Maurizio Cattelan

Maurizio Cattelan has achieved such international renown of late that he was asked to represent his generation at the last Venice Biennale, alongside Ettore Spalletti and Enzo Cucchi. His project took the form in part of an intervention into Spalletti’s and Cucchi’s contributions, which was in keeping with the “parasitism” that characterizes much of his oeuvre.

Among the fewer than ten works that comprised Cattelan’s recent solo exhibition were three enlarged and elongated supermarket carts. At the press preview, the carts were filled with paintings and small pictures (later they were exhibited empty), as if to demonstrate that the art system has become a kind of supermarket. This derisive, somewhat scornful attitude holds the key to Cattelan’s success: he cannily manipulates the reactions of the public, for example, by plundering popular advertisements for images and behavioral models. One of the works that appeared here, Novecento (Twentieth century, 1997)—an embalmed horse with disproportionately long legs (a version of an earlier piece in which the horse was a normal size), hung by straps from the ceiling—seems to draw on an image from a commercial that was quite famous in Italy. A certain snobbishness on the part of critics, however, has led them to propose more erudite sources, while neglecting much more obvious references.

Irony and transgression, as well as a dose of sentimentality, can be seen Maurizio Cattelan, Charlie don’t surf, 1997, mixed media. Installation view. in Cattelan’s “tramps”: mannequins clothed in rags that he leaves lying around museums and other art institutions. These remind us—as if there were any need to do so—of the existence of a reality beyond the art world. In a similar piece, Charlie don’t surf, 1997, a mannequin of a child (or a dwarf) is seated at a schoolroom desk, with two pencils driven through its hands.

The Cattelan “phenomenon” is perhaps more interesting for the mechanism that has led to his success than for the work itself. It seems that strategics that might seem outdated in other disciplines still manage to astonish in an art-world context. I would suggest that this points to an excessive need for moral instruction in works of art. While Cattelan’s work is considered transgressive and disruptive, it really isn’t; instead, it responds to what the art world, according to its own rather strange code, declares to be transgressive and disruptive. In fact, where art is concerned, it is often precisely what we don’t expect to be transgressive that turns out to be so. The images Cattelan presents—like successful advertising—delve into the viewer’s memory to unearth the most readily comprehensible stereotypes. In this sense a certain result is guaranteed, especially when the work addresses problems within the art system, which in turn rewards the work for having eased its own conscience instead of putting it to the test. Cattelan’s work changes nothing, presents nothing substantially new, but lets viewers leave with a feeling of complacency.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.