Interpretations: Maurizio Cattelan, Daddy Daddy (2008)

(Interpretations is a new, occasional series of reflections on artworks, films, songs, signs, artifacts, and other items by Asad Raza and other contributors.)

Picture 1In Maurizio Cattelan's Daddy Daddy, Pinocchio has met his end, floating face-down in the Guggenheim's fountain–presumably having jumped, fell, or been pushed off the ramparts of the museum's ascending spiral ramp. There is no clear cause, just a result: this body, the record of a dismal yet laughable turn of events, the death of a lovable Disney character. The sculpture is site-specific: for its memorable visual joke to work, it depends on the airy grandeur of Lloyd Wright's atrium. You have to be able to look up and see the many places from which a person, or a puppet, could fall. By imagining this disastrous outcome, the piece transforms the museum's spatial splendor into a droll vertigo. (Photo: The Guggenheim Museum.)

Blackly comic in tone, Daddy Daddy recalls the scenarios of many previous works by Cattelan. As with his stuffed squirrel suicide, posed face-down at a kitchen table with revolver in hand (Bidibidobidiboo, 1996), a cute character suitable for children meets an untimely end. Cattelan once displayed a rope made of bedsheets tied togther leading from the window to the ground below, having first used it to climb out of the gallery; Daddy Daddy also posits a hero paralyzed by the fear of inauthenticity (“Am I a real boy?”). Cattelan's work Now (2004), a life-size sculpture of a saintly, barefoot John F. Kennedy in a coffin, symbolizes a loss of hope and a sense of rightness with the world. In Untitled (2007), a horse is suspended in a sort of anti-majesty, its head having disappeared into the wall. Each of these works performs the characteristic Cattelan gesture: staging a climactic punch-line to a narrative of futility.

The use of Pinocchio is appropriate in another sense as well: Cattelan often represents himself mock-heroically as a liar and a thief. For an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1996 he stole the contents of another gallery and installed them in his own, entitling the piece Another Fucking Readymade. On the night before an opening of his in 1992, he went to the police falsely claiming his non-existent work had been stolen, then displayed the police report in the gallery. What better surrogate for himself in his work than the Italian boy-puppet, caught lying in a vain attempt to fit in and prove he belongs, that's he's a real boy? Daddy Daddy is a concise, witty summation of an anxious, futile desperation to succeed and belong.

In addition to these more obvious ways that Daddy Daddy represents a continuation of themes in Cattelan's work, there is another form of continuity operating here. This has to do with Pinocchio's being a puppet. Cattelan's sculptures are very frequently stuffed bodies of one kind or another. Many of his works include them in their most conventional form, taxidermized animals. Even works containing no mammalian forms, however, make reference to the stuffed body, as when he packed the rubble left by a terrorist bombing into large shipping bags (Lullaby, 1994)–a kind of macabre taxidermy that filled a soft container with fragmented detritus. Cattelan seems always drawn to depicting organic bodies as hollow containers, stuffed rather than living objects. The cartoon, which is our first point of reference for Pinocchio, is merely an extreme example this: a body delineated by an outline, but with no real interior.

There is, of course, a link between the Cattelan's narratives of demise and failure and his use of taxidermic or obviously cartoonish bodies to express them: both are ways of questioning holistic understandings of human identity. These hollow shapes disrupt a naturalized sense of ourselves as organic beings. They cast our psychological interiors as mere stuffing. And I think this literal emptying-out of the category of being touches something quite deep within the contemporary idea of what it means to be a person. The ideal of secular modernity is meritocracy: the goal of personhood is to travel upwards, achieving and accomplishing as much as one can without unfair impediment. Yet the meritocratic model renders social life as a competition for high status, which, by definition, remains scarce and graspable by only a few. An ideal meritocracy, then, must leave most of its constituents in the depressing position of having achieved second-rate status–a depression only made more acute in cases of fair and just competition.

A further contradiction of the logic of meritocracy is that it rewards those who most fully internalize the fear of being second-rate: temperamental insecurity and anxiety about accomplishment, that is, are the motivating forces of the high achiever. This is also true of Daddy Daddy. Far from being the record of Cattelan's failure to thrive, it is the latest example of a great success: the achievement of extremely high status in the art world, which allows him to display his work in high-status cultural institutions. Thus Daddy Daddy is pleasing and surprising because it is redolent of the absurdity of contemporary life, which often allocates its greatest rewards to those who are most anxiously unable to be content with them–a situation Daddy Daddy comes close to parodying, with its transformation of angst into comedy.

As a consolation for the bleakness of professionalized social life, Cattelan offers his own example. As he has said of his vocation as an artist, “this is the one profession where I can be a little bit stupid and people will say, 'Thank you, thank you for being so stupid!'” This statement updates the familiar nineteenth-century concept of the aesthetic field as the opposite of the ruthlessness of the market. Art, in this understanding, is not a utopian alternative. It is an adjacent, but equally competitive, field to the professions–but one which values rather than represses reflections on the nature of “the game.” In keeping with this paradox, Cattelan is the ultimate professional unprofessional: he is unconcerned to demonstrate mastery of craft, except the twin crafts of directing fabricators to realize his ideas and eliciting support from curators and collaborators. His work, a series of sculptural vignettes or gestures, expresses not a poetics of mastery, but a comedics of failure. “Laughter is the whole of wisdom,” goes a line by the satirical novelist James Hamilton-Paterson. Cattelan's work tends to confirm this.