To say that Maurizio Cattelan and the city of Milan have history would be an understatement. The two have been tied for decades, their relationship constellated by highs and lows, love, and controversies. The works Cattelan presented at the Milano Art Week 2022 (March 28th – April 3rd) are no exception. Rather, they connect the artist’s past with the city’s own, in a tragic love letter to Milan.
Lullaby, exhibited at the Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery), is a 1994 work, strictly tied to Milan’s tragic history. The white bags are filled with the rubble and debris from the 1993 explosion in Via Palestro, in the city centre. A mafia bombing that killed five people and injured twelve, and damaged the Modern Art Gallery GAM and the Contemporary Art Pavillion PAC. Violence and art, then, a memento mori of everything beautiful, but also a reminder that nothing is truly lost, and art, even when violently destroyed, can be born again. It is the first time this work is shown in Milan and, once the Art Week will be over, Lullaby will be donated by the artist to the city, just like Cattelan’s L.O.V.E., his infamous middle finger to (and from) the stock-market, another symbol of love and violence, from the artist to the city. Lullaby will then find its permanent home at the Museo del Novecento.
You, exhibited at Casa Corbellini-Wasserman, headquarters of the Massimo de Carlo Gallery, sees Cattelan himself, in the form of a mannequin, hanged from the bathroom’s ceiling. He is barefoot, elegantly dressed, and is holding a bouquet of (real) flowers. As shocking and controversial as You might be, it certainly will not surprise the Milanese audience. Cattelan reprises an old theme which, in May 2004, sparked outrage. So much so that his Three Hanged Children, supposed to stay in place for a month, hanged from a tree in Piazza XXIV Maggio, were taken down by an angry citizen only a day later.
Like You, the Three Children were barefoot, their clothes real, their expressions calm. Their appearance was so realistic that scared the bystanders into thinking they were, indeed, real. Ten years later, in June 2014, a Cattelan mannequin, this time by an unknown author, and wearing shoes, was found hanging from a tree in Piazza Santo Stefano, with a label reciting “Phallic Cattelan Suicide – homage to the Master that after ten years has left the artworld”. To Cattelan, his Three Children represented childhood as a time of trauma and “incredible dreams”. A time of innocence and loss of innocence, then, a requiem to dreams and to the future.
With You, Cattelan goes back to loss and love, power and defeat. As the Massimo de Carlo Gallery states, it is “an admission of surrender, or perhaps an affirmation of kindness”. It is an affirmation of the “death of great powers” and together it reinforces “the strength of the individual”. Like Lullaby, it certainly is a memento mori, but the choice of using real flowers is a significant one. Flowers are a classic vanitas iconography, the reminder that everything will die, including beauty. While the mannequin will last, the flowers will wither and die.
However, they can be replaced with newer flowers, maybe different from the original, but still carrying the same message. You, as the gallery explains, is about us. We can succumb to pressure, we can surrender. But we can also transform into something new, we can reinvent ourselves and live on. Violence can be defeated by beauty, and by love. Death can be cheated.
Maurizio Cattelan, with his choice of works for the Milano Art Week 2022, confirms his deep understanding of the city, its darker side. And it does so with two, deeply tragic, visceral love letters that talk about death and rebirth, violence and beauty.
- Velia Cavallini