After a brazen art heist at Blenheim Palace, the joke’s on trickster Maurizio Cattelan

After a brazen art heist at Blenheim Palace, the joke’s on trickster Maurizio Cattelan

The Italian artist’s 18-carat solid gold toilet, worth millions, was stolen at the exhibition’s opening weekend

Visitors to Blenheim Palace over the next six weeks are presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to pass a bowel movement in the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Well, that would have been the case, had the convenience – an 18-carat solid gold toilet by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan – not been stolen from the stately Oxfordshire home over the weekend in a heist that has stunned the art world.

Only installed on Thursday, each visitor was able to book three minutes on the toilet, a work titled America by the satirist par excellence who is known for his iconoclastic sculptural send-ups, as well as his equally irreverent Toiletpaper magazine. America had been installed in Churchill’s birth room at the Palace for visitors to use – but in the early hours of Saturday, the artwork, valued at $6m (£4.8m), was stolen. According to reports a gang was behind the theft, which left significant damage and flooding. Cattelan insisted it was not a prank but seemed somewhat amused by the incident, saying in a statement: ‘Dear thieves, please, if you are reading this, let me know how much you like the piece and how it feels to pee on gold.’

America, 2016, by Maurizio Cattelan. Photography: Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation

The show, minus the loo, must go on. ‘Victory Is Not An Option’ is, surprisingly, the Padua-born artist’s first major solo show in the UK and is the sixth exhibition Blenheim’s Art Foundation has facilitated at the UNESCO World Heritage listed site. It features some of Cattelan’s most recognisable works: his kneeling Hitler, praying for forgiveness, which finds new meaning given this is Churchill’s ancestral home; his worn-out, hanging, horse (Novecento), forging parallels with the aristocratic predilection for taxidermy (a further 200 stuffed birds fill the Chapel); and Pope John Paul II also makes an appearance, squashed under a rock.

There are also recent works that connect European history and the recent rise of nationalism: We’ll Never Die is a new work occupying the Great Hall, a copy of Emmanuel Fremiet’s 1874 sculpture of Joan of Arc in Paris, co-opted by the right as a symbol of patriotism and pride, and a black rubber boot in the State Rooms refers to the uniforms worn by fascists in Italy and Germany. A new commission in the Great Court at Blenheim introduces and concludes the exhibition, geographically and conceptually: the titular ‘Victory is Not an Option’ covers the walkways leading to the Palace with the Union Jack, the most strident and divisive symbol of the nation.

The history, hierarchy, and authoritarian pomp of Blenheim Palace is an irresistible setting for works like these to operate. For 30 years, Cattelan has pondered big personas, right-wing politics and power and what happens when these things collide. At this moment in time, when the way wealth and power is acquired is being rigorously cross-examined, this exhibition is a clever way to prod at Blenheim’s own past and present, and its representation of ‘Britishness’. As Cattelan himself says, ‘Reality is far more provocative than my art.’ Never have the artist’s words rung quite so true. §

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