Although I do not consider myself an art writer, I do enjoy viewing exhibitions and sharing thoughts from time to time. I first learned of the Cattelan show through a friend from St. John’s College, who now is living in New York and going to Juilliard (yay for her!). Later, my mother visited the exhibition, and although a dancer/choreographer, she is not very swayed by the excesses of contemporary art. She was mesmerized by the show and insisted I see it, which I did.
I had heard of Maurizio Cattelan through Sicilian artist friends, who both admire and despise him. He is a bit of a jokester, prankster, a veritable jester at the court of High Art, which, I believe, saves him from the pitfalls of the unapologetic dead seriousness and precious posturing of much contemporary art.
I work with one of the most ancient and traditional methods of painting, and yet I enjoy conceptual and installation art when it really comes together and makes a profound statement. Much of contemporary art, in my view, is deft charlatanism disguised in the cloak of high intellectualism and rarified aesthetics, more akin to the vacuousness of high fashion, than to the unedited expression of an anguished technological society. However, installation art--let us be frank—is perhaps one of the most powerful forms in the canons of what we consider contemporary art. It would be as hard for a painter to fill the entire gut of the Guggenheim, as it would be for a classical concert pianist to compete with Lady Gaga at an outdoor stadium filled with screaming fans. In the end, apples are apples, oranges, oranges…. We painters have our strengths in other ways.
The Guggenheim Museum is the cranium and the installation Cattelan’s brain throbbing, dangling in the midst of a field of chaotic and disparate waves, thoughts, images. You enter from the bottom, and all you can do is look up to see this vast mess of dogs, popes, and taut ropes. You think to yourself, so is that it? Just this big thing in the middle? There is no (usual) exhibition of his work on the walls as you walk up the spiral to the top of the Guggenheim? I was looking forward initially to see his work up close, like one does at a museum. Here, though, everything was hanging from the ceiling, in a precarious, Heraclitian fashion, where you feared that at a moment’s notice, the 500 or more tons of art would come crumbling down to the ground, taking a few lives along with it.
If people are familiar with the Guggenheim in Manhattan, it is a structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; it is a spectacular museum in the form of a spiral. You start at the bottom, and you walk seamlessly up and up, until you reach the top. From this initial impression of a huge, chaotic mass of objects seen at the bottom, I proceeded to go up the spiral, where the clarity and order of the installation became increasingly evident. Suddenly, you began to perceive things you had not seen before, forms that remained unclear from a position further below, revealed themselves as you arrived on their same level, and from that perspective other scenes and images revealed their own magic, like a perpetual series of Russian dolls breaking open before you.
Cattelan is a bit like Jeff Koons, who does not create his own pieces by hand, but instead works with a host of taxidermists and sculptors. He included much of the work from his own past production. The exhibition was entitled, “All”, so, many of his hallmark works from the past were integrated into the vastness of this one, all-encompassing installation. There was a plethora of animals and highly-realistic looking humans, in all probability fashioned like figures at a wax museum or Duane Hanson’s hyper-realist resin sculptures. As one walked up, one stopped and contemplated images from Italian news media about hostages, the coffin of JFK, the pope John Paul II being killed by an asteroid coming from the heavens, a child sitting at a classroom desk, with his hands nailed to the desk by pencils while he contemplates an image of hands in prayer, a woman in a sort of straightjacket, nailed into total immobility, the donkey from Bremen with his accompanying dog, cat, and rooster…who, after being rejected by their owners because they were too old, decided to leave their homes to form a musical band of their own.
Cattelan, before becoming an artist, held many menial jobs, and much of his iconography is derived from a sense of oppression and exploitation he had experienced during this period of his life. His work is a fluid questioning of notions of authority and power; but instead of being an overtly political artist, he remains a satirist at heart, and one senses a certain detachment. While the pope is dying from the divine asteroid thrown by God to Earth, Cattelan is lightly chuckling to himself at his most unfortunate demise. Hitler is high up on the installation, looking dead serious with a tiny body--his devastation upon humanity reduced to an angry little boy who never was acknowledged by mommy. What a miserable, pitiful man, indeed. In this case, Cattelan’s cynical laugh deconstructs Hitler and implodes him like a neutron star.
There are passing images of fascism, silly images of him as a grown man with a child’s body riding a tricycle, a woman hiding in a refrigerator, a giant cat skeleton which is really frightening, donkeys, more dogs, and pigeons one takes for real, perching way at the top. It is installation art at its best.
At the same time, mid-way through the show, one is able to shoot off to a small side gallery, showing paintings from early Modernism. After being caught up in the circus of the mess of 20th century history, you suddenly see a Cezanne, a Picasso, a Manet. Deceptively simpler, humble works, which contrast greatly with the grandiosity of Cattelan’s theatrical production. Even Picasso, who was only slightly grandiose himself, would feel his Guernica, and ego, reduced a bit after seeing this titan of an artwork!
However, upon contemplating the beauty of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes in a simple study of a banal bridge in the South of France, I still think painting has its own beauty and strength which holds its own against the onslaught of the mega titan installations of today. Cattelan’s work functions like TV or media images in the sense that they are not “crafted” in a traditional sense, like a painting. They do, nonetheless, have a seductive power to mesmerize, which puts the installation medium on par with cinema in more ways than one. It makes a powerful impact as images can make. It does have a physicality as it is a work which hangs and has a real presence…the spiral-like quality of the space enhances the 3-D sculptural aspect, but at the same time, there lacks a certain intimacy. It is in a real way, public art, and I almost wish it could be on permanent display in the main entranceway to the United Nations, to remind those who walk past that out of the unordered chaos of the 20th century we can at least contemplate and strive for a kind of ordered chaos for our entry into the 21st.