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September 2005 Vol. 24 No.7
A publication of the International Sculpture Center

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An Interview with Maurizio Cattelan
by Andrea Bellini

Maurizio Cattelan was born in Padua in 1960. He did not attend art school but taught himself. Cattelan worked as a gardener, mortuary attendant, and designer, among other things, before turning to making art. In the ’80s, he started his career in Forlì (Italy) where he knew some local artists. His works often combine sculpture and performance and reveal a refined sense of the paradoxes of transgression. He identifies the vulnerable aspects of the art system, and of reality in general, in order to highlight them, without ever falling into the naive trap of thinking he can subvert a system of which he is part. Cattelan likes to play the role of the loser, even if he definitely seems a winner: he is one of the best-known Italian artists to have emerged internationally in the 1990s, and his reputation continues to grow. He has had solo exhibitions in the world’s most distinguished museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Cattelan has participated in five editions of the Venice Biennale, as well as in many other collective exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial, Manifesta, and “Apocalypse” at the Royal Academy in London.


Andrea Bellini: Maurizio Cattelan, to interview you is not the easiest thing in the world.

Maurizio Cattelan: Well then, don’t.

AB: I’m just saying that it’s not easy to interview you because on various occasions you’ve declared that you have no ideas and no theories. So, I’m wondering why someone should want to interview you.

MC: Actually I do everything possible to discourage interviews. It’s not that I am opposed to them, it’s just that I don’t think I have anything interesting to say. I’m more curious about other people’s opinions. In the end, without others, without their ideas, without their stories, you don’t really exist and neither does your work. That’s why one should listen to others rather than to oneself.

AB: Let’s talk about your work, your sculptures.

MC: It feels strange to talk about sculptures. It’s not so much a question of means as of images. I never even use my hands to create my work, just my ear glued to the phone. More than anything else, I listen to the murmur of images, and that’s always louder than the echo in the phone. I’m more interested in images than in sculptures. Imagine: I never took a chisel in my hands, never even had a studio.

AB: So what are images for you?

MC: They are a statistical variation of the real. I’m interested in reality, the one we see every day: a thought, something you saw on TV or read in the papers, something that left an impression while surfing on the Web. Images have the strength to summarize the present and perhaps to transform it into an anticipation of the future. Perhaps my work is just
a magnifying lens that allows you to see the hidden details of reality.

AB: But it’s also a fact that your images are always three dimensional, that they occupy a physical space. Why?

MC: Every time I start a new piece I consider a space, a precise location where it will be located. I can’t work in emptiness, I would end up getting lost. I’ve been working this way for a while, and it intrigues me how there is only one solution for each space, one single answer that works.

AB: What do you mean by one answer? Help me understand.

MC: I’m always chasing new challenges, new possibilities, and new locations. I’m not only interested in the art public, but also in those people who just happen casually to pass by. Art should not be a space shut in on itself, but rather a magnetic field that attracts the energies of artists into space, and possibly into the cities in which they circulate. I’m searching for that magnetism, like a chemical reaction. Atoms don’t join casually with each other, that’s why there is only one answer, one single reaction. I studied a little chemistry, and I believe that it is a matter of positives and negatives, or something like that. And then you also need luck, lots of luck.

AB: Right, I remember: the story of the electro-technician.

MC: I did many things before becoming an artist. I was looking for a way to gain more freedom, to escape the authority of time. I don’t think that I succeeded in doing anything different from anyone else. I simply invented a system that can give me the freedom to say what I think or what other people think. That’s what really interests me about art: the possibility of inventing images that trigger reactions, that become a mirror of our time. There’s not a big difference between a TV antenna and an artist: both are mechanisms of circulation, signal-amplifiers. More than an artist, I feel like an antenna installer.

AB: You talk about reactions. Therefore the scandal that your works provoke is only an accident.

MC: I never purposely decide to create a scandal, to provoke. As I was telling you before, images sometimes manage to anticipate the future, and maybe that’s what scandalizes the public—not to recognize themselves in what they see. I’m not really interested in provocation. I am interested in people’s reactions, though: a work of art is not complete without the comments, the words, and ideas of whoever happens to be in front of it. They are the ones who create the work. I don’t do anything: art doesn’t exist without points of view and different interpretations. Maybe even you and I don’t exist.

AB: And what about the pope? Wasn’t the pope, hit by a meteorite, a specifically Catholic provocation?\

MC: I don’t think it was a provocation. And certainly not anti-Catholic, coming from me, who grew up singing in the church choir between saints and altar boys. The pope is more a way of reminding us that power, whatever power, has an expiration date, just like milk. In the beginning, the pope was supposed to be something else.

AB: How was it supposed to be?

MC: In the beginning, he was supposed to be standing, with the crucifix in his hands. When it was finished and I stood in front of it, I felt as if something was missing, that the piece was not complete. What it needed was very simple: it lacked drama and the capacity to convey the feeling of being in front of something extraordinary and powerful. It didn’t have the sense of failure and defeat. That piece doesn’t have much to do with religion: I’m more interested in the actual people playing their roles than in their historical personalities.

