Retired Artist Maurizio Cattelan’s New Position: “Non-Curator”

Three years ago, as 128 of Maurizio Cattelan’s most iconic artworks hung from the rotunda of the Guggenheim museum in New York—a wax sculpture of Pope John Paul II, squashed by a meteor; two upside-down New York police officers; John F. Kennedy, resting in his coffin—the art world’s favorite provocateur famously declared his retirement. But last week, the Italian artist opened a two-part exhibition at Sotheby’s and Venus Over Manhattan in New York (his first secondary market exhibition since he called it quits in 2011) and amid viral circulation of a just-leaked trailer for his upcoming documentary, he headlined a new exhibition as part of the Artissima fair in Turin (or Torino), Italy—as the show’s “non-curator.” For the exhibition, titled “SHIT AND DIE,” Cattelan has corralled objects from unconventional museums and collections throughout Turin (like gallows from the local museum of criminal anthropology) and combined them with the work of over 60 artists to construct a narrative around what he calls the “hidden treasures” of the city—urban legends, local gossip, and an “archeology of chimera.” I caught up with Cattelan to discuss the exhibition, from his role as “non-curator” to the show’s brazen title, to the way he cleverly tapped into Tumblr to feed starving imaginations in the leadup to the much-hyped show.

Artsy: As a retired artist, can you explain what is appealing about this project—enough so to lure you on board as the exhibition’s non-curator? What exactly does this role entail?

Maurizio Cattelan: In some companies, employees have to make rounds and change function every month so they can have a 360-degree view on their activity and their environment. I think it’s a very interesting process [and provides] a different point of view on things; change brings extra value. But I didn’t have an elaborate reflection before accepting the project—it was more spontaneous. We had been thinking about something fun to do together with Marta and Myriam, [who co-curated the exhibition] for a while, and Artissima offered the perfect opportunity. Not being a professional curator gave me, (and us), more freedom: we didn’t care about any conventional rule and organized the show following our guts and intuitions more than any predetermined concept. It was also very exciting to have a glance into the curator/artist relationship from another perspective. I realized we are pretty challenging people and I’m now much more admirative of the curator’s patience and flexibility. Of course it’s worth it! 

Artsy: Turin has been touted as a capital for experimental art-making. What is your personal relationship to the city? Historically, why has Turin been such an inspiration for the avant-garde—and does it remain so today?

MC: What is astonishing about Torino’s art history is the utopian strength of its undertakings and projects. From the Antonelliana Tower to Carlo Mollino’s house and the industrial background of 1980s Torino (I am thinking about Olivetti’s residential units), I think what makes the city such a great experimental place is the fact that its personalities have always taken their ideas very seriously, and did realize what they designed, no matter how crazy the ideas were. Sometimes you’d better ask yourself  “why not?” instead of “why?” and that’s a very preponderant element in the Torinese culture. 

Today the city is to me a new Detroit, or Berlin, marked by a heavy industrial past, with a very peculiar inner life and creativity sleeping under a declining empire. I think this is a key moment in the city’s history, a moment where it can wake up and shine—or decline instead. In spite of the title of the exhibition, I’m pretty optimistic. 

Artsy: Can you tell me about that title, “SHIT AND DIE”? What is the relationship to Bruce Nauman’s 1984 neon work, One Hundred Live and Die

MC: Well first of all it was very catchy, which is what you expect from a title in the first place. Nauman is a genius in hijacking marketing techniques and we clearly took advantage of it. But there is of course a deeper link to the show; we were not just playing here. As you might know, Nauman’s installation features multicoloured neon phrases outlining 100 possible mundane and tragic ways to live and die. “Shit and Die” is one of them, and we thought the combination of declarative ease and uncompromising toughness delves heavily into the universal human experience without imposing a fixed or stable meaning. Echoing the title, and the path of life itself, the exhibition is a purposeless journey, simultaneously sad and hopeful, tough and absurd, silly and tragic, slight and profound.

Artsy: Prior to opening, the exhibition has been called a “surrealist nightmare” and “a new disgusting exhibition.” Can you offer the ideal tweetable line you’d hope to read from an art critic upon the exhibition’s opening? 

