The Menil Collection
Maurizio Cattelan, All, 2007; marble; installation view Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2nd floor; photo by Markus Tretter; © Maurizio Cattelan, Kunsthaus Bregenz
There is a dead horse in the Menil Collection, but Rorschach would see an elephant. The carefully coiffed, perhaps gently smiling creature lies prone on the floor with a wooden sign spelling “INRI” in black lettering—Latin for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”—thrust into its side. The exhibit’s title bears only the name of the artist, Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan engages art from the Menil with his own work—an approach the museum has extended to other artists including Robert Gober and the collective Otabenga Jones. The work’s reception certainly does rely on the arch of art history, but it also concerns the role of the institution, the enduring strength of images and the power of the viewer.
In an initial walkthrough the four rooms designated to Cattelan, only one of them appears to contain his work. Nine white Carrara marble sculptures of anonymous humans in body bags repose on the floor in All. The other three rooms present a cerebral journey through paintings and sculptures from 1960 to 1970. Modest to the point of avoiding a solo exhibit comprised entirely of rooms filled with a retrospective, Cattelan includes the artists whose working methods make his own possible. Notable among these is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Stereo (Four Parts). Two newsprint drawings of speakers flank four warped mirror panels installed side by side. A physically active viewer in front of the work completes it; meaning emerges from the version of the room the picture plane reflects. In turn, each room within the exhibit demands this kind of active interaction to reveal a hidden element. The Arte Povera movement’s interest in this way of merging art and life—or rather visual experience—heavily influences Cattelan’s sculptural approach. Alighiero e Boetti instructed Afghani weavers to embroider tapestries of the world, also present, with national maps woven into their corresponding landmasses. Likewise, none of Cattelan’s sculptures bear the mark of his hand. Coming into artistic practice in his late twenties, he commissions other craftsmen to execute his ideas. Not represented but called to mind is artist Jannis Kounellis’ Senza titolo (12 Horses), where Kounellis literally tethered a stable of twelve uncomfortable horses to the gallery walls for the duration of the show.
Cattelan’s sculptures are most successful when presented in dialogue with other works of art. Here he carefully inserts additional sculptures in the Antiquity, Modernism and Surrealism collections of the Menil. Nestled between European wares from the 12th to 16th Centuries rests a resin model of a female figure carefully packed in an art shipping crate. She stretches her arms in the shape of a Y reminiscent of the crucifixion, complete with stakes driven through her hands. Yet, softly padded braces surrounding her waist, wrists and ankles deny grisly violence, as does the immaculate white of her garment and tidy keep of her blonde ponytail. If she has a face, the viewer has no access to its expression. This results in a visual muffle. A small chick and quizzical pair of taxidermy golden retrievers look on from the adjacent room whose walls are lined with religious icons. In this wing of the museum, Cattelan’s works stands out starkly due to material contrast and scale. Much smaller objects dominate the surrounding walls. In Ave Maria, three business sleeved arms snap to an attentive “Heil, Mary” in a room full of Rothko paintings. The vitality of this image questions the agenda of power structures: religious, political, cultural and more. The airy room and distance between the paintings allows the larger-than-human scale Rothko paintings to breathe, a luxury of space afforded to the urban elite.
Offering no direct comment on the object, Cattelan prefers it function as a platform the spectator projects his own ideas onto: a mode of artistic practice best described as relational aesthetics. When “this means…” becomes “what does this mean to you,” it is suddenly possible to hang a polyurethane rubber hand from the ceiling of a room dedicated to Ernst, each finger gnawed off—apparently by teeth—except the middle one.
Cattelan acknowledges most people will know the exhibit only through photographic documentation, the exhibition catalog and resultant criticism. Accordingly, he pursues intrigue of the image over perfection of craft. A viewer’s gaze will hold on the object to the extent that it triggers or satisfies desire. In the words scrawled on the catalog cover, is there life before death? A more commonly heard, inverted version of this phrase questions the existence of life after death. In the art community, this certainly rings true. It is no secret the perceived relevance of an artist’s body of work materializes posthumously, culminating in canonization on a museum’s hallowed walls. Rarely does an artist achieve massive success in his own lifetime. Perhaps Cattelan toes this dark standard in his impulse toward taxidermy and the predominance of death images. The supine equine in question delicately poses with one foot forward as if having chosen to present itself to the world in this regal pose for all eternity, stiffly and blissfully unaware of its current sideways orientation. Treading toward the symbolic or cloying absurdity, this dead horse is not here to be beaten or tethered, but to assert its continued existence.
Cynthia Coffield is an artist and writer living in Houston.
This exhibition runs through August 15, 2010.