Saturday, May 7, 2016

Maurizio Cattelan: Art's Shock Jock

America the toilet

Above is a recent piece by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, now on loan to the Guggenheim Museum in New York.   As you can see, it is titled America.

The plan is to have the 18-karat gold toilet, fashioned like an American-made Kohler model, installed in one of the museum's restrooms, replacing a simple porcelain number.  Visitors will be able to participate in the art by relieving themselves in the gold commode.

The website describes the toilet this way:

     In a press release, the Guggenheim identifies (it as) Cattelan's reaction to the "excesses
     of the art market"  -- of which Cattelan himself benefits as one of the most expensive living
     artists -- and notes that the toilet functions as a facetious jab towards the 1 percent who can
     afford such ostentatious works.

The installation was timed to coincide New York's spring season of art fairs.  The best analogy I can imagine for this timing is that it is akin to inviting a drunken colleague over for dinner and watching him barf on the table.

(For what it is worth, I agree that much current art is shallow.  Most art in every period is less than profound.  A gold toilet doesn't tell us anything that we don't know already.)

The installation was supposed to be up and running, so to speak, earlier this week, but there has been a hitch.  The toilet is not functional, and it will take an uncertain amount of time to get it going.

Here we may have another metaphor -- the over-the-top America toilet that does not work as a symbol of our dysfunctional government and political arrangements.

Maurizio Cattelan and His Work

I was not familiar with this artist before the toilet tale came up, and so I did a little research.  He seems to be the shock jock of contemporary art.


Here is an emblematic Cattelan piece, a marble sculpture that was placed in a Milan square in 2010.

Its title is L.O.V.E.; don't ask me why.

My bet is that locals describe the thing as "il dito medio," which can be translated even by those not fluent in Italian.  Love -- ha!


Here is another fun piece, described unofficially as the Trophy Wife.

The woman is Stephanie Seymour, a former supermodel and the second spouse of billionaire art collector Peter Brant.  The couple's marriage has been tumultuous, and one of their sons has gained a reputation in New York for the kinds of behavior we have come to associate with the term "affluenza."

In an interview, Cattelan was asked how he decided to make this piece of art.  Here is his answer.

        That is another good story. I went to Peter’s house because he wanted to ask me for a
         commissioned work. As I went inside the house, the walls were covered with hunting
         trophies, with every kind of animal, and I knew immediately what I would do. It was
         consequential to add just one more, a portrait of his beautiful wife.

Take that, billionaire art patron!


The piece below, which resides in a Swedish museum, is called Him.  As you can see, it is a statue of Adolph Hitler praying.   Hitler was an evil man; associating him with Christian prayer does not make him seem better and makes Christianity seem worse.  Very subtle.


It is to be expected that an Italian artist who pokes fingers in people's eyes would have things to say about the Catholic Church.  Here again, Maurizio Cattelano does not disappoint.

Here is a statue of Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite.  My best guess is that it is a projection of a fantasy wish of the artist.   

John Paul II's election to the papacy was the first of several attempts by the college of cardinals to reform the institution of the church and its bureaucracy.  He was the first non-Italian pope in more than 200 years.
         After being shot and nearly killed in an assassination attempt, John Paul II forgave the shooter and urged Catholics to pray for his "brother." He befriended the man and his family and urged the Italian government to release him from prison and send him home to Turkey.
         I don't know what Catellan's beef is with this pope, but he seems in retrospect like a good guy to me.

And here is a statue of a dead horse.  The banner planted in the animal's hide reads INRI, an inscription found on Christian images of Jesus on the cross.  INRI translates as "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," per Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion.

I was raised Catholic, but I don't understand associating the crucifixion with a dead animal or including the INRI reference.  The church itself has problems, but Jesus is not one of them.


If someone could explain Catellan's art to me, I'd be happy to have a conversation.  But that isn't what he seeks.  His work suggests broad contempt, but not interest in other points of view.

Like me and like rich people and like the church, all human efforts are flawed. 

Maurizio Catellan seems to have made a career of giving voice to scorn, including deserved scorn, for the failings of mankind.  But his message is not new.  In some ways, its anger reflects a simplistic, almost adolescent disdain for the larger, more complicated project of living an honest life.   

I don't think I'm going to go to the Guggenheim Museum to see, or pee in, the golden toilet.

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