General view of work of Maurizio Cattelan during  the press preview of "Elogio del Dubbio" at Punta della Dogana on April 8, 2011 in Venice, Italy
© Getty

The first work I ever saw by Maurizio Cattelan was at Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 2007. A stuffed horse with its head buried in the wall, its bleak genius reminded me of the writings of Cormac McCarthy: almost too brilliant for its own good, almost too chilling to avoid a charge of nihilism.

Since then, I’ve interviewed Cattelan twice yet never met him. His refusal to give face-to-face interviews suggests a desire to remain in control that cannot but ruffle the feathers of an old-fashioned hack who likes to see the whites of her subject’s eyes. You wonder what he is trying to hide.

It’s a paradox that someone so private should make works whose shock-and-awe tactics garner worldwide attention. Earlier this month, the Padua-born artist unveiled a solid gold toilet for the Guggenheim in New York which catapulted him into the headlines. Prior to that, he lit the touchpaper of controversy with “La Nona Ora” (1999), a wax image of Pope John Paul II being decked by a meteorite; “Him” (2001), a replica of Hitler in an attitude of prayer (up for auction at Christie’s) and in 2010, “L.O.V.E”, a huge marble hand with a raised middle finger that he placed in front of the Italian Stock Exchange to widespread fury among Milan residents.

Now Cattelan is set to make news again. As part of the Projects section at Frieze New York this year, he will unveil his tribute to the Daniel Newburg Gallery. A Manhattan vitrine for emerging artists that shut its doors in 1994, the gallery showcased talents such as Rudolf Stingel and Mark Wallinger in their early careers. At the age of 34, Cattelan made his US debut there — and unwittingly precipitated the gallery’s demise.

Entitled “Enter at Your Own Risk — Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank you” (1994), his ill-fated installation consisted of a live donkey alone in a room lit by a baroque chandelier. Sustaining the adage that one should never work with children or animals, it was a recipe for disaster.

An unnamed donkey (as yet un-coopted by an artist) © I-stock

“We went in Connecticut to buy the donkey,” recalls Cattelan, writing to me from New York in super-fluent English dotted with the odd beguiling flaw. “We spent three hours to pick up it on the car and another three to bring it out. During the night, the animal brayed nonstop, and no one in the building got a wink of sleep. In the morning inhabitants complained so much that we were forced to close the show and the owner took the opportunity to quit the lease with the gallery.

“Overnight, Daniel found himself with a donkey and without a gallery. The funny thing is that he ended up being a farmer, and that donkey was the first animal of his new business.”

To recreate this troublesome occasion seems foolhardy, even by Cattelan’s standards. Vexed neighbours aside, the US animal rights lobby is increasingly vociferous. Last year, they called out Gavin Brown’s NY Gallery for restaging Jannis Kounellis’s installation of 12 live horses. Is he not worried about protests?

“Based on my experience it’s considerably difficult to force a donkey into doing something it perceives to be dangerous for whatever reason,” replies Cattelan, adding that the space “has been adapted to let the donkey have all it might need”.

Donkeys, I observe, are sociable creatures. Might he not provide a friend to minimise the animal’s laments?

“I’m pretty sure it won’t feel lonely, with so many people passing by,” the artist retorts. “As for the rest, there are braying men in the world as well as braying asses; I hope both . . . sorts will remain quiet this time.”

‘La Nona Ora’ (1999)
‘La Nona Ora’ (1999) © Zeno Zotti/Maurizio Cattelan archive

That sardonic elision of animal and human folly is, of course, the crux of “Enter at Your Own Risk”, just as the gold toilet cannot but be read as a swipe at the obscene wealth being flushed through the contemporary art system at the moment. For all their clownish carapaces, these are dark works motivated by contempt for our 21st-century excesses.

Yet Cattelan is most frequently compared to Duchamp, who really did put his own urinal out as a piece of mischief. In the same vein, the Italian is also frequently described as a “prankster” and a “joker”. Does he ever weary of our failure to take him seriously?

“I think that laughter and death are closely related: comedy is the quintessential human reaction to the fear of death,” he responds. “It’s probably linked with the fact that we are the only animals who know we must die. The other animals don’t know it until the moment that they die. Before, they are unable to articulate anything like this sentence — ‘we are all mortal’ — and to laugh about it.”

Artist Maurizio Cattelan attends 'SHIT AND DIE' Vernissage at Palazzo Cavour on November 5, 2014 in Turin, Italy
The artist at the opening of his ‘Shit and Die’ exhibition in Turin in 2014 © Getty

That explicit preoccupation with death places him in a lineage of artists that includes the Renaissance painters of memento mori, the beef carcases of Rembrandt, Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon, and of course, Britain’s morbid enfant terrible, Damien Hirst.

Yet Cattelan is quintessentially Italian. As an artist, his Mediterranean roots emerge in his gift for the oblique and the formal. Hirst just pickles his dead beasts; Cattelan buries their heads in the wall, thereby elevating his existential crisis to a more thoughtful, poignant plane.

Nowhere has his Latin melancholy sung more eloquently than Shit and Die, the show he curated at Palazzo Cavour in Turin which included not only elegies for the glory days of Olivetti and Fiat but opened with Eric Doeringer’s “The Hug” (2014). Consisting of 40,000 one-dollar bills pinned up as wallpaper, this comment on useless lucre went beyond the standard jibe at the contemporary art circus to pinpoint the selfishness of Italy’s elite who flaunt their superyachts while hiding their wealth in Zurich bank accounts.

Yet when I ask Cattelan to muse on his Italian heritage, he deflects me. “I must admit that it’s hard to tell where my origins come out . . . Certainly, when I’m cooking pasta!”

A disinclination to look inwards runs deep. (The only question he doesn’t answer is the one which asks why he insists on written interviews.) He was the son of a truck driver and a cleaning woman; his early life sounds tough. “When I was very young, I had to start to working to help my family, while my friends were studying. Since then I have felt the urgency to escape from every dependency situation. Mastering my days was a revolution: I had to take advantage of every single minute lived, and I’m still trying to do it.”

So what does a typical day look like? “I get up in the morning and get to bed at night, and between I bring equivalent dedication to everything I do, with a horror of the inaccurate and the half-baked.”

Will that drive and discipline be revealed in an in-depth documentary, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, directed by former war reporter Maura Axelrod? Over 10 years in the making, it has just been released at the Tribeca Film Festival but when Cattelan and I were corresponding, he had yet to see it. However, he regards its completion as yet another intimation of mortality.

'L.O.V.E', 2010 © AFP

“I know they have put in the words ‘The End’,” he tells me. “I guess I will feel like [I’m] staring at my face in the coffin. It’s an act of self-violence, but at the same time therapeutic: a good way to get rid of the analyst if only I had one.”

So why not take to the couch? “Works have been my therapy, so far. Making a new work . . . It’s about the transformation of a personal emergency into a public act, if you’re lucky you can find yourself faced with moments of revelation about things that . . . you’ve repressed.”

Cattelan’s elusiveness provokes me to prod further but in truth, the artist is more Clark Kent than Joker. An old hand at invisibility, he replies to my last question — is he essentially a pessimist? — with succinct poetry. “I’m afraid the best side of myself is the undiscovered one.”

Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Enter at Your Own Risk — Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank you’ (1994) is part of Frieze Projects, Frieze New York, May 5-8,

Photographs: Getty Images; I-stock; Zeno Zotti/Maurizio Cattelan archive; AFP

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