‘Until the laughter gets stuck in our throat ... ’

Rachel Spence:For “Kaputt”, your new show at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, the only information we have is that it includes stuffed creatures that “thrust themselves head through wall into our consciousness”. Why is the stuffed animal such a powerful image for you?

Maurizio Cattelan: Stuffed animals are sad and scary; they have humorous and tragic qualities. The Greek knew of this strange brotherhood among living things and morphed a lot of luckless mortals into animals. Animals make for great amplifiers, as we like to think ourselves superior ... until the laughter gets stuck in our throat.

Why have you been so discreet about your new show?

It’s like going to the movies and knowing everything in advance – it spoils all the fun! I also tend to find it appealing when people let me develop my own opinions before explaining it all to me.

In 2011, you announced your retirement as an artist. Why?

I wasn’t feeling too happy – and oddly I also felt too comfortable with what I was doing, which you’ll agree is not a good combination. Besides, I was asking myself, “Why is it that we assume a personal path has to become a career and has to function along the lines of predictable productivity?” As with Family Business, the new gallery project based in New York that I share with Massimiliano Gioni, I thought it was interesting to see what would happen if you give your works some of your power and freedom back – or all the power and freedom, as far as I’m concerned. Now they live a life of their own – they were like my orphans, now they’ve grown up. A decision often makes for exciting developments you don’t always foresee. Why deprive yourself of that?

Yet now you are back with “Kaputt”. Why did you change your mind? Or is it more complicated than that?

Exactly. Although it’s not really complicated (I take your choice of adjective as a compliment), it has to do with a lot of what happens in everyday life. You take a decision, then you take another one. But I think you are aiming at a contradiction, which really isn’t there. My status as a retiree hasn’t changed. The project at Fondation Beyeler is born out of existing work shown in a new context, which is what I find interesting. Curators and the archive are taking care of it.

Your new project is a magazine called Toiletpaper. What can you tell us about it?

Toiletpaper is a project I share with Pierpaolo Ferrari, a gifted fashion photographer. Images have a force of their own which we like to explore within an editorial frame, at the same time trying to ignore the frame. Images develop relationships among themselves, like humans. It’s like a container with living things – let yourself be surprised upon opening it. Although it won’t be as dangerous as when Louise Brooks’s Pandora is opening her box ...

You are often described as a prankster. Is that how you see yourself? And if not, how would you describe yourself?

Forgive me for being blunt, but among the few things I try to avoid in my life is seeing myself through the eyes of others. I would describe myself as a tallish, shy, middle-aged man who equally loves his work and his freedom. And a good liar!

If you could own any work of art in the world, what would it be and why?

Every work of art is a great promise of escape and therefore like an open invitation. The four horses atop San Marco’s roof in Venice look like the ultimate escape machine.

How do you feel about seeing your work displayed in art fairs?

Art fairs are a lot like professional proms – you make contacts, have a lot to look at and in some cases, you make friends forever. I think that for artists they can be a bit controversial: they stimulate curiosity, but at the same time you’re always trying to not have your work hung on a wall.

Many of your works, such as hanging your gallerist up, or leasing your pavilion to an advertising agency, seem to mock the art world. How do you respond to critics who say you make a lot of money from a world that you don’t respect?

This is a great question that would prove fitting to ask of a great deal of people in many professions! Do editors from the financial and foreign affairs sections get to ask this often?

What is more important in a work of art? Image or idea?

It depends whether you think in pictures or in words! The question is: where does the image take place? In your head or before your eyes? And: can an idea be an image for more people than just myself? I’m also not sure whether I would count “important” among the criteria with which I form opinions ...

Given that your sculpture “The Ninth Hour” appeared to be fiercely critical of the Roman Catholic Church, what are your views about the Vatican having its own pavilion in Venice this year?

The Biennale has many voices – the Vatican is a state like many others which show a singular or collective perspective. The confrontation may appear to be new, but you could also think of all ancient churches and basilicas being the precursors of the modern Biennale pavilion. As it’s been said, all art has been contemporary!

‘Kaputt’, Fondation Beyeler, Basel, June 8-October 6

Maurizio Cattelan’s work is also at Marian Goodman at Art Basel

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