Glide through the revolving doors of the Guggenheim and you’re in the eye of an artistic tornado. Donkeys, dogs and rabbits, pigeons, people, an ostrich with its head in the ground, a horse without a head altogether, a tiny Hitler, a bloated Picasso, an immense dinosaur skeleton – all whirl towards the sky in a grotesque and sensational gyre. We’re not in Kansas anymore, friends. Welcome to the mind of Maurizio Cattelan – prankster, provocateur, meditator on mortality, and the consummate artist of this decadent moment. This 21-year retrospective hangs his entire career in the balance, with representative works from all of its phases trussed and spectacularly suspended from the museum’s oculus.
The plainest statement of the Italian art-star’s intentions is a titanic marble hand, with its central finger erect in a gesture of, shall we say, disrespect. When the piece was unveiled last year outside Milan’s stock exchange in the Piazza Affari, it looked like a timely communiqué to financiers, or perhaps a summary of money managers’ attitudes towards the rest of the world. The resemblance to the pointing hand from the colossus of Constantine in Rome’s Capitoline Museums lent his cheekiness a touch of art historical gravitas.
Yet Cattelan’s rude gestures have a wider range of targets. His entire oeuvre, especially when gathered at the Guggenheim in one colossal, exploding column, could be construed as a middle finger pointed in multiple directions: at gullible visitors who have just shelled out the museum’s $18 admission fee; at billionaires who compete to own his insults; at curators who perpetuate his mystique; at dealers who profit from it, at an art world rife with schemers and frauds, and finally at himself, an egoist riven by arrogance and insecurity.
In “Unauthorized Autobiography”, a series of reminiscences that his friend Francesco Bonami noted down over the years, Cattelan ascribes the same motivation to his earliest creation, a photograph of himself forming a heart shape with his hands. “My first real artwork was about love, but it also was a way of giving the finger to love – or at least to that bourgeois concoction of hypocrisies and brittle rules and gestures like walking hand in hand as a signal to the lonely, the unlucky, and the bereaved that, hey, we’re together. I am not made for that kind of love.”
That’s good, because he inspires plenty of passionate animosity. Critics regularly denounce his work as a seductive brew of sensationalism and kitsch, shrug off his pieces as a string of wisecracks, and dismiss him as a court jester to the rich. The critic Charlie Finch, writing at Artnet, recently denounced his creations as so many “suppositories”. Cattelan manages to attract vitriol from unexpected quarters. In 2004, when he hung three little-boy mannequins by their necks from a tree in Milan, an enterprising member of the public climbed up to free them, and wound up in hospital, a fallen hero in the fight against tasteless art.
Even the less easily offended don’t quite know what to make of him. It bugs critics that he gets to have it both ways, sneering at the system that fills his very deep pockets. The public basks in the fun house atmosphere, but finds him too cool to adore. They don’t much like his materials, either; stuffed animals, when they’re real and dead, make a lot of people queasy.
But I have a soft spot for Cattelan’s unembarrassed pursuit of spectacle. I like that he blends the morbid and the entertaining. His most successful gambits are magnificently elusive. In 2000, Cattelan announced his arrival in the New York art world with “Not Afraid of Love”, a full-scale baby elephant draped in a sheet with eyeholes. It’s hard to know how to read it: as a pachyderm Klansman? As the proverbial elephant in the room? As a self-portrait of a shy yet self-aggrandising artist who sends impersonators to interviews? As a children’s fantasy of a monster whose disguise cannot hide its deep-seated adorableness? What saves his art from gimmickry is that it fascinates even when – or precisely because – it intimates meanings that it refuses to reveal.
Cattelan has sometimes expressed surprise at the strength of the reactions that his work has unleashed, but the truth is that he’s a master manipulator. He knows how to provoke, and also how to inject his stunts with just enough ambiguity for him to answer his attackers with an endearing and almost plausible: “Who, me?” He plays with lifelike mannequins: Hitler on his knees, hands joined in prayer; a woman stuffed into a refrigerator, Pope John Paul II felled by a meteor. Each of these vignettes has some tincture of humour or unsettling detail that undercuts the shock. Hitler has a little boy’s body. The refrigerated woman is obviously enjoying herself among the perishables. The old pope in agony wears beautiful new shoes. The apotheosis of macabre cuteness is “Bidibidobidiboo”, a diorama of a squirrel slumped at its miniature kitchen table with a tiny revolver in its hand. The little beast’s bright eyes and bushy tail have not saved it from desperation.
Cattelan dares the world to take offence, and then redeems himself through impishness. His jokes lack punchlines, and his homilies refuse to offer lessons. That means the viewer can choose how seriously to take him – whether to praise him as a prophet, get into a lather of outrage, or merely smile indulgently. If there are few signs of indignation at the Guggenheim, it’s partly because the power of any one piece is absorbed into the swirl of the whole installation. Cattelan has threatened – or promised, depending on your point of view – to retire, and the exhibition does have the quality of one last blowout. He has always toyed with scale, distending a shopping cart, a football table, and his own nose, and shrinking his skinny, childlike figure into a scale-model “Mini-Me”. Here, he works the same magic on his whole body of work, which feels at once vast and fragmentary, the headlines and incitements dissolving into a cleansing updraft. In the Guggenheim’s vortex, hits and famous failures jostle with forgotten in-jokes, and, as usual with Cattelan, self-mockery mixes with grandiosity. This may be an ending (if you believe him) but it sure looks like an Ascension. His life is flashing before our eyes, hurtling to claim its place in a trickster’s heaven. It’s a hell of a show.
Continues to January 22, www.guggenheim.org