All hanging in the balance

As anti-capitalist protests spread across the globe, a sculpture in Milan is chiming with the zeitgeist. A huge white marble hand missing three fingers sits outside the stock exchange in the Mussolini-era Piazza Affari, mocking the tyranny embodied in the fascist salute, while gesturing rudely at the bankers. Installed late last year, it is the work of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.

Cattelan, 51, agreed to an exhibition at the city’s Palazzo Reale only if they allowed him to make a piece for the square. It seems to mark a new acceptance on the part of the artist of the strong political current that runs through much of his irreverent, darkly humorous, often poignant art.

“Having this chopped hand in this place – the square was built in the 1930s – and in front of the stock exchange, I would say, is absolutely political,” he agrees, when we meet in New York, where he has lived since 1993. “Even if I don’t want to see myself as political.

“I have never worked in terms of ‘now I want to do a political work’. But I like the idea that a work can generate stories and be responsible for some debate, and be strong enough to have a longer life than the controversy.”

Next week, a retrospective of Cattelan’s work opens at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan: it will enable us to reassess an artist, who, with good reason, has often been labelled a prankster. In keeping with the anarchic spirit of his oeuvre, the show, entitled All, will see 130 works suspended on ropes in the centre of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright spiral. “There is no other way to do a show there and pay respect to the building,” Cattelan says. “I think visitors will add a lot to what they see; they will make connections.”

It’s taking a risk. On occasions in the past, some visitors have made a few too many connections. In Milan, in 2004, a man rushed in to “save” three children hanging from a tree. If his emotions hadn’t overwhelmed him, he might have realised the sculpture was intended to highlight the vile things that happen to children, both in the real world and in fairy tales. In Warsaw, in 1999, when Cattelan’s sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite went on show, two right-wing politicians stepped in to “restore” the pontiff to an upright position. In works such as these, Cattelan’s thought processes may have little to do with the object as it strikes the viewer. “The Pope was about overcoming a moment with my father,” he explains. “I’m using images to relate myself to my past, but it’s so personal: you see the Pope and you don’t think of my father!”

Born in Padua in 1960, Cattelan discovered contemporary art in his early twenties while looking for a way out of a series of dead-end jobs. On his way to the local hospital one day (he was employed in the morgue), a mirror work by the arte povera pioneer Michelangelo Pistoletto caught his eye. “It was my epiphany,” Cattelan says. “I was so disturbed I couldn’t stop myself to go inside.”

It wasn’t long before he discovered Marcel Duchamp. “The third or fourth book I bought had his urinal,” Cattelan recalls. “Looking back on it, minimalism I could like as a composition; pop was for me too close to advertising. But this guy was using a toilet. I said, ‘Wow, this is something I can do myself.’ It was extremely accessible.”

In 1985, Cattelan quit his job at the morgue and sought refuge in art. Over 25 years, he has realised a stream of surprising, often unsettling ideas, mainly in sculptural form. “Novecento” (1997), for instance, presents a long-legged, taxidermied horse suspended from the ceiling; “Charlie Don’t Surf” (1997), a small hooded boy whose hands have been nailed to the desk with pencils; “Now” (2004) delivers a tranquil JFK in an open coffin, while “Daddy, Daddy” (2008) depicts Pinocchio, face down, having apparently fallen from a great height.

Yet hand-in-hand with this flow of ideas has gone a paralysing fear of failure: “I was terrified by the idea of producing something.” His decidedly Duchampian ways of dealing with the problem were what led to his being seen as less than serious, a prankster.

For example, unhappy with the work he had produced by the deadline for his very first show in Bologna in 1989, he closed the door on an empty gallery and placed the familiar sign “Torno subito” (Back soon) outside. In Paris, in 1997, he duplicated the work of his friend Carsten Höller, who was showing nearby, so nobody could tell which was the original. A year before that, in Amsterdam, he had stolen an entire exhibition, complete with rubbish bin, from a rival gallery, intent on showing it as his own.

“Escaping was a way to save myself from disgrace [but] I was considering only my own point of view, I never thought about the artist or the gallerist,” he reflects ruefully. “In the States I would have been in jail.”

As a teenager in the late 1970s, Cattelan watched from the sidelines while the Italian left splintered into myriad revolutionary factions, both public and underground. He was working part-time and studying hard, desperate to leave home. (“Why can’t you tell me where you’ll live? You’re going to be a terrorist, aren’t you?” railed his anguished mother, as he fled on his 18th birthday.) Yet the politics of that period, plus that of the Clean-Hands anti-corruption era of the 1990s, fed into his art: in two works, the symbol of the Red Brigades melds with the shooting star of a nativity scene to highlight the country’s loss of innocence; the Mafia’s attacks on art galleries prompt “Lullaby” (1994), for which he packaged rubble from a bombed museum in a bag similar to those used by hospitals for contaminated waste.

As we wind up our discussion, it strikes me that there’s little sign these days of the sad young man who looked for escape routes – even from the label of “artist”. We revert to talking about his retrospective.

“I’ve never thought about my works as something that I wanted to see again,” he says. “Now I’m forced to relate to them, it’s a chance to see myself from a different perspective. The 130 works will come together in a new work: it’s a family.” He smiles. “Perhaps I should have called it Family, not All.”

Maurizio Cattelan, ‘All’, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, November 4-January 22 2012;

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