Through a human, a dog, an airplane, a monolith, and a thousand pigeons, Cattelan layers his art with narratives of politics, society, and reality
Maurizio Cattelan’s Breath Ghosts Blind
As visitors step into Pirelli HangarBicocca and draw the curtains, the void meets their eyes. After adjusting the sight from the lack of light, they may witness the vastness of the space and focus their attention on the spotlight that spills its brightness over the two figures lying on the floor. Titled Breath, the sculpture represents a man and a dog facing each other and, in a position, mirroring a fetus inside the uterus of a mother. From the description of the exhibit, the composition portrays intimacy in resonance with the scales of spaces in a Piazza and the maintenance of introspection and fragility as they lie next to each other with their eyes closed and breathing. The human figure here, a suggestion of the life of those who live and sleep on the street, associates itself with the dog, the emblem of loyalty and friendship and a first for the artist. Such a subject often occurs in the artist’s arsenal of sculptures to suggest the idea of death and its inevitability as in the case of Love Saves Life (1995) where a donkey shoulders a dog, a cat, and a rooster after taxidermy, and of Untitled (2007) where a chick nestles between two Labradors, all after the process of taxidermy. Drawing the eyes towards the material, the Carrara marble confers the aura of sacredness and timelessness as marble, in the field of metaphysics, promotes peak states of mediation, supports the recollection of dreams, strengthens the ability to control oneself, find serenity, and foster growth of self while its prosperity emits coolness, a metaphor that invokes the coldness of a passing. In Breath, both figures share the function of breathing and the cycle of life, the introduction to Maurizio Cattelan’s Ghosts Blind exhibit at Pirelli HangarBicocca.
Lampoon: Roberta Tenconi, a curator of the exhibit and of Pirelli HangarBicocca
Ms. Tenconi shares how the series took Cattelan and the team three years before they unveiled it to the public. «We started discussing and preparing the show in 2018. During the last two years, the process has been defined as thorough as we took our time to reflect and ponder on how the exhibit would unfold. Part of the exhibit’s theme is about the cycle of life, with all its fragilities and contradictions, from love to death, which have actually been recurring concepts throughout the artistic endeavors of the artist. This exhibit, even though there are “only” three works, also refers and relates to his previous images and subjects (or obsessions) of the past thirty years, including works such as Lullaby in 1994, which may be one of his least known works, but whose resonance is still alive in the present, and Him in 2001, which is an unusual portrait and sculpture of Hitler, depicting evil and its interconnectedness with our lives, and the idea of redemption. Many of his works, including those that can be viewed at this exhibit, tackle the reflection of the present, the fragility of life, and how one deals with the idea of death. He has a penchant for the filament between life and death, and even sorrow and love. These words form images, and Maurizio employs art to convey these existential questions and topics to reflect on».
Humor and tragedy in Maurizio Cattelan’s works
To cut through tragedy with humor, Cattelan stacked sacks with rubble from an explosion at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC) in Milan for Lullaby (1994), a year after the terrorist attack related to mafia at the art pavilion, killing five and on the verge of destroying the entirety of PAC. The seep of irony and humor in tragedy visited Hitler in Him (2001) when the dictator knelt of the pavement in his suit and tie – his head appearing larger than his body to accentuate the inflation of his head, narcissism over self, and greed towards power – as he clasped his hands, angled his head towards the ceiling, and welcomed the gleam of the spotlight hitting his face, a symbol of evil asking God or the divine source for forgiveness. Cattelan investigates death, love, fate, loneliness, absence, and failure as he recruits art to construct a gateway that welcomes plurality of interpretations. As Tenconi continues to share, the artist dislikes imposing a meaning behind his creations. «Maurizio is described as a provocateur who thumbs his nose at the rules of the art world. More than provocation in art for the modern arge, transformation is perhaps the concept here, and this is what Maurizio does and echoes. He transforms the way one looks at the world. He neither likes talking about his work nor assigning a specific meaning to what he creates. His perception lies in the multiple interpretations, deviating from singularity. He values openness, freedom, and expansive thinking over what he produces».
