When I was younger I was obsessed with print media and the hoarding of it (and by younger I mean “now”) and filed away accordion folders and shoe boxes and under-bed storage containers full of clippings from Vogue, Entertainment Weekly (seriously), Rolling Stone, etc. One set of images that remained filed away for years was from the September 2001 issue of Vogue (which I remember because that was the season of the debut of Gap leather, which I promptly procured for myself in shiny black blazer form and which my sixteen year old self just wore the shit out of at every varsity hockey game, as did every other girl at the existential jail we called our high school). There was a lengthy spread of graphic, sculptural curiosities: the pope on the ground, burdened by a large rock, a mouse dead or asleep at his desk, a stuffed horse unsettlingly suspended from the ceiling. The weight of the images was undeniable, which is why I kept them for years, waiting to use them in the collages or cards that occupied my school breaks and summers. But the images were too heavy, obviously more than wallpaper to line my missives with– they demanded more than the inane musings of tween girl chatter. So they sat filed away for years.
This past fall, I picked up the November installment of W for the first time in 10 years because it was the “art issue”, featuring Nicki Minaj on the cover. It was by chance that its pages not only featured a solid spread on Detroit and its supposed burgeoning art scene, but the same pope and mouse from the annals of our young millennium and my own leathered youth. The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, described as the “tragic poet” or “prankster” of contemporary art, was primed for a retrospective and announcing his retirement.
This winter in New York, I spent some time rolling around from Queens to lower Manhattan and back again in pursuit of decent espresso and some vegan pho. My sister and I were deliberating between the MOMA and the Guggenheim, and our friend’s free passes to the Goog sent us their way; her membership led us straight to the front of the line. Firmly established as VIP, we strolled into the famed rotunda and looked up to a massive installation– a gallows of sorts– hung from the ceiling of this iconic building: the pope. The mouse. The horse.
As we worked up the tiered ramp and around the installation, Maurizio’s “pranks” slyly revealed themselves: every loss of the English national football inscribed into black granite (shown in England, and probably why, Cattelan himself muses, he hasn’t shown there much since). Hitler. New York city cops strung from their feet– a veritably cheeky move in a city whose patrol cars are marked with stickers that offer a reward of ten grand for any information involving the death of a city cop. In the W article, Cattelan claims that the installation begs the viewer to “kneel down and convert to the saving faith of that mysterious religion called Cattelanism, where God is a prankster.”
Some “critics” (whose occupational legitimacy is always up for debate to any artist, for good reason, as most “critics” seem mostly only littered with their own pathos) (also, this isn’t a review or critique, just an appreciation) challenge the place of humor in “serious” (read: real) works of art. But as Cattelan makes very clear amidst this sea– wreckage, really– of modern culture, one can’t fully internalize the experience of being alive in the modern world without laughing at the fringes of the horror we’re suddenly capable of (cf. Hitler). Cattelan’s humor then becomes a piece of art in itself, woven within the objects. His own humanity is hanging from the ceiling. The true power of “art”– in any of its forms– is when it becomes a means of communication between human beings. What we call “art” is really just a platform to reveal some truth about oneself or the world, or oneself in the world. In Cattelan’s case, his experience manifests itself through his razor-sharp wit, which cuts you while you laugh and you’re not quite able to articulate why it hurts.
Revisiting that W article after seeing the show, I found in Maurizio what seem to be twin muses: a disarming vulnerability and an iron resolve. In New York Magazine, he wondered if his Guggenheim retrospective itself meant that there was “something wrong somewhere.” He begs forgiveness from the self he failed to take seriously (among others), he reveals the stuffed horse as a sort of self portrait: while living in Milan, he was depressed, “waging a war against [him]self”: “I felt powerless, hung out to dry, horse meat for grinders wielded by curators and critics,” yet he goads those same curators and critics, daring them to denounce him as merely as a prankster.
He describes himself as two halves: “the freewheeling individualist and the artist chained to his ambitions.” That phrase stopped me cold: it was as familiar to me as something inscribed on my own arm, but much simpler and more honest than anything I ever would (or could) have written about myself.
This morning, I read my first own bad press, in which the critic wondered if I was dumb or sarcastic, and advised me, should I ever want to be a “serious” artist, to “lose the sass.” I felt a strange sort of pride, and thought of Maurizio.