How Maurizio Cattelan became the international sensation of the art world

It’s been a while since the first time I read his name on the news or anywhere for that matter. But since that first time he made such an impression that I knew I had to write about him. His work, his personality and his unconventional stand towards the art world make a very interesting mix. Who are you asking? Maurizio Cattelan.

You might have heard his name in the news very recently as one of his most iconic works, America, was removed from Blenheim Palace in the UK earlier this month. America, created in 2016, consists of a real life working toilet made out of 18K gold. It mocks the American Dream and the income disparity in the USA; Cattelan would probably prefet to flush it down the drain.

America was stolen from the bathroom that Churchill himself used and it hasn’t been found since. Who would have thought that an art piece mocking the American way of life would be taken away. It wasn’t even guarded by security. It seems like the UK didn’t think that America’s dream was worth guarding. The whole America story got me digging into Cattelan’s work which is provoking to some and refreshing to others.

Maurizio Cattelan never followed the traditional career track. You couldn’t possibly say that he had the means to follow a career in the arts, where the pay is notoriously unstable and the connections are hard to establish. Cattelan was poor. He had to work many shitty jobs through his youth. Even though he knew that becoming an artist was an risky decision financially, he left his job, coming to terms with the idea that he might end up on the streets. Success did not come overnight for him.

When he realized that landing a cover spread for Flash Art magazine was going to be next to impossible, he took matters into his own hands. He created a sculpture made entirely from Flash Art magazine covers. How ironic, right? Then, he photographed it and printed out copies creating his own Flash Art issue that he left in bookshops and kiosks. The unsuspected buyer couldn’t have possibly known that it was a mock version of the magazine. This was only one of the ways in which Cattelan started leaving his mark in the art world.

His mischievous behaviour didn’t stop there. During a bout of intense performance anxiety, he decided to leave his allocated gallery space empty and hang a sign that said “TORNO SUBITO”. Leaving a gallery space empty and preventing the visitors from entering was unheard of.The visitors of the gallery were left hanging outside the building wondering what was going on before realizing that it was one of Maurizio’s pranks again.

This was only one of Cattelan’s avoidant tactics, that would leave a mark in the art world the following years. In another show, he staged the theft of one of his works and ended up exhibiting only the certificate issued by the police station on the fake disappearance. Everyone loved it. Performance anxiety seemed to be working well for Maurizio, after all.

For an artist as provocative as Cattelan, not everything could be sunshine and rainbows; and rightfully so. In 1994 he staged an installation called “Enter at Your Own Risk — Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank you” (1994) that consisted of a live donkey in a room with a hanging chandelier. The exhibition didn’t last long. It was shut down after two days over the fact that putting an animal in an exhibition was putting the health of the neighbors at risk. Another one of his works Novecento was horse with elongated legs hanging from the ceiling. Cattelan even place a taxidermy crocodile in Blenheim Palace, in recent years.

Raising issues of mistreat of animals, his works have been the target of activists over the years. The artist has been in trouble in another occasion as well, this time for theft. Shortly after being arrested and then released for stealing an other artist’s work (!) with the intent of claiming it as his own, he moved to New York right before the new millenium. New York was the place to be for an artist trying to make a career for himself. He didn’t make it right away, though. He lived in poverty while he tried to produce some of his best work. In the meantime, he made one of the most important connections he could have made at that point in his career. He met Francesco Bonami.

Bonami was a former editor of Flash Art magazine (oh, the irony!) who lived in the same street as Cattelan at the time. They formed a close bond over their common experiences as italian expatriots in New York City. Bonami was already successful, though. As a director of the 2003 Venice Biennale he proposed to Cattelan to exhibit some of his work. Cattelan’s participation in the Biennale was disappointing.

Instead of producing original work, he rented his allocated space to an advertising firm. The firm put a billboard in the place where his art was supposed to be showing. His motives were quite unclear at the time but this move wasn’t successful neither impressive for the crowds. However, that didn’t stop Cattelan from continuing to produce the same sort of work over and over. In another outrageous performance, he taped his art dealer to a gallery wall.

