This autumn as the nights get darker and the East London streets become tinged with an air of murky melancholy, the ever-reliable Whitechapel Gallery follows suit by displaying a collection of eight works of dark, dank satire. Confronting radical ideologies and providing a knife-sharp commentary on political values, Maurizio Cattelan tackles a dynamic range of social issues through fiendishly witty sculptures. It is the first exhibition to show works by Cattelan in nearly twenty years, but just as his taxidermied animals live on, never decaying or crumbling under the weight of time, so too do his noxious yet comical works.

Provocative, satirical and gleefully humorous, the Italian is best known for his hilarious sculptures such as La Nona Ora, a wax figure of Pope John Paul III being floored (Papal Cross and all) by a meteorite. He lives to mock and has been known to perform all kinds of devilish trickery such as sending surrogate selves, armed with evasive answers and circumventing responses to interviews.

The first display from the collection of Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is no exception to this artful tomfoolery: Bidibidobidiboo (1996) consists of a miniature kitchen, complete with sink, table and chairs, inhabited by a suicidal squirrel. The taxidermied rodent slumps on the chair with its head on the table, while the ominous handgun lies beneath the sorry feet of its victim. Like much of Cattelan’s work, the first response is humorous and attracts a laughable response. However, upon further reflection a more sinister element oozes from the work. Was life so miserable for the pitiable creature that the only way out was suicide? A second chair left empty indicates someone else has been there and this sets the audience thinking…          

…the scene is compete with a referee, snap-happy photographers and story-hungry journalist…

Sometimes, the work is more obviously sardonic: Cesana 47 A.C. Furniture Sud 12 (2nd Half-Time) (1991) is a blown-up monochrome photograph that depicts two football teams battling for supremacy on a ludicrously long table-football table. One side are all black, the others all white and the scene is compete with a referee, snap-happy photographers and story-hungry journalists. Once again, it seems amusing upon first glance, but as a quick peek turns into detailed observation the subversive undercurrent becomes a raging torrent. The fiendish wit and penetrating sarcasm that so defines the Italian provocateur becomes glaringly obvious, as the invented North African football team’s sponsor, ‘Rauss’ translates to a play on the satanic Nazi motto ‘Get Out’.          

Other kitsch displays of unsavoury sarcasm include Lullaby (1994), a defiant attempt to warp the power of the Mafia, who in 1993 blew-up the Contemporary Art Museum in Milan. Appearing as simply bricks and wreckage within an industrial fabric container, the work stands isolated, heavy and immoveable and expresses a notion of politico-artistic defiance. The Mafia may have destroyed the building, but Cattelan denies them true destructive success by turning the fallen debris into a work of art in an act of bold audacity.          

…clichéd and pretentious…

From masonry to martyrdom, a key highlight is the boy-sized, wax self-portrait dressed in the iconic felt suit of the artists and activist Joseph Bays that has been pinned up on a coat hook. Once again Cattelan’s wry wit permeates the artistic tradition and he unveils the artist-as-saviour notion as clichéd and pretentious. The artist is presented as nothing more than a feeble child, powerless and ridiculed in its attempts at social improvement –for Cattelan the artist is a pointless politician.          

Like water to a drowning man, Cattelan’s work does not solve any issues. What it does do however is offer a fantastically subversive viewpoint that is both insightful and downright preposterous. Always subversive, mostly hilarious, sometimes self-referential, but never conclusive, Cattelan’s sculptures are satirical hot-potatoes. It is certainly worth a visit for a slice of the action.

The exhibition runs from 25 September – 2 December 2012

Admission: Free

4 Stars


About The Author

A University of Reading English and History of Art graduate based in London and embarking on a career in journalism.

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