When it comes to experiencing art, place matters. The Guggenheim’s design is the least hospitable environment for art exhibitions, but Maurizio Cattelan: All was an unanticipated exception that effectively made use of the building’s unruliness. Both praised and loathed by the art world, Maurizio Cattelan has played a mischief-maker since the eighties, challenging the status quo and subverting culture on every occasion (even his gallerists). The Guggenheim’s ‘mid-career retrospective’ of Cattelan’s work carried a similar standing with the exhibition’s reception; its reputation preceded it. All didn’t show all but rather an inventory of 128 works by the Italian art star. Chief Curator Nancy Spector explained in the guide, “The exhibition brings together virtually everything the artist has produced since 1989 and presents the works en masse, strung haphazardly from the oculus of the Guggenheim’s rotunda.”[i]
Never before could Cattelan’s oeuvre be seen together and so thoroughly by the lay viewer. Thanks to private collectors who agreed to loan editioned works, the exhibition offered a rare opportunity to access the hype with no attachment to art smarts or theory. All didn’t rely on Cattelan’s past because it was experienced in the present. Thus, the weight of the show was carried solely by the atrium installation as opposed to any standalone element or historical account. The epic chandelier that ensued was a non sequitur narrative of Cattelan’s career. All of his one-act plays and spoiled icons were included in the bunch: Pinocchio, Pablo Picasso, JFK, Pope John Paul II, and Adolf Hitler as well as a variety of taxidermied animals, mini-Cattelan doppelgangers, and discarded art props. Some smaller or minor works played supporting roles such as the stuffed pigeons from the Venice Biennale’s Tourists (1997) that were threaded throughout from top to bottom, although less menacing on this occasion. Man’s best friend appeared several times while an exaggerated foosball table stretched across the center as an artifact from one of Cattelan’s politically charged satires. Even the ‘Zorro’ slashed canvases were spotted around the perimeter of the installation, but the significance of each lay dormant.
The viewing experience was eerie. Despite the noise of the crowd, it resulted in a slow processional of detached attendees who observed in awe and judgment. Perhaps this was because the most comedic and sarcastic pieces were eclipsed by themes of death and violence. The nine marble figures from All (2007) were mixed together with the suicide squirrel, crucified woman, Dumbo-esque KKK elephant, hanged children, and an oversized cat skeleton. The imagery was disturbingly hyper real and forced viewers to deal with mortality internally on subconscious terms. The installation’s hanging system reinforced a sort of morbid puppetry or still cinema, but the puppeteer/director was absent. Cattelan said in an interview, “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.”[ii] Every step of the curve was certainly cinematic with an opportunity for plot development.
Little was offered for conceptual clarification excluding a smartphone app and audio headset. The installation was also stripped of chronology and hierarchy, yet this turned out to be okay. Spectators were left to their own thoughts and relied mostly on clues from the artist’s use of parody and cultural critique. Upon entering the Guggenheim and looking up from the bottom, the installation appeared both mysterious and gloomy as the lifeless saddled horse in Novecento (1997) set the plot in motion. Walking up and down the spiraled corridor gradually revealed the details until reaching the top. From above, everything appeared dopey and motionless as if shocked to death by a surge of former creative energy. The climax of the show was just as unclear as the translation of Michel’s dying last words in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: “C’est vraiment dégueulasse,” which could mean anything from ‘It’s so disgusting’, ‘Makes me want to puke’, or ‘Life’s a bitch’. On the other hand, this feeling of uncertainty was rousing because it kept the credits rolling in a loop.
This strung-up and suspended presentation was Cattelan’s idea. By approaching the show with a casualist attitude, he essentially ridiculed his celebrated status and mocked the retrospective altogether. Some criticized that the assemblage lessened the impact of more noteworthy works. But discussion and criticism of individual pieces is tired. Furthermore, how are absurdist works singularly more successful than the re-contextualized madness of it all? It is more constructive to consider the accumulated offering as its own entity. Cattelan uses humor as an act of defiance and freedom of speech. He has developed a counter-discourse that removes cultural objects from the norm and juxtaposes them with others to create new relationships. This is Cattelan’s trademark and individualist satisfaction that retrofits culture using iconoclasm and Situationist détournement. Guy Debord explains:
Detournement, the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble, has been a constantly present tendency of the contemporary avant-garde both before and since the establishment of the SI. The two fundamental laws of detournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element – which may go so far as to lose its original sense completely – and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.[iii]
Cattelan breaks down the viewer’s expectation of each piece by creating a congregation of retired art objects. This new construction overstates the past to admit the artist’s end. It exists unreservedly as the monumental destruction of his art (some say career suicide), and it was advertised as such. The exhibition gained extra publicity from the fifty-one-year-old artist’s announced departure from art making. Cattelan’s disappearing act or self-annihilation cannot be topped. Whether Cattelan actually takes his leave from art prestige is yet to be seen. Reports are in that he and New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni have established a nonprofit exhibition space in Chelsea called Family Business.[iv] It looks as if Cattelan is saying farewell to creating and looking more toward curating.
Cattelan’s finale was one of the most talked about exhibitions of 2011. In previous decades, retrospectives received mentions in printed media and art history books, but visual documentation was scarce. What resulted from All is an infinite collection of related media, online reviews, and blog entries – not just from critics and art lovers but also the general public who traveled to the Guggenheim for a cultural experience over the holidays. The installation of Cattelan’s works also provided an entry point for all types of museum attendees to acquaint themselves with contemporary art in a more accessible venue rather than galleries and art fairs. With the advent of digital memoirs and virtual storylines, there is no end to arts participation.
Whitney Dail is an emerging cultural worker and arts administrator who investigates relationships between contemporary art, science and technology and visual culture. Her blog Jumpsuits & Teleporters discusses borderland activities and the commingling of art, science, technology, and culture.
[i] Nancy Spector and Katherine Brinson, “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” Guggenheim, accessed February 22, 2012, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/past/exhibit/3961.
[ii] “CHARM LIKE A DRUG MAURIZIO CATTELAN with Jarrett Earnest,” interview by Jarrett Earnest, The Brooklyn Rail, accessed February 23, 2012, http://brooklynrail.org/2011/12/art/charm-like-a-drugmaurizio-cattelan-with-jarrett-earnest.
[iii] Guy Debord, “Guy Debord (1931-1994) Writings from the Situationist International,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 704.
[iv] Dan Duray, “First Maurizio Cattelan-Massimiliano Gioni Show to Feature Chang, Nakadate, Rottenberg,” GalleristNY, January 25, 2012, http://www.galleristny.com/2012/01/first-maurizio-cattelan-massimiliano-gioni-show-to-feature-chang-nakadate-rottenberg/.