Eventually, Cattelan produced three works of art that have made headlines worldwide for their innovative way of conveying a powerful message. The first one is the Hollywood sign that he decided to place in Bellolampo Hill in Palermo, as part of his participation in the Venice Biennale in 2001. His commentary about Hollywood was poignant. The sign was just above a garbage dump. What’s even more mind-blowing that the placement of his installation is the fact that he staged a cocktail reception for the “inauguration” of the Hollywood sign. He invited collectors, art critics and the press to the event, who flew in Palermo for an afternoon the day of the inauguration of the Biennale. The juxtaposition of the Hollywood scene to the Palermo society, struggling under the weight of unemployment at the time was clear as day.

The glitz of the movie industry and the art world strike a vivid opposition to the Sicilian landscape, where life is much simpler. But if one looked at it in another way, they could find similarities in the two seemingly opposite places. Hollywood is where dreams go to die, we could say. Los Angeles is where every aspiring movie star goes to chase their dream. Those dreams are shattered for the vast majority of struggling actors and actresses. Only a really small percentage of those auditioning continue to have a career in the movie business. The same goes for the art world.

Palermo might not have a glamorous future to boast about. No movie stars walking around or fancy cars. But the same corruption and economic scrutiny that is experienced by Italians living in Palermo can be said for the movie industry. “I tried to overlap two opposite realities, Sicily and Hollywood: after all, images are just projections of desire, and I wanted to shade their boundaries. It might be a parody, but it’s also a tribute. . . . There is something hypnotic in Hollywood: it’s a sign that immediately speaks about obsessions, failures, and ambitions.” Cattelan said of his work.

2001 was a very big year for Cattelan, not only for the Hollywood sign installation but also for his sculpture entitled Him. It’s not a sculpture of a saint or a religious figure as one could expect just by seeing its title. Him is usually placed at the end of a long corridor or facing a wall. You’d be eager to get closer and admire the figure that has to be a young boy kneeling as he prays, at least from the position of the sculpture and its feel from a distance. But this could not be further away from the truth. Him is actually a sculpture of Adolf Hitler, praying on his knees. If you were to get up close and personal with the piece, you’d be in for a shock. Not only because you’d be shocked to see him but also because you’d feel disgusted with yourself for feeling some type of way for this individual.

Cattelan shocked another time with Him. He was the first to admit the rage and fear that his own sculpture made him feel. Hitler is undoubtedly the most hated person in the history of the 20th century. He caused the collective rage of millions in Europe and the world and now he’s in a museum?‘Hitler is everywhere,haunting the spectre of history; and yet he is unmentionable, irreproducible, wrapped in a blanket of silence.” Cattelan said of his own work. It’s this silence that Cattelan is willing to address, doing the work that every artist knows best. Shading light into the darkest parts of our souls.

Him might be Cattelan’s most impressive and provoking work. And then there’s La Nona Ora, a sculpture of the pope John Paul II on the ground after a meteorite fell on him. The sculpture was created in 1999 and meaning has been speculated in the art world with a fiery passion. There are those who believe that the artist was paying homage to the Pope and others that point towards a more critical look at religion as a concept and the Catholic Church as an extension of that. Cattelan always refused to give any straightforward answers about his work. He’d rather create than reply. For him art is about posing questions, not about providing ready-made answers.

Cattelan’s most successful project, TOILETPAPER, founded in 2010, is a biannual magazine minus the articles. Even though the artist was supposed to retire in 2011, he still works onthe magazine and his occasional exhibitions. The content of TOILETPAPER is exclusively visuals created by the magazine’s team, under the direction of Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari,photographer and co-founder of the magazine. Each issue is equal parts aesthetically pleasing and disturbing. The magazine found online success which resulted in Cattelan producing campaigns for Kenzo and Gucci and magazine covers for the digital issue of Vice. It’s not shocking that the artist decided to name the magazine TOILETPAPER, as the name is in line with his belief that in the end, every magazine ends up in the toilet. Maurizio Cattelan is considered the “prankster” of the art world but his work is not without substance. He has managed to produce some of the most outrageous and provoking works of the 21st century and created a powerful cult magazine. His “pranks” are always a hit, landing him covers of magazines and luxury brand campaigns.

Even though his art does indeed pose very interesting questions, we can’t help but wonder why Cattelan can’t create anything more subtle than what he always does. It’s not that these questions haven’t been asked before nor that no other artists hasn’t attempted to prod the spectator for an answer. Cattelan’s work leaves a lasting impression but not one that could ever be compared to seeing paintings by Monet or Hellen Frankenthaler. In a way, his sculptures or installations serve more as a stimulant than a laxative. Even if you prefer the latter over the former, Cattelan will still be among the best of his kind.