan: Someone said that I am a conceptual artist, and I don’t know what that means. I don’t think about what I do. I go by images. If you ask me what these images are about, I don’t know. I work in a way that the image comes first. The thinking comes always afterward, thinking on my side is very boring.

Rail: What is exciting to you about what is happening now in the art world, from younger artists?

Cattelan: We’re at a moment when you go out and see 20 shows and notice a trend—low key, lo-fi. You go out and you see 50 shows and you can be sure you won’t remember a single image. You remember moods. What is happening right now is everything is related to the past. I think whatever happened in the past 100 years is the main subject of today. We are in-between generations; it’s a borderline passage. It’s like if you lose your long-term boyfriend, and before you get to the new one you rebound, experiment. You never know where the new relationship comes from. But in the meantime you need to move some things around; it’s very important to see the past.

Rail: I don’t think it is just this way in art making. All these things are increasingly linked. It’s not just that sense of in-between-ness on the part of artists, but in art history as a discipline. People who write about art, art historians, and museums, no one knows what is going on and there is this underlying sense of desperation.

Cattelan: I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about this, but I would say that there are fields in which the debate is more ahead, and for once we are a little bit behind. But we will make it up again soon, hopefully. I wouldn’t say that everything is so in-between and there are no directions; anyhow we are moving ahead. The whole society is using the past to defend itself from something we have never seen before. The financial crisis reflects on our lives, which shapes our psychologies. The past is something that we know that helps to defend ourselves from an uncertain future. In a way, never has a period been so excited even if nothing is happening. We are facing profound changes—countries are reshaping, powers are moving, shifting. We’ve seen the peak of the American empire and the power moving to Asia. I would say it’s exciting but it’s also that nobody knows where to go.

Maurizio Cattelan, “L.O.V.E.,” 2010. Carrara marble, figure: 470 × 220 × 72 cm; base: 630 × 470 × 470 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Maurizio Cattelan. Photo: Zeno Zotti, courtesy of the artist.

Rail: Do you also collect art?

Cattelan: I like to go shopping around galleries. I like to support young artists.

Rail: Anything you are really excited about?

Cattelan: A lot, but basically I’m a fast digester so work doesn’t last too long on my walls; it needs always to be replaced. The worst side of my self is that I’m a sponge.

Rail: What is the best side?

Cattelan: Ahaha! Probably friends of mine would say: “You are so critical, you never say you like this, you only talk about what you don’t like.” So the best side of myself is the undiscovered one.

Rail: You’ve always at least professed to having an ambivalent relationship to being an artist.

Cattelan: I would be insecure if I were doing any other work, too, say if I were a cop. In the beginning it was probably more related to the fact that the art world was something completely new for me. The early years were a way to understand what the art world was, like a school. I was attempting to gain experience. Even today I am not so sure of myself. I would say the moment you might believe in yourself is the moment you make the biggest mistakes of your life—maybe.

Rail: In a lighter mode, but because it connects to this question of retirement—what do you do for fun?

Cattelan: For fun, I work. This is the most exciting part of not having anything to do. I already had a moment like this 25 years ago. I had to support myself. When I left my daily job at that time and I started to be employed in the art world there was five years that I did furniture, I did funny odd scams. Overall I was just enjoying myself, and trying to really understand what I wanted to do with myself. In the end you have only one life. I’m not so determined but working has been a good school for me. I learned a lot.

Rail: I was so delighted by watching you be photographed because I got to see your sense of play.

Cattelan: Oh it saves my life, everyday. Playing is like a life saver.

Rail: It feels like real play, not irony, is too absent from art now——

Cattelan: I like to be amused. It’s not something that you say, “I want to do something playful and at the same time dramatic.” You are made in a certain way and you try to express yourself—and probably play is a way to have a conversation, an open conversation and someone can get it.

Rail: Is that how you feel about your sculptures, as a play date?

Cattelan: I like the deceit of it. It’s important to have an audience. An audience comes to you if you are not problematic. I like to give them something appealing and then to slap them. The deception is to make them think it could be nice and then to deliver something that probably they don’t want to face. This is always in my mind. Again, if I see myself with three legs, and then someone says, “Are you sure you have three legs, maybe you have two!” What is there to say? So the way we perceive ourselves is always relative. Artists should never talk about what they do. So this is a good end.

Rail: The best end. Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Cattelan: [Picks up the salt and pepper, makes them dance as he ventriloquizes in a puppet voice, the salt to the pepper: “It was a pleasure, it was a pleasure.”]

Maurizio Cattelan, “We,” 2010. Polyester resin, polyurethane, rubber, paint, human hair, fabric, and wood, 68 × 148 × 78.7 cm. © Maurizio Cattelan. Photo: Pierpaolo Ferrari, courtesy of the artist.

Since our conversation, All has opened to the public and the critical reception has been a more or less tepid one. Roberta Smith set the tone, opening her New York Times review by asking: “Is Maurizio Cattelan quitting while he’s ahead or before he lags too far behind?” She puts her finger on exactly what’s most interesting about the exhibition by calling it a “self-abnegating spectacle,” which it is, but perhaps not for the reasons she says. Let’s first consider the formal mechanism of “hanging.” Aside from the perhaps over-determined relationship to public execution, dangling from the ceiling is an unheroic, emasculating device. It is no coincidence that so many remarkable women sculptors created works around the conceptual logic of suspension, in which the sculpture abandons any aspiration to be an autonomous object that literally “sticks up” from the floor, opting for something that has a more complicated relationship to the structure of the room. Eva Hesse’s works, like “Contingent” (1969), “Right After” (1969) and Nancy Graves’s “Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms” (1971) epitomize this strategy, but one can very well think of certain works by Louise Bourgeois or Annette Messager among many others in this lineage. However, it is key to include Alexander Calder here, whose mobiles are among the least authoritative and most undogmatic of sculptural forms. This is the product of Calder’s profound sense of play—an imaginative freeing of experience, which is inherently non-normative and subverts so much shouting and machismo.

That people are disappointed by a “blockbuster” retrospective organized architecturally as detumescence is no surprise, but it then begs us to look at what it is that we want from such things. It is true that the conflagration at the center of the rotunda becomes a sad Christmas tree topped by a kneeling Hitler, but what we are also looking at, across the ramps, in-between a squirrel suicided by society and an elephantine member of the KKK, is the whole funerary procession of people walking and looking, at art, at each other, at waves of delight and disappointment. Like the Caribbean Biennale it is the art-social world stripped bare, with all 130 sculptures caught in an inverted hurricane. All as self-abnegating spectacle is a tombstone to “exhibitionality” as a mode, to a type of 20th century self-consciousness that metastasized into relational aesthetics in the ’90s—becoming a largely shallow and consumerist assortment of slick, insincere gewgaws and services, aimed at re-presenting the social dynamics of the art world. It is now clear that Cattelan and his work are more serious and deeply playful than they may at first seem, and his trademark ambiguity now appears the navigation of a fractured system longing for something more interesting. He is quitting while the art world, so far behind for a generation, is beginning to show signs of new life: as a growing number of artists are no longer content to make work about exhibitions, as the ubiquitous disgust for the intellectually bankrupt stylings of curators-cum-publicists shifts from the paralysis of previous generations into a real re-engagement with art and the pressing social and political issues of our time. 

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Jarrett Earnest

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