Maurizio Cattelan juggles references to religion, politics, and art history in three-dimensional works that fix themselves in one’s memory. His sculptures are often startling, humorous, or provocative. Among the most eye-catching are waxworks portraying iconic figures of authority in surprising situations:
The Ninth Hour (1999) is a dramatic depiction of Pope John Paul II in full regalia lying on the ground under a meteorite, while Him (2000) is a child-size Hitler on his knees with folded hands. The sculpture Now (2004) depicts a smartly suited John F. Kennedy, dead in an open coffin. The work has a shocking effect, while at the same time actualizing the disillusioned state of today's American society.
Cattelan's preoccupation with politics may be a result of growing up in Padua at a time of economic hardship and spending his youth in a series of uninspiring jobs. He is famous for stating that he became an artist to avoid doing any real work, and indeed several of his early projects contain no actual artwork. For his first solo exhibition in 1989 he hung a sign on the door: “Torno subito” (Back Soon), and when he was invited to the Venice Biennale in 1993 he rented out his space to an advertising agency that used it to promote a new perfume.
In the art world, Cattelan cuts a recognizable figure, not least because of the many sculptures he has made with his own features. These figures are often given the role of a pesky court jester, a role to which he himself is not averse. For example, Charlie is a small mechanized Cattelan figure who cycled around, creating havoc at the 2003 Venice Biennale, while La Rivoluzione siamo noi (2000), displays a mini-Cattelan hanging by the collar from a clothes rack, dressed in a grey felt suit à la Joseph Beuys. For Untitled (2001), created for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the artist literally breaks into the museum: his familiar head peers up from a hole in the floor, taking in the Old Masters on exhibition, as if making a quizzical comment on his own practice.
Cattelan's art is typified by an ironic humour and a fascination for the morbid. Several of his most famous works are comprised of taxidermied animals. Whether they are rats in deckchairs (Untitled, 1997) or a hanging horse with extended legs (Novecento (20th Century), 1997), they have an absurd quality reminiscent of cartoon images. On other occasions he has used stuffed animals in works critical of institutions, as was the case with his contribution to the 2011 Venice Biennale. Turisti consisted of what seemed to be an empty room with bird droppings on the floor, until one looked up at the ceiling and saw row upon row of stuffed pigeons perching on a beam. Cattelan has stated that the work is a comment on the city where time stands still, and its biannual exhibitions, which have begun to repeat themselves.
His characteristic criticism of institutions and satirical attitude to the art world has also typified several provocative collaborations. In 1999 he teamed up with curator Jens Hoffmann to create Blown Away: The Sixth Caribbean Biennale. Cattelan spent several months collecting funds for the project, which, notwithstanding its widespread promotion and professional press material, turned out not to be an exhibition but a holiday for the invited artists. Cattelan was also curator for the Berlin Biennale in 2006 together with Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. The three have collaborated on various projects since 2002, including The Wrong Gallery in New York's gallery district, Chelsea – with an exhibition space of one square metre.
In the winter of 2011/12 Cattelan held a retrospective exhibition at New York's prestigious Guggenheim Museum. The exhibition was arranged in a highly untraditional manner with works from throughout his career suspended on cables from the museum's huge rotunda. Not surprisingly the chaotic result received mixed reviews and shortly before the opening Cattelan announced that this would be his final show. In the light of his previous career it is tempting to regard his ‘retirement’ as yet another comment on his own artistic practice, and to speculate that the door might remain open for further developments.