I first saw Maurizio Cattelan in the Abracadabra exhibition at Tate Britain in 1999, when I was barely out of nappies (OK, I was in my teens, but that’s not dissimilar). Bidibidobidiboo (1996), his taxidermied squirrel slumped over a miniature kitchen table, pistol slipping from its paw, has stayed with me since then. It moved me that much, and still does today.
Bidibidobidiboo‘s tiny figure is as vulnerable and insignificant as each one of us, and equally touching in its silliness, helplessness and the meaningless detail of its life. Dirty plates pile up in the squirrel’s sink and a glass of water sits on the table by its head. The chair opposite is angled to suggest a conversation just ended, perhaps a companion who has walked away. Viewing this tiny, tragicomic tableaux from above, as gods might view men, imbues it with a pathos that belies its size.
Cattelan, who is infamous for his much larger sculpture, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour, 1999), depicting the Pope hit by a meteorite, has a dark and deadly wit. We Are the Revolution (2000) sees a boy-size wax likeness of Cattelan hanging from a clothes rail, dressed in the signature grey felt jacket of artist and activist Joseph Beuys. Beuys pursued an artistic agenda that championed art with a social conscience, full of wordy rhetoric and long explanations of his work. This is diametrically opposed to Cattelan’s anarchic practice, in which he frequently uses a ‘stand-in’ at interviews, equipped with a stock of evasive answers and non-sensical utterances. Here he renders the artist-as-revolutionary obsolete.
The untitled rug showing a map of Italy as a the packaging for a round of Bel Paseo’s Formaggio, a particular smelly brand of cheese, illustrates Cattelan’s uneasy relationship with his homeland. If you were in any doubt that an insult was intended, a wax hand with only a middle finger to extend hangs above the rug, a gestured repeated in a 36ft sculpture of the same hand (titled L.O.V.E.) which Cattelan placed in front of Milan’s stock market building in 2011, directed towards the Italian public. Love it. Hate the bankers.
In another sculpture the Star of David emblem of the 1970s terrorist group Brigate Rosse, famous for violent attempts to destabilise Italy by acts of sabotage, robberies, and kidnappings, is turned into a cheery neon Christmas decoration. Next to this sits a bag of rubble retrieved from Milan’s Contemporary Art Pavilion when it was destroyed by a Mafia-related bomb attack. Whether these are tributes to political outsiders or comments on the inadequacies of the Italian government is anyone’s guess, but what is clear here as in all his political pieces is Cattelan’s contempt for the system.
This collection is less a retrospective of Cattelan’s career and more a small sample of his incongruous and perverse takes on the world. Considering the pranks Cattelan had pulled in his time, including erected a full-sized HOLLYWOOD sign over the largest rubbish tip on Palermo, Sicily and creating a sculpture of a schoolboy with the head of Adolf Hitler kneeling in prayer, what is on show here is somewhat tame. However it may be just enough to introduce the uninitiated to the charms of the art worlds’ foremost agent provocateur. And it’s worth a visit if only to catch the sublime and sublimely titled Bidibidobidiboo.
Collection Sandretto Re Rebaudengo: Maurizio Cattelan runs at the Whitechapel Gallery until 2nd December 2012.
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