“I think there is too much work that is just about being a picture on the wall that we are contented looking at,” says Maurizio Cattelan in a new documentary about the Italian artist and provocateur. “I think art has to be somehow disruptive to then reconfigure opinions and limits.” As a classic Cattelan-ian disruption, all the interviews with the artist in Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back are actually with his longtime stand-in, the curator Massimiliano Gioni. This sleight of hand, apparent from the first minutes to art world cognoscenti but only acknowledged two thirds of the way through the film, lends an air of deception to the entire documentary that’s reminiscent of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. Here, the bait-and-switch — an ongoing collaboration between Cattelan and Gioni since 1998 — keeps the informed viewer on high alert and adds a shade of suspicion to every legitimately insightful comment Gioni-as-Cattelan makes. It must also be noted that Gioni’s performance is superb, especially in one sequence that cuts between his comments as himself and as Cattelan about the origins of their collaboration, evoking shades of Willem Dafoe’s one-man conversation in Spider-Man.
Were it not for the overarching air of trickery — the Duchampian last name of a Cattelan Archive employee who is interviewed extensively is another clue that this isn’t pure nonfiction — Be Right Back would be a fairly straightforward art documentary. Director Maura Axelrod uses interviews, archival footage, and some animation to fill in the gaps and give a chronological account of Cattelan’s life and career from childhood through his Guggenheim retrospective, which was supposed to have marked his retirement from art. Art world figures including dealers Marian Goodman and Massimo De Carlo, collectors Adam Lindeman (who also co-produced the film) and Alberto Mugrabi, and curators Nancy Spector and Tom Eccles frame Cattelan as a kind of court jester, provoking the public and ridiculing the art world. A set of more personal interviewees, including his sister, ex-fiancé, and current partner, fill in a matching psychological profile of someone who is an insecure workaholic prone to dissimulating his existential angst behind witty provocations.
Often, by way of forcing his audience to question the boundaries of what it deems acceptable, Cattelan pushes at those limits with prodding gestures, like a giant statue of an extended middle finger, a drowned Pinocchio, a kneeling and possibly repentant sculpture of Hitler, a gold toilet, or a pope pinned under a fallen meteorite. When viewers are moved to act — like the two members of Polish parliament who stormed a museum, rolled the fake meteorite off the sculpture of John Paul II, and attempted to stand the prone pontiff up — Cattelan achieves his intended goal. As he became more enshrined in the art world’s upper echelons, such provocations became much harder to pull off. His career-ending Guggenheim retrospective, for which his entire oeuvre was suspended in the museum’s rotunda, was in many ways a final attempt at subverting art world decorum. “That was the whole point, to be disrespectful,” says Spector, who co-curated the show.
In spite of (or perhaps thanks to) its built-in provocations, this documentary makes a strong case for the power of Cattelan’s works. Viewers who, like me, have tended to dismiss his art as a series elaborately fabricated jokes, may find themselves reconsidering such prejudices and contemplating the real darkness and violence lurking in many of the works. Pieces like “Bidibidobidiboo” — a taxidermy squirrel slumped on a tiny kitchen table with a miniature gun at its feet following an apparent suicide — are easy to laugh off as cutesy nihilism, but lingering on them and learning about their possible sources in Cattelan’s biography and psychology makes them much more interesting. Knowing that the dead squirrel’s table and chairs are miniature replicas of those in the artist’s childhood home suggests some lingering trauma is being unearthed.
“There are so many images out there that we take for granted, and some of them are awful, but we just accept them, and that to me is shocking,” says Gioni-as-Cattelan. “So some of my sculptures, on one hand they make us understand what images do, and also they deal with this idea that there are still some images we simply cannot swallow — they make us understand hopefully something about our level of acceptance and ultimately about our values.” In our current era of fake news and rapidly circulated images of violence (whether perpetrated by terrorists or police officers), Cattelan’s jokes can start to seem very serious. Perhaps it’s time he came back out of retirement.