One man’s rabbit is another man’s…
On my first interview for graduate school, I unerringly identified each slide shown to me: Warhol, Matisse, Pollock, Smithson. I left confident for my next interview the following day. I waltzed into the building and calmly road up to the eighth floor. There, I was completely caught off guard. Instead of Rauschenberg, Duchamp or Hirst, I was presented with a photograph of a man clad in a bright pink costume, resembling equal parts rabbit and penis. Needless to say, I was not familiar with Maurizio Cattelan’s Errotin, le vrai lapin (Errotin, the true rabbit), a costume commissioned by the artist for his notoriously sex-crazed dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, which he wore during the workday for two weeks of Cattelan’s exhibition at his gallery. As I sat silently – stunned by discomfort and disappointment with my inability to identify this phallic performance piece – I discovered that the situation had not yet sufficiently devolved: my interviewer then informed me that he believed the work clearly referenced the popular “rabbit” device and asked if I agreed. And thus I was first introduced to the oeuvre of Cattelan.
People seem to either love or despise Cattelan’s retrospective All, on view through January 22nd at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Roberta Smith of The New York Times suggests, “[w]hatever their strengths, the individual works are radically decontextualized and diminished in this arrangement.” The arrangement to which Smith refers is the suspension of 128 works – the entirety of Cattelan’s artistic production (apart from two works owners refused to loan) – within Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic open rotunda. Works ranged from giant slabs of carved granite and models of dinosaur skeletons to photographs, canvases and the smallest of sculptures, subtly and unexpectedly placed throughout. Anyone looking at this exhibition cannot deny that – at the very least – it is a feat of engineering genius.
I had previously seen several of the works displayed at the Guggenheim under more “conventional” circumstances. A series of nine Carrara marble sculptures resembling bodies under sheets, All (2007) was displayed almost alone in a gallery at the New Museum for the 2010 exhibition, Skin Fruit. In this context, the work was arresting, a disquieting reflection on the history of needless and anonymous death. A similarly serious tenor surrounds the installation of Ave Maria (2007), a series of three highly realistic saluting arms projecting from the wall, at Tate Modern. Presented amidst a gallery of stunning post-Impressionist paintings and classical marble sculpture, the work functions ambiguously, disrupting our reception of the neighboring works with questions of political violence and hierarchy. Untitled (2009), a taxidermied horse on its side with a wooden sign reading “INRI” protruding from its abdomen, was included in Tate Modern’s Pop Life. In the gallery preceding Cattelan’s piece was Andrea Fraser’s controversial work in which the artist videotapes herself having sex with a collector. To immediately follow this emotionally charged experience with a giant taxidermied horse felt like a delightful respite. I was struck by the work’s humor and absurdity, an ironic play on the illustrious history of the equine in art.
The unorthodox installation at the Guggenheim affords an entirely unique and site-specific experience of Cattelan’s work, making incredible use of the museum’s architecture. For an artist who touts himself a practitioner of relational aesthetics, the exhibition approach was particularly fitting. One experiences every vantage point of a given work, a perspective untenable with traditional methods of display. I found myself ascending the ramp more slowly than the way I walked through the galleries of the deKooning retrospective the day before at MoMA, intrigued by the unusual juxtapositions that revealed themselves with each step; works that may otherwise have been separated by several rooms could be seen simultaneously across the atrium, allowing the viewer to dictate what comparisons or relationships were most relevant to him or her. The physical distance this installation creates between viewer and work encouraged me to look more closely, perhaps less so at individual works, but again, more at how they related to one another. I was especially pleased by the tongue-in-cheek positioning of small-scale pieces like the tiny bug (Untitled (1995)), which was placed on the head of the elephant in Not Afraid of Love (2000). This is certainly not what people anticipate when they hear “retrospective.” Then again, expecting the norm from an artist known for his humor, irreverence and subversion seems a bit foolish.
This retrospective marks the end of Cattelan’s career as an artist. But who knows? If Barbra Streisand’s two farewell tours is any indication, we may see this artist again sooner than we think.