"Projects 65: Maurizio Cattelan," Nov. 6-Dec. 4, 1998, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Artist's talk: Friday, Oct. 30, 6:30 PM Museum of Modern Art.
"No one at the Modern believes in Picasso anymore. They just want to make a buck," said art critic Dave Hickey in a recent ArtNet interview. Whether one agrees or not, Hickey's remarks seem prescient in the face of artist Maurizio Cattelan's November "Projects" show at MoMA. The artist has hired an actor to wear an enormous, sculpted head of Picasso, along with the requisite striped sailor shirt and dark pants, while walking about the museum, inside and rattling coins in a paper cup.
Like the oversized characters who roam Disney World, the actor will be forbidden to speak. "It would be traumatizing to visitors," says Cattelan solemnly in his Italian accent.
In a further echo of Hickey, who has noted MoMA's penchant for Picasso exhibitions, Cattelan says he thinks spectators will be particularly surprised to find "Picasso" outside the museum, "because the museum is like his apartment."
Cattelan won't say much more about the piece -- other than he likes "the contradiction of Picasso begging" -- but it fits in nicely with the rest of his prankster art projects. His contribution to the 1993 Venice Biennale, for example, consisted of his selling his allotted exhibition space to a perfume company, which then used the area to advertise. And New Yorkers might remember his 1993 solo show -- a live donkey -- at SoHo's now-defunct Daniel Newburg Gallery (Cattelan is currently represented in New York by Gavin Brown).
Certainly one of Cattelan's most renowned efforts was in conjunction with the Appel Foundation in Amsterdam. There, he and five curators got some burglar's tools, hired a van and stole an entire group show from Amsterdam's Gallery Bloom. Cattelan says that the plan was to set up Bloom's group show in the Appel -- as his "piece." But the police were called the following day and Cattelan's work was never exhibited.
Despite an outpouring of indignation from Bloom, he adds, the gallery asked him to do a show there a year later. He declined.
Trained as a nurse, Cattelan worked in a morgue in Padua before deciding that the art world might offer him "better treatment." He began his creative adventures humbly, by making furniture for his apartment. His designs were nothing special, he says, "just wood and glass," but they sparked interest among Italian magazine editors and manufacturers. (One of his end tables is still in production from Dilmos).
Still, Cattelan felt that designing was not right for him, and an early show in Bologna proved to be a turning point. After spending weeks to create what he described as "functional furniture with art meaning," the day of the show dawned, and he realized that he simply could not go through with it. He put a sign in the gallery that said the Italian equivalent of "Be Back Soon." He admits his friends were somewhat disturbed, but "I like the idea to disappoint," he says. "I felt that it was okay."
Many of Cattelan's friends are now happily involved with Permanent Food, a magazine he has overseen for the past three years. Contributors select pages from other magazines and then submit them to Cattalan to be reprinted, bound and distributed as a new magazine. Permanent Food is available for $10 at St. Mark's Books in New York. In a similar vein, Cattalan has made his own "catalogue raisonné," comprised of pages he has ripped from other catalogues of his exhibitions. It should be available at the museum, along with the usual brochure MoMA itself is doing to accompany his show.
Meeting the artist at Starbucks, I get a firsthand introduction to his gift for turning spectators into acomplices. After using his teeth to break a chocolate bar on display near the register, Cattelan demurely puts it back. Then he picks up a CD, also for sale, and slides it deftly inside my half-open jean jacket.
Stealing to a cafe table littered with newspapers shouting the Yankees' World Series' victory, Cattelan tells me of a project he wants to do in England: a stately black marble wall, à la Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, only listing every game ever lost by the British national soccer team.
And who knows what may happen at his artist's talk at MoMA this Friday. When I ask him about it he turns to me and says earnestly, "Will you do it?"
AMY FUSSELMAN is a New York poet and writer.