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Maurizio Cattelan

Gagosian (West 21st Street) 
By Jonathan Goodman, June 1, 2024

Image: Maurizio Cattelan, Sunday, 2024, installation view

© Maurizio Cattelan Photo: Maris Hutchinson

Courtesy Gagosian

Maurizio Cattelan, much more than a trickster, deliberately uses an unsettling whimsy to undermine the materialism of both the American unconscious and its ostensible greed. His most famous, or notorious, recent sculptural work was a 24-carat-gold working toilet installed in one of the lavatories located on the sloping walkway of the Guggenheim Museum–this took place during a major retrospective of the artist in 2016. Of course, the work, vulgar beyond words, was meant to parody the American obsession with affluence and its tenuous connection to high culture –an obsession Cattelan reduced, quite literally, to scatological terms. But even literalized irony can be taken as intellectually salient if the culture is dumb enough: American visitors to the show may well have taken pride in depositing their waste into a golden toilet notable for its excess of value–especially given its function.


One way of politicizing a metaphor is to actualize it, that is, reduce it to its working meaning and no more. But then the figure of language loses all meaning. The toilet’s facture, at odds with the gold used to make it, triumphed over its economic value–and made those Americans using it guileless participants in a scenario meant to condemn the superficial content of their lives–and intestines! But, sadly, the huge maw of American need, like the open circle of the gold toilet bowl, was seen as an enjoyable practical joke–one exonerating the dull banalities of American selfishness, in this case, the actuality of excrement. 


Cattelan is well known for his hyperrealistic sculptures of historical figures–there is a life-size likeness of Hitler praying. The artist seems to dwell on realism as a means of caricature, pushing his imaginary ideologies into a place of utter emptiness an absolute, void of meaning. Cattelan leaves us with next to nothing except a fierce, deliberately marginalized (yet also effective) retribution for the casual violence we all (but Americans especially) are subject to.

At Gagosian, in some cases the holes and depressions we find in Sunday are caused by rapid shooting; the patterns of indentations range from simple to complex. The wall is a silent but powerful condemnation of the American romance with violence. 


The other work in the installation includes a man made of marble lying on a simple bench. The fly of his trousers is open as he urinates on the floor beneath him. The scenario seems innocent enough, at least at first glance. But the greater truth turns on the history of violence creating the marked wall, as well as the banality of the clothed figure urinating on the floor. 

Cattelan’s admirers and detractors can freely ask, where do we go from here? Suppose we know how and why the flat, gold-covered plane is a visual judgment of the American penchant for weaponry. In that case, the wall does not transcend or condemn the situation, so much as illustrate a frightening milieu. The recumbent marble figure urinating becomes an example of the problem rather than its repudiation. 


Sometimes, though, we have to stoop to conquer. Cattelan's point of view is, even if only by implication, completely at odds with the American romance–its mystical view of violence, which deifies murder as a visionary event. This outlook inevitably begs the question: Cattelan is entering too deeply into a dead end–into territory he should set himself apart from and condemn rather than mimic to establish contempt. 


The plane of pocked squares functions as a ruined tableau emblematic of the violence so Central to the American imagination, the middle-aged man in rough clothes, busy urinating, represents the vulgarity that hits any foreign traveler coming into New York City.


Perhaps the situation is so troubling, that it can only be critiqued by indirect report: symbolic meaning, when it is directed toward irony’s regularly savage contempt, can, every once in a while, mean much more than what it says. The gap between America’s reality and the contempt it generates conveys the emptiness of the political machinations that are often affecting culture in the States. When even automatic handguns and rifles are easily purchased, deadly violence becomes the norm. Cattelan is a troubling figure in the sense his ironies leave no hope, but why should they when spiritual violence has turned into a river of genuine death? 

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