Pigeons in art and history
Before Cattelan begins working on a sculpture, he concentrates on an image that he sources from the reality and the surroundings he lives in. He analyzes the reasons behind such instances as for the artist: «Images have the power to summarize the present and possibly transform it in anticipation of the future. Perhaps my work is just a magnifying glass that allows us to see the hidden details of reality». Once he condenses his research, refraining himself from watering the facts down while inducing sculptures that commence discussions, he infuses what he has compiled into an art piece. He carried out such a process when he conceived Ghosts, the second installation of the exhibit at Pirelli HangarBicocca. Spots of light scatter across the warehouse as the insufficiency of lamps and lanterns helm the exhibit. If one pays no attention to their surroundings, they may only eyeball the absence of any sculptures or artworks in the space, but since it hosts Cattelan, one must observe the environment. Once they do, they shall realize the hundreds of pigeons post taxidermy that rest on the rafters, beams, and bridges of the space, dispersed in the gaps between pillars and walls of the building. The pigeons scrutinize the movements of the visitors before they can even take notice of them, loitering the warehouse with their gaze and silence. Prior to the conception of Ghosts, Cattelan ascribed the concepts of transmission and transit to the pigeons, the bearer of information during wars and the messenger for communications across Atlantics in the books of history. This family of birds relates to doves, a representation of the Holy Spirit in Christianity. From the traces of its history in the bygone eras and cults, pigeons embody the notion of testimony and the manifesto of colonization as they establish their community in the places they invade. Cattelan thought of reversals to bring the sculpture into life: the observers become the intruders in the room, forcing them to confront their individuality. The overturning and the employment of pigeons first appeared in Cattelan’s participation in the Italian Pavilion curated by Germano Celant at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. Titled Tourists (1997), the artist populated the pavilion with pigeons over air ducts along with their excrements to signal disorientation. In 2011, he produced an iteration of the installation titled Others (2011) for the 54th Venice Biennale curated by Bice Curiger, positioning around two thousand pigeons on the facade and inside the Central Pavilion in the Giardini (bearing the title Italian Pavilion before it changed). The title Ghosts correlates to disembodiment: whereas Tourists discusses the filament between Venice as a city and a location to travel to and the tourists, and Others dwells in a community, Ghosts suspends in a limbo between the two. «We live in a society where we are under constant surveillance. Someone or something is watching us; up until the end, you do not know if you are the subject or the object of what is going on. Pigeons are extraordinary, with an incredible sense of orientation. When set free in an unfamiliar place, they can find their way home without failing. They are among the few animals that can recognize themselves in the mirror, and they have been used in a variety of lab and field experiments from psychology to ornithology. They are good at adapting and at reading situations; they are trustworthy creatures, but for better and for worse, they carry along a bit of everything they have landed on». In 2018, Venice banned feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marco since cleaning up the excrements they left cost millions of euros, turning their stance from creatures one may trust to sources of contagion. Such a transition infiltrates Ghosts: their eyes, thousands of them, watch and monitor the visitors from above and between the walls and pillars, no longer aware whether they anticipate to form a bond or attack the crowd.
Death and history in contemporary art
In the 1970s, Padua, a city in the region of Veneto in Northern Italy, became the center of the student revolt and left-wing political unrest. Originating from this city, Cattelan trained himself to adapt to and adopt the frictions of politics and society, the genesis of his first works. During the second half of the 1980s, he entered the industry of design and created a series of objects with features of anthropomorphism and dedicated himself to art. From here, his works have generated debates and discourse which he absorbs to form part of his process of creation and he discerns as a light that awakens people and prompts them to think and discuss. His movement towards themes that may disrupt the ordinariness – for instance, grief, death, love, humor, irony, sarcasm, and sorrow – serves as an accumulation of the artist he birthed. This course of action and influence compelled Cattelan to reflect on history three years ago, pulling the audience back to the conception of the exhibit, where Tenconi and Vicente Todoli, Pirelli HangarBiccoca’s Artistic Director and a co-curator of the exhibit, had touched on Cattelan’s predecessors titled Untitled (1994) and Now (2004), the former mirrored the kidnapping and execution of the Italian politician Aldo Moro in 1979 and the latter acknowledged the assasination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. The artist’s affinity to death comes into view for the nth time in Blind, the final sculpture of the exhibit. Made of resin, wood, steel, aluminum, polystyrene, and paint, the monolith boasts the size of 1,695 by 1,300 by 1,195 centimeters, almost kissing the ceiling of the warehouse. The sunlight spills from the windows above the building, casting its brightness on the blackness of the sculpture. Shaped in a rectangle and formed as a box, the visitors’ neck must bend to look upwards and spot the airplane that has crashed inside the monolith. The black paint that covers the piece and the airplane that accompanies the monolith appropriate the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11 and symbolize loss and pain, a monument of memorial and Cattelan’s art of cemetery. In discussing the history of the piece: «An artwork is a symbolic action, It is there to convey and portray a certain story or feeling. Today’s world may lack symbols, but some ancestral images or metaphors do linger and are capable of giving a foundation and meaning to our lives. Blind is a work about pain and its social dimension; it is there to show the fragility of society where loneliness and egotism are on the rise. I had been thinking about this work for years, but I must say the pandemic made death visible again in our lives. It is something that we try to suppress and forget; we are so focused on comfort and on warding off any kind of pain as if it were just a health problem. Perhaps for the first time, since our parents’ generation that lived through wars, death is once again an everyday threat».
Maurizio Cattelan artist
Maurizio Cattelan has staged sculpture and actions that are often considered provocative and irreverent. His works highlight the paradoxes of society and reflect on political and cultural scenarios with great depth and insight. By using iconic images and a caustic visual language, his works spark heated public debate fostering a sense of collective participation. Conceiving artworks inspired by images that draw on historical events, figures or symbols of contemporary society—sometimes recalled even in its most disturbing and traumatizing sides—the artist invites the viewer to change perspective and to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguity of reality.