Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘La Nona Ora’ (1999)

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Maurizio Cattelan, Italy’s best-known contemporary artist, is in a kind of limbo. He has a reputation as the mischievous enfant terrible of the world’s over-solemn art scene and yet, at 54, he is ensconced in middle age and all its attendant mortal questions.

His clownish works – the most familiar is “La Nona Ora” (The Ninth Hour, 1999), in which a life-sized model of Pope John Paul II is struck by a meteorite – make audiences laugh; yet his intentions are earnest. “I think that the ironic surface is just the first level of interpretation,” he tells me in a written email exchange, “a sort of cosy wrapping that makes the audience feel safe in approaching a work, only to be later punched in the stomach by a second level, that’s deadly serious.”

He claims to have retired, yet he will not go away. Cattelan is the mastermind behind Shit and Die, an exhibition in Turin’s Palazzo Cavour, an 18th-century baroque palace that was the residence of one of the leading figures behind the unification of Italy. Every Italian city has a square or avenue named after Cavour; few deliver surprises on this scale. Audiences should flex their stomach muscles and prepare to be punched.

The show, co-curated by Myriam Ben Salah and Marta Papini, was unveiled during Artissima, the city’s highly-regarded art fair, which was celebrating its 21st birthday. Cattelan was commissioned, says fair director Sarah Cosulich Canarutto, “because he is still the most important Italian artist. This is a city with many hidden stories and myths, and they all fit together with Maurizio’s interests: death, utopia, failure.”

The Palazzo Cavour papered in dollar bills in ‘The Hug’ (2014) by Eric Doeringer

Shit and Die opens with a vulgar coup de théâtre: the sight of 40,000 genuine one-dollar bills stapled on to the high walls of one of the palace’s reception areas. “The Hug” (2014) by Eric Doeringer echoes a similar 2011 installation by Hans Peter Feldmann, who plastered the walls of New York’s Guggenheim Museum with 100,000 dollars from the Hugo Boss prize, as well as a 2006 installation in Milan by the Torinese artist Gianni Colosimo. It is a calculating embrace: Turin is a city famous for its industrial inventiveness and dynamism, and one that understands the value of cash. But what is it worth when it is doing nothing more than literally papering over the city’s past?

Industry, in Cattelan’s opening section here, is double-edged, requiring the utopian visions of architecture to give it direction but also having to work within the banal strictures of urban planning to house its workers. There is an exact reproduction in the show of the “Talponia” residential unit from 1970, commissioned by Olivetti. It is a smart, efficient but soulless space.

Maurizio Cattelan in a distinctive tie

The cover of the catalogue for the exhibition shows a historic American advertisement for Olivetti typewriters, featuring a giddily happy secretary, twirling her hair with near-orgasmic intensity. “The typewriter can actually think for itself,” gushes the copy. “No flying caps! No improper spacing! No crowding or piling! That’s why an Olivetti girl can really belt it out.”

“We liked it for two reasons,” says Cattelan when I ask him why he chose the image. “It has an out-of-time quality, that’s very rare today. At the same time, it is a memory of a bright, industrial Italian past, which becomes tragic when compared to what’s happening now.”

There are more games reflecting on Italy’s past and future to be found in the catalogue: an “interview” between Cattelan and Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli, who died in 2003, in which the artist “asks” him his views on football, economics and cars. The answers are genuine, taken from past interviews, but juxtaposed here with Cattelan’s own questions. “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible,” he tells me. “Gianni Agnelli was a sharp mind, and most of his interviews carried meanings between the lines that only now are fully readable.”

Back in the palace, there are sections on power and desire, and a room of portraits of prominent Turinese figures. Typical of the eclecticism here is Francesco Vezzoli’s “Carla di Castiglione” (2011), which mixes the persona of Cavour’s cousin, a countess who loved to pose for the cameras in strange guises, and that of Carla Bruni. Canarutto describes the charismatic countess as “a Cindy Sherman” figure. It is a reminder that contemporary art finds rich pickings in the eccentricities of the past.

The countess is also to be found, in her protean glory, in a series of photographs mounted on a mantelpiece in a reproduction of Cavour’s study. The entire room has been covered in a sheet of plastic, “to safeguard the spirit of the statesman”, says Cattelan. It also acts as a distancing device, forcing us to think about the status of the myths that have grown around this extravagant space.

Francesco Vezzoli’s ‘Carla di Castiglione’ (2011)

Well-mannered and industrious Turin is famed for its dark secrets, including a tradition of black magic. I ask Cattelan if he found any surprises in the city’s hidden corners. “They came as dusty gifts,” he replies, “forgotten but still present in the city’s subconscious.”

The final room of the exhibition is “Dead Man Working”, and it plays brilliantly on the themes of mortality and the passing of time. Underneath a magnificent chandelier, an installation by Martin Creed, “Work no 112, Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed” (1995), nags insistently, like a field of crickets. Next to them is a mangled sports car, which contains a hydraulic press that is pulling the car’s structure inwards by 1cm a day. Eventually, the car will implode. It is a tense and curiously poignant scene.

I ask Cattelan if the serious points he wants to make about the world are sometimes lost amid the humour for which his work is famous. “From my point of view, humour and irony include tragedy, they’re two sides of the same coin. Laughter is a Trojan horse to enter into direct contact with the unconscious, strike the imagination and trigger visceral reactions. If the humour of certain works was enough to pull anger, fear and amazement out of everyone, the psychoanalysts would be in disgrace . . . shame is not enough!”

There are many people who believe that the world, and the art world in particular, is beyond satire, I say. “Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, you will be allowed to satirise it. In the past, jesters were in charge of telling the king the bad news that no one else would dare deliver.

“If it’s true that every reign needs its jester, nowadays this role is probably assigned to artists: in front of a good work of art, people react at the tragic ridiculousness of the situation, that kind of laughter where if you didn’t laugh, you would cry.”

Canarutto says that Cattelan’s exhibition, the second under the auspices of the fair’s “One Torino” project, is an exemplary way of linking the commercial business of Artissima with an investigation of the city’s past and present. “It becomes a laboratory for ideas, and the taking of risks,” she says. Cattelan’s curation becomes almost a new work of art in itself, she adds.

I can’t help asking Cattelan about his most notorious work. The current Pope, Francis, has been received generously by many who are not natural supporters of the papacy. Surely he wouldn’t want to see him struck by a meteorite? “To be an icon doesn’t necessarily mean to be untouchable,” he responds. “I believe there’s nothing wrong with showing people’s vulnerable side. I don’t think it undermines their status. It reinforces their position, as well as the belief that they are sacred cows. I’m pretty sure the Pope knows this very well. That’s why he won’t need a meteorite!”

‘One Torino: Shit and Die’, Palazzo Cavour, Turin, until January 11 2015, artissima.it

Photographs: Zeno Zotti/Maurizio Cattelan’s Archive; Pierpaolo Ferrari

This article has been amended since first publication to reflect the fact that Eric Doeringer’s ‘The Hug’ echoes the work both of Hans Peter Feldmann and of Gianni Colosimo

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