PRINT Summer 1995


LIKE ZORRO, WHOSE TRADEMARK Z is slashed à la Lucio Fontana into the surface of his painting Untitled, 1993, Maurizio Cattelan acts quickly—with precision, without hesitation, practicing seduction and subversion. Never striking in the same way twice gives Cattelan an anonymity that allows him to appear and disappear when he feels like it. Despite his rapid rise to international prominence, this Italian artist has not yet slipped into either estheticism or professionalism. On the contrary, his notoriety has made him something of a hero adventurer (if one without an adventure), a Pierrot le Fou who has managed to escape the fate assigned him at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s film.

Playing, feigning, faking, and artificiality are Cattelan’s accomplices. He equates social transgression with artistic transgression—a move well known since Marcel Duchamp wrote a bad check to pay his dentist. Cattelan’s delinquent artistic economy is motivated by the idea of stealing. He has exhibited the police report of a theft, noting that the piece to have been presented, although “invisible,” was stolen from his car the night before. He has also retrieved the bank safes cracked during a heist in Milan and exhibited them as a readymade—with the amount stolen serving as a title. Playing on the evasive identity of the professional thief, Cattelan appears in a series of sketches done by a police artist based on descriptions provided by his friends; or he hangs a rope made of bedsheets out the window during an exhibition at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin, suggesting that he might have slipped away.

His stealing, like Jean Genet’s, is not merely symbolic. Cattelan acts on the edges of illegality, taking maximum advantage of the freedom authorized by the alibi of the “artistic.” Invited to show in the “Aperto” exhibition at the ’93 Venice Biennale, he sublet his space to a perfume company, earning money throughout the show’s run. Cattelan proposed less an esthetics of thievery than a mode of action, one that made the institutional system (“Aperto”) into a production site of both artistic value and immediate financial profit. It is as difficult to distinguish between using the system and critiquing it as it is to separate cynicism from rebellion, and Cattelan demonstrates this confusion as it animates the artistic gesture.

This confusion resonates in his “embezzlement” of funds. Funded by a grant, Cattelan once devoted a year to the project of showing no work. He also listed the donors who had funded the grant on a glass plate, which he mounted illegally on the facade of the art school with which the donors were associated. Cattelan’s quintessentially Duchampian art is both an instrument of individual freedom—a permission either to swindle or to mystify—and a floating microeconomic construction in which the objects he presents are by-products. Since no position of exteriority is possible with respect to political art, Cattelan’s attack on the system from within is a sufficiently rare tour de force. Outside the facts denounced by the critic-artist (whether Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Louise Lawler, or Jenny Holzer), the posture no longer holds. Faced with new information technologies, the few artists who still try to act on their cultural surroundings without being standardized by them have developed behaviors based on a new “fuzzy logic” that informs this ambivalent occupation. Christine Hill in Berlin, performing the servile tasks of a shop girl or hairdresser; David Robbins setting up an “Institute for Advanced Comedic Behavior”; Rirkrit Tiravanija distributing free meals—it is clear that ideological forms of protest and opposition are being replaced by practices of infiltration that are far harder to identify.

In this context the work of art is no longer an object (an integrated supercommodity) or a dematerialized process (the analysis of a system to which it is not subject) but a fluctuating circulation of parasitic information. We ought to recognize how far Cattelan has gone in his mimetic infiltration of the system: he does not hesitate to leave himself exposed, even compromised. In Italy, soccer teams are simultaneously economic and political instruments—tools both to make money and to win “democratic” elections by swaying popular sentiment. Cattelan financed one. Against a Milan team that had participated in just such a political media ploy, he fielded a team of Senegalese illegal aliens, decked out with the neo-Nazi slogan “Raus” (Out!). Following an attack by the Mafia on a contemporary-art space in Milan in which five people were killed, he acquired the debris from the city and exhibited it in large industrial-waste bags in various contexts outside Italy. This should not be interpreted as merely a provocative gesture but rather as a brave, feisty admission of the impotence of art against fascist forces.

Cattelan is developing a strategy of disinformation, which he slips into the fabric of the postliberal state, a state consecrated to violence under the cover of democracy. Invited to Sonsbeek 93, he proposed a poster announcing a neo-Nazi rally scheduled for the same time as the opening; the curators turned the proposal down. Within the art world, Cattelan operates to disturb and destabilize. He has asked dealers to work dressed as animals (lions and rabbits), and he once closed off the entrance to a gallery, forcing visitors to look through the window, like common gawkers or makeshift thieves, at the sorry spectacle of a mechanical bear trying to walk a tightrope stretched from one end of the space to the other. With each intervention, he finds a flaw in the system, a point where it flips into the absurd and lays bare its own mechanisms.

In conclusion, one might note that there are three kinds of thieves, in art as elsewhere: those who steal because they have to; those more ambiguous “criminals” who seamlessly infiltrate our institutions, so carefully copycatting those in charge that their maneuverings go undetected; and finally those, like Cattelan, who are less calculating, less concerned with protocols and the veneer of legality—who take what they need but, remembering Zorro’s ethic, redistribute what they have pirated.

Olivier Zahm is a frequent contributor to Artforum and the editor of Purple Prose.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.