On October 25th Maurizio Cattelan sent the unbearable well-known Italian comic actors “I Soliti Idioti” (Usual Idiots) to receive the prestigious “Alinovi Daolio” prize on his behalf. This act sparked much controversy. Many persons felt that his choice of representatives was both disrespectful to the award itself, and the affiliated institutions organizing it. We saw this act as a real work of art – in pure Cattelan-style. It was a new work that the organizers of the prize should boast about having promoted. And it also offered them an unexpected (unexpected?) publicity and wide resonance in the media.
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: When someone becomes a successful artist, as has happened with you, he/she becomes, in the eyes of many, an abstract figure. I would like to use this interview to capture how your path has been shaped. I still remember when, with Massimo De Carlo, I came to visit you in your studio in Viale Bligny, Milan; it was the second half of the 90s. You were working on “Errotin le vrai lapin” for the exhibition at Perrotin in Paris. Did you ever imagine, then, that you would become an icon of contemporary art?
Maurizio Cattelan: I would start from this premise: I have never asked myself, “who I would become.” When you met me, my only concern was never to work in the employ of someone else and not to fall into that “prison” routine. It is simple but true, boredom terrifies me. But, only if it is imposed by others: I want to be free to be bored as I please. The urgency that drove me then, is the same one that moves me now. I fight with all my strength to do that which I want to and to be autonomous from the agenda of all others. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why I never had a studio: a relationship of dependence is always reciprocal… on either side of the desk, I find myself fatally allergic!
TC: When did you realize that your work was becoming established to the point that you would become, in fact, an icon of contemporary art? Was there a particular event that marked this leap? I guess it’s also difficult and stressful to maintain a standard of high quality. How did you approach this aspect of your work? In emerging and gaining visibility, you are susceptible to praise, but also sometimes fierce and superficial criticism. How do you compare and protect yourself from this aspect of the job?
MC: I’m not even sure I know how to define what is an icon, let alone I never aspired to be one! Among other things, being an icon is a risky life, not just for people, even for the work… Take for example, the Mona Lisa. The fact that all may believe they know her smile, has made it invisible: we have seen it reproduced so many times that when we encounter it, we do not know how to look at it properly anymore… as if we had “consumed” it. When I participated in the Biennale of Germano Celant, in 1998, the fight for not returning to work behind a desk was replaced by other battles… yes, I would say that we can consider it a turning point, but perhaps I would not call it a qualitative leap. Success is a double edged sword. On one side there is the personal, intimate path: your work changes and grows stronger by virtue of how you grow up, as if you were working with a therapist. Each new work is a step forward in the understanding of yourself; it defines a part of yourself that you can leave behind. Perhaps only this guarantees the quality of the work. On the other hand, outside of yourself, the more this growth is recognized, the greater are the public’s eyes focused on your professional path. At first it’s just a buzz, as you go forward the noise becomes hard to ignore, until there is the risk of it becoming counterproductive. It is a flattering song but fatal, such as the sirens of the Odyssey … I, like Ulysses, have tried to tie myself to the mast of the ship: I imposed upon myself a discipline, the rules, and tenets. I have always worked for myself and for two or three other people who are in my head, they are the most demanding. I said to myself: if I satisfy them, also the public, the critics, and all others will be satisfied without having to think about it.
TC: If we talk about work, understood as a profession, how would you describe yours? I mean, in concrete terms, how do you work, how do you organize your work day, how do you structure your work and the prodution of your oeuvre?
MC: I’m quite addicted to routine: I cannot start my working day without swimming for at least an hour. It helps me to keep up my production rhythm during the rest of the day: I always try to be as methodical as possible, even if in the end we are all slaves of deadlines, and everything tends to go out of control.
TC: I have read your recent interviews with artists such as Yuri Ancarani and Andra Ursuta. You are generous, as an established artist, to lend a hand to colleagues. How do you select the artists you interview? What are the characteristics of their work that you value?
MC: I need a constant comparison with others, and that’s what I look for even when I interview an artist. I am convinced that wisdom is not merely the result of passing years. In fact, I believe that everyone has something to teach and for sure, I always have something to learn. This is also why I never defined any criteria for choosing, I rely a lot on instinct… or should I say, on my nose!
English translation: Garvin Cummings