Drama, grief and controversy: Maurizio Cattelan gets existential in Milan
At Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Breath Ghosts Blind’ is a provocative take on the circle of life, including an army of taxidermy pigeons and a sculpture depicting 9/11
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, it’s to expect the unexpected. His latest show, which dominates the vast Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan is no exception. ‘Breath Ghosts Blind’ is about the circle of life, which, translated into Cattelan’s vocabulary, means a rollercoaster of emotion, symbolism, and drama.
The show is curated by Roberta Tenconi and Vicente Todolí and distilled into three installations, staged like acts in a play. These comprise a new sculpture, Breath (2021); a reconfiguration of the artist’s historic intervention featuring pigeons at the 1997 Venice Biennale, now presented under the title Ghosts (2021); and the monumental, newly commissioned installation Blind (2021).
Cattelan has a knack for turning a feeling into a spatial experience. The artist laces these feelings with controversy, humour and realism – and often all three (think headless horses, Art Basel bananas, golden loos robbed from stately homes, or even a Venetian-style cat casserole for our Artist’s Palate series). But here the mood is sombre, solemn and grief-stricken – and no less provocative.
‘“Breath Ghosts Blind” deals with existential questions that affect us all, the cycle of life from birth to death. These are Maurizio Cattelan’s obsessions, and his works are antennas synchronised with the world, able to catalyse our experience of history, even when it concerns dramatic events,’ explains Tenconi.
The exhibition begins in the venue’s piazza with Breath. A man and a dog, made from Carrara marble, lie on the ground, both in a fetal position. The life-size figures face each other in a scene tense with intimacy, introspection and fragility.
The vast Navate exhibition space hosts Ghosts, a new version of Cattelan’s iconic work presented at the 47th and 54th Venice Biennales under the title Tourists (1997), and Others (2011). The change of title feels apt. In its new environment, this army of taxidermy pigeons feels less like a visitor and more like a permanent fixture, ominously haunting the historic industrial space.
‘Art deals with the same themes from the beginning of human history: creation, life, death. This is intertwined with the ambition of each artist to become eternal through their work,’ says Cattelan. ‘Each artist is confronted with the two sides of the coin: a sense of omnipotence and a sense of failure. It is a rollercoaster of exhilarating elevations and very steep descents. As painful as it is, the second part is also the most significant. Like all the exhibitions that preceded it, this exhibition is the concentration of all these elements.’
The third, final, and most potent act takes place in the space known as the Cubo. Blind, a black resin monolith carries more than its weight in grief, loss and historical tragedy. The tower is intersected by the silhouette of an aeroplane. Cattelan appropriates an image that has become entrenched in history’s iconographic repertoire: the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001. This is a memorial in a very literal sense; Cattelan doesn’t shy away from the stark, violent reality of the events, but transforms them into a symbol of universal agony.
In ‘Breath Ghosts Blind’, Maurizio Cattelan is boldly confronting the fractures in the human condition; the purpose of life, the inevitability of death, and all that exists in between. §