MC: Damn, 140 characters won’t be easy! “Best exhibition ever!” sounds good, no? 

Artsy: The project follows a loose narrative built around and inspired by objects culled from various collections around the city. How were the objects, and collections, chosen?

MC: Well our exploration of the city proceeded as a sort of exquisite corpse. We didn’t have any predetermined path on where to go or what to show. We started from Palazzo Cavour and from one thing to another we found ourselves visiting museums, collections, meeting people that told us hidden stories and introduced us to uncanny gossip about the city. We didn’t design any hierarchy between official museum visits or amusing taxi drives—we took everything the city had to offer and turned it into a very subjective tale. Some characters were key points in the process: Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari for example, who founded the Museo Casa Mollino, were incredible sources of inspiration as they know the most unexpected treasures of the city. The Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminology was another major stop. Not only for the objects we [borrowed] from it (the gallows and the engraved prisoners pots), but also because of all the stories the staff told us and all the material they showed us. What will remain for sure from our little adventure is a great generosity and a will to share the hidden treasures of the city. And let me tell you, they are legion!

Artsy: Can you describe a few of the sections, including the objects chosen to dictate the sections, overall themes, and one or two specific works that might exemplify the theme?

MC: The last section of the exhibition is titled “Dead Man Working,” and closes a cycle related to productivity and utopias, which started with Eric Doeringer and the Olivetti’s residential units in the first rooms of the exhibition—with a section named “The Assembly Line of Dreams.”Florian Pugnaire and David Raffini’s progressive sculpture of a “crash” that unfolds through time in a radical and extreme slow motion extends the watermarked experience of temporality. Most of the time the piece is motionless: it is anti-spectacular, seemingly still. It takes its time, displaying both a vegetal and a mechanical rhythm while Martin Creed’s metronomes beat time at a different tempo selected from the device’s 39 available settings. They create a cacophony that switches between the production of an action and sound, and its immediate negation, materializing Rainer Maria Rilke’s statement that underlies the path of the entire exhibition: “No feeling is final.”

Artsy: The exhibition has its own Tumblr mood-board, and Instagram posts. What role do these verticals play in the exhibition? Are they purely social media channels, to draw interest in the leadup to the fair, or do they function as entities of the exhibition? Can a Tumblr page be art?

MC: We wanted the show to extend [beyond] the exhibition space, that’s why we initiated a bunch of parallel projects. The Tumblr isn’t the only one, there is also a film realized by artist Yuri Ancarani and produced by Sky Arte about polymath Carlo Mollino. There is a magazine which is everything but a classical exhibition catalogue, it is some sort of missing room with exclusive contributions by artists and commissioned texts [that] explore and deepen some themes tackled within the show. There is also a fanzine project conceived by photographer Ari Marcopoulos who gives a complete other view on the show. The Tumblr is part of this process: we featured images that we exchanged during the reflection on the show and that fed our starving imagination, even if you don’t find them directly in the exhibition. There were some collateral damages, though! The flags waving from Palazzo Cavour balcony are a cameo from the Tumblr! It was also a way for us to reach a larger public and to open the show on broader horizons. 

Artsy: The exhibition space, which stood at the epicenter of crucial political events, is rich with Italian history and filled with stories of its own. How will these specters be incorporated into the project?

MC: We were less interested in official historical events than in idle gossips and urban legends. In the end these are the elements that tell you the most about a place and its inhabitants. We often describe the show as an archeology of chimera as we featured as many unreliable sources as serious ones, if not more. From our first visits to Torino, when we said that we were organizing a show in Palazzo Cavour, several people referred right away to a supposed guilty pleasure Camillo Benso conte di Cavour, the head of household, had for feces-related sexual practices. Let’s just say that this was more inspiring for us than him working on the reunification of Italy, maybe because we were more willing to dive into human eeriness in general than in Torino’s political history in particular. 

Molly Gottschalk

“SHIT AND DIE” is on view from Nov. 5, 2014–Jan. 11, 2015.

Installation images of “SHIT AND DIE” by Zeno Zotti. Portrait of Maurizio Cattelan by Giorgio Perottino.