AB: A secular piece then, how curious. And what about Hitler kneeling in prayer? Was that a publicity stunt?

MC: I like publicity: beautiful images, lots of girls. But I don’t think that Hitler was a publicity stunt. He wasn’t trying to sell anything. On the contrary, it was a rough image about peeling off masks and roles. At the beginning I thought he should be naked, like the emperor in the fairytale. But then I realized that it’s always more interesting to mix the cards and pick the right one.

AB: So what role does chance play? To me, it doesn’t seem that you leave anything to chance in what you do.

MC: Chance is always part of it. Take, for example, the work I did for Milan, in Piazza XXIV Maggio. The Trussardi Foundation invited me to do a piece, for Milan, and I chose to work in that piazza and on that tree, which looks just like a tree out of a fairytale, imposing like a skyscraper in the midst of loud and constant car traffic. To be honest, I also chose that piazza because of the fried fish kiosk on the corner. The idea in my mind was to do a piece that would be like a small urban legend with a tragic ending. Perhaps a way to reflect on the present, with its tensions and nightmares. In any event, a few hours later, the sculpture no longer existed in the piazza; it only remained in newspapers and on TV news. That’s what “chance” has to do with it.

AB: Listen, I don’t mean to be blunt, but even in that case some people said you were a real con-man. You organized fake biennials in the Caribbean, you attached a dealer to the walls of his gallery with Scotch-tape, you copied the show of another artist in every detail, you sold your space at the Venice Biennial to a publicity agency that was launching a new perfume, you denounced the robbery of an invisible work of art of yours to the police, you slashed Zorro’s “Z” into a painting, imitating Fontana’s cuts, you had a 300-year-old tree grow right through a flashy new Audi car. Who is Maurizio Cattelan, a court jester, a liar, or a con-man?

MC: A jester? I’ve been trying to say serious things for a lifetime, but nobody ever believes me. A con-man? I never robbed anyone, never committed perjury, never committed immoral acts. A liar? I don’t believe in a single truth, only in an infinite combination of possibilities. I’m a bundle of contradictions, just like everyone else.

AB: If one analyzes your work from the last 15 years, it seems to be related to speed, to the idea of escape. You’re able to change subjects quickly and to maintain a tension within your inventions. What is it about?

MC: I am always interested in discovering the service entrance and the back stair in each building, the back exits and secret passages. To confront reality face-to-face is sometimes just a way of showing strength and, as always, just another mask one wears in order to hide.

AB: Let’s change subject and talk about you. Your friends, even the ones who’ve known you for years, say that there is a part of you that is impenetrable and ungraspable, that there’s a part of Maurizio Cattelan hidden from everyone. Is that true?

MC: Rather than parts, there are some spaces that I like to keep hidden, leaving them to the imagination. For example, my home—even though there is nothing to imagine or see. It’s just four bare walls, a carpet, no furniture, and no paintings. It’s like with jam: when you are small and you know that there is a jar on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, but you can’t see it and you don’t know what flavor it is, so you always imagine it to be better than what it is in reality. Do you like jam?

AB: Yes, apricot jam. But I’m the one doing the interview here, you are the public figure.

MC: I’m not a public figure, I’m not a celebrity. The fact that artists, curators, and people from the art world know me doesn’t make me a celebrity. The world out there is much larger than what you imagine. And besides, I have always done my job, I never went to the top of the Colosseum and had TV stations come with helicopters.

AB: What is contemporary art for you, apart from traveling, success, and money?

MC: I spend money, rather then accumulating it. For me, money is a transmission mechanism, something that should circulate rather than be stored in a mattress. And anyway mine is a water mattress, so it would molder immediately. Traveling is part of the job; it’s a way of trying to accumulate images and ideas that other people have had. I don’t know what art is: I’m a night-school electro-technician who, after cheating in the back row, managed to pass.

AB: Lightness, speed, desecrating irony. These words are recurrent in your vocabulary. Is this your legacy?

MC: Those words recur in the vocabulary of those who write about me, not so much in mine. And if I think of “legacy,” the only thing that comes to mind is the TV quiz show. I believe one can win a lot of money in it, but obviously they never invited me to participate.

AB: Apropos your itinerary: Wasn’t it enough to simply be an artist without an artistic formation? Why did you also decide to publish two magazines, Charley and Permanent Food, become a collector, interview various artists for Flash Art and now be a curator? Aren’t you one of the curators of the Berlin Biennial?

MC: I’m interested in the possibility of changing masks and roles and seeing what happens. I’m preparing the next edition of the Berlin Biennial together with Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. It will open in March 2006, so we still have lots of time to find the right direction. Although in the end it’s not so much a question of where one goes, as much as what path one takes. I do things out of instinct; I never think of where they might take me, even though sometimes it takes me two years to make the most simple decision. Like doing the Wrong Gallery or Permanent and Charley. We started as an experiment, to open a space almost like a game, and in the end it became a serious thing, and lots of work.


Andrea Bellini is U.S. editor of Flash Art.

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