The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is known for his dark sense of humor. His oeuvre is filled with irreverence and irony. The artist critiques contemporary values and at times horrifies the viewers. However, his bold practice has a poetic sense of vulnerability and a ubiquitous presence of the idea of mortality. Exposing the contradictions and paradoxes of the contemporary world, his blockbuster solo exhibitions have traveled worldwide. Read on to meet Maurizio Cattelan and see some of his most iconic projects and artworks.
Maurizio Cattelan’s Iconic Pranks and Provocative Exhibitions
Since the beginning of his artistic career in the 1980s, Maurizio Cattelan hasn’t shied away from provocations. For example, during his 1999 solo show, he taped the gallerist Massimo de Carlo to a gallery wall until the man passed out. For his controversial piece called Comedian, he duct-taped a real banana to the wall of a gallery booth at the Art Basel fair in 2019.
In his early days, he made performative acts of disruption, resistance, and disdain for authority and power. Cattelan left an empty gallery with a door sign reading Torno Subito, meaning be back soon, for his first solo exhibition in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, he kept on coming up with pranks. At the Venice Biennale in 1993, he rented his dedicated gallery space to an advertising agency, which displayed a perfume poster. He called the piece Working Is a Bad Job. For a 1996 exhibition Another Fucking Readymade at the de Appel Arts Center in Amsterdam, he stole the contents of another artist’s show from a nearby gallery, presenting it as his own work.
During his 2011 retrospective Maurizio Cattelan: All in New York’s Guggenheim, almost all of his artworks were displayed en masse, hung from the oculus of the museum’s rotunda, cascading down in a tornado-like installation. The Guggenheim called it a three-dimensional catalogue raisonné that defied the concept of a conventional chronological retrospective. Cattelan announced his retirement after the Guggenheim show, but that retirement didn’t last long. He made a splash with his Guggenheim-commissioned golden pissoir called America, which became the centerpiece of his exhibition Victory is Not an Option at the Blenheim Palace in 2017.
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In 2018, the Gucci-sponsored The artist is present exhibition at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum saw Cattelan as curator. Titled after Marina Abramovic’s celebrated 2010 solo show at MoMA, the exhibition focused on projects that propose simulation and copy as a paradigm of global culture. In 2021, UCCA in Beijing held the artist’s first solo exhibition in China called Maurizio Cattelan: The Last Judgment, while in 2023 a major exhibition at Leeum Museum of Art in South Korea titled WE presents 38 of his most iconic creations to his expanding audience in Asia. Here are 9 works by Maurizio Cattelan that you should definitely know!
1. Novecento (1997)
The artist’s lifelong fascination with taxidermy lies in his interest in mortality. For example, in Bidibidobidiboo (1996) we see a squirrel that committed suicide. Novecento, in the collection of Turin’s Castello di Rivoli, is a taxidermied horse tied to a harness hanging from the ceiling, as if it was helplessly dangling. The tension in the horse’s extended limbs, the heaviness of its hanging neck and its curved body inevitably weighed down by gravity, communicate a sense of sadness, frustration, and defeat. Like in much of the artist’s works, there is an ever-present fear of failure and a feeling of insecurity here.
2. La nona ora (1999)
La Nona Ora shows a suffering Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Cattelan presents us with an unlikely sci-fi-esque event. The title alludes to the time of death of Jesus Christ on the cross when he cried out to the Father saying: Why have you forsaken me?
Cattelan made a Pope showing his vulnerability and his endurance, still holding onto the cross with all his might, while the weight of the failures of the Catholic Church and its scandals are crashing on him. There have been many interpretations of this work, but ultimately, as Cattelan himself revealed in a 2010 interview with Corriere della Sera, the sculpture is a spiritual work of art that speaks of suffering.
3. Him (2001)
Viewed from afar, the sculpture shows a boy kneeling, as if in prayer. Once you get closer, the piece reveals its true face, the face of the pure evil of the 20th century: Adolf Hitler. The eerie figure, childlike, is meant to provoke a tension between feelings of repugnance and pity. The dictator seems to be praying, his eyes looking skyward. Cattelan mixes themes like collective memory, repentance, forgiveness, and the importance of learning from history, encouraging us to confront uncomfortable conversations. The artist asks the questions like: would forgiveness and reconciliation be possible when such great evil has been committed? And do we learn from our past in order to create a better future?
4. Untitled (2001)
The caricature version of a self-portrait of the artist is seen peeking into the exhibition space from a hole in the floor. He seems to be out of place, perhaps arriving there by accident, like the main character in Mario Monicelli’s 1958 film I Soliti Ignoti. This work speaks of the artist’s lifelong feeling of failing to belong somewhere. His sense of displacement and identification as an ill-fitting outsider, comes through in other self-portraits as well. In a piece called The Tambourine Boy, the artist presents himself as a young boy and a voiceless spectator sitting on the edge of life, observing.
5. Untitled (2004)
Untitled seems like the epilogue of a macabre fairytale. In this installation, we see three children hung by their necks from the oldest tree in the city of Milan. The century-old oak was replanted in Piazza XXIV Maggio in 1924 to commemorate the victims of World War I, near the Neoclassical arch of Porta Ticinese that was originally built to celebrate Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory at Marengo in 1800. The area is thus a reminder of the bloodshed and the cost of war. The work was created for the Trussardi Foundation. It was supposed to be exhibited for a month in 2004, but the piece only stayed up for less than 48 hours before someone took it down. Untitled provoked much talk about contemporary art and censorship. There were also discussions on what should be allowed to be exhibited in public spaces.
6. All (2007)
All is another morbid spectacle that reminds us of death. There are dead bodies covered with white sheets. These invisible faces, often anonymous, can be seen as victims of conflict, migrations, and natural disasters. The fatalities of tragic accidents, these veiled corpses lie there as a constant reminder of our history and the ubiquitous presence of violence. These exquisitely carved marble sculptures are so beautiful one cannot help but stare. Cattelan skilfully captures the public fascination with tragedy, by creating something beautiful that’s hiding unspeakable truths.
7. WE (2010)
WE carries autobiographical significance while commenting on the human condition. Two identical men lie side by side on a bed, fully dressed in suits with their eyes wide open. A portrait of the artist himself, the twins stare into the void, inviting the viewer to reflect on the dualities and internal conflicts that constitute our identity. Cattelan took inspiration from the master of Arte Povera called Alighiero Boetti who claimed that he was a set of twins named Alighiero and Boetti.
8. America (2016-17)
America is the first work that Cattelan made after re-emerging from his early retirement. Created as a commission for New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2016, the piece features a toilet made in a foundry in Florence by using 227 pounds of gold. It was originally installed in one of the museum’s bathrooms for visitors to use.
In September 2019, the piece was installed at Blenheim Palace for Cattelan’s solo exhibition, in a lavatory formerly used by Winston Churchill. Two days after the show’s opening, the toilet was stolen. Speculations at the time suggested Cattelan might have been behind the theft. America addressed the historical constructs of status, wealth, and power, as well as the idea of the American dream as the golden opportunity.
9. Maurizio Cattelan’ Blind (2021)
Blind (2021) is Cattelan’s latest artwork. Cattelan’s enormous, black monolith is intersected at the top by an airplane. Observed in its austere silence and immense presence, it stands like a cathedral, a monument to the horrors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Blind is a reflection on this historical event, but is also an exploration of the concept of death. The piece is supposed to be a memorial to a moment of shared pain and collective loss, while also alluding to the current state of humanity. We might be asking ourselves who are the blind that the artist is speaking of and what exactly is it that they are unable to see?
By Xuan Mai ArdiaMA Chinese Studies, BA Chinese and History of Art & ArchaeologyMai is a Vietnamese-Italian art writer and editor based near Venice, Italy, and sometimes Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Her passion and expertise lie in contemporary Asian art. She mainly writes about Asian artists, exhibitions, and events in Asia and around the globe. She has worked at international projects of cultural heritage conservation in Rome and in art galleries in London, Shanghai, and Ho Chi Minh City. She was previously editor of Art Radar (now ceased) and has written for Art Review Asia, CoBo Social, The Culture Trip, and Blouin ArtInfo, among others. In 2019, she founded Art Spectacle Asia.