Maurizio Cattelan. Photo © PierPaola Ferrari.

NEW YORK - On the occasion of his spectacular -- and breathtakingly odd -- Guggenheim retrospective in 2011, Maurizio Cattelan announced his retirement as an artist. It was an unlikely prospect for the 50-year-old artist who had ascended the heights of the international contemporary art world. Two years later, he has re-emerged with an installation at the Beyeler Foundation that is vintage Cattelan: a group of five taxidermied horses hanging in a gallery, their heads piercing the wall, it is at once hilarious and unforgettable. In addition to heralding the hoped-for-return of the profoundly funny artist, the Beyeler show is the perfect opportunity to reach in the Sotheby’s at Auction archives for this Q & A between the cunningly cagey Cattelan and contributing editor Anthony Barzilay Freund from 2010.

Maurizio Cattelan, like all the best clowns, is alternately brilliant and brash, provocative and poignant. Continually challenging the viewer’s relationship to both the artist and the work of art, this Padua-born sculptor and Conceptualist has given us a taxidermied horse suspended overhead; a replica of the iconic Hollywood sign transposed to the hills above Palermo; an adolescent Adolph Hitler kneeling in prayer (Him, 2001); and countless installations in galleries that were locked, blocked by bricks, devoid of work or simply too small to enter. He also famously co-founded New York’s Wrong Gallery: essentially a glass front door in Chelsea, behind which two-and-a-half square feet of exhibition space showed more than 40 artists’ works during its three years of existence.

Press references inevitably attach such terms to your name as “bad-boy,” “irreverent,” “absurdist,” and, my favourite, “the contemporary-art world’s court jester.” What’s your preferred reductive descriptor? The irreverent, absurdist, contemporary-art world bad boy/court jester sounds just fine.

The Wrong Gallery subverted the idea of a traditional commercial-gallery space. Your installation in the 1999 Venice Biennale (in which you rented out your allotted square-footage to a perfume retailer) subverted the idea of an international art show. You’ve shown the Pope struck down by a meteorite; the Milanese gallerist, Massimo De Carlo, duct-taped to a wall; the model, Stephanie Seymour, mounted as a big-game hunter’s trophy; and, perhaps worst of all, Geppetto’s beloved Pinocchio floating face down in a shallow pool of water (Daddy, Daddy, 2008, at the Guggenheim­­). Are there no sacred cows? Are you putting the Pope and Stephanie Seymour on the same level? That’s interesting. If cows are sacred, they should remain so even when you put them off their pedestal. There’s nothing wrong with showing people’s vulnerable side. It might help blur some lines but I don’t think it undermines their status. Quite the contrary, it reinforces their position as well as the belief that they are, as you said, sacred cows.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Daddy Daddy, 2008, on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s theanyspacewhatever exhibition in 2008.

You poke fun at the art-collecting experience and verbally downplay the “artistic merit” of your works. Yet they’ve become blue-chip “commodities,” found in the holdings of the world’s leading museums and private collections. How do you reconcile these two seemingly opposing phenomena? I don’t have to. I just don’t see money as a reliable indicator of value. But it would never cross my mind to make fun of art collectors. They are amongst the few people in the art world (and I can’t tell you how few) who really put their money where their mouth is.

It’s often been stated that collectors need to be “brave” to own a work by ­Cattelan. Have you been surprised by your collectors’ fearlessness? Who’s particularly brave, and why? I’m far more impressed by their dedication than by their level of fearlessness. A lot of collectors are involved in the production of the work from the very early stages. They are like assistants, paying assistants, curious about your attitude and willing to invest their resources to help you. ­It’s difficult to name someone who particularly stands out. Dakis Joannou is certainly someone who has always been very supportive. His collection is built around his personality, and to quote the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction: ‘Personality goes a long way.’ But collecting is not an exact ­science; there are different ways of doing it. The motivational spectrum is rather wide, and goes from obsession to speculation. There’s also a quick and aggressive approach to collecting, which is what ultimately makes the fortune of auction houses, like Sotheby’s! But I don’t mean to underplay it, it’s equally important. It’s just that it doesn’t really concern me.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Daddy Daddy, 2008, on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s theanyspacewhatever exhibition in 2008.

As an art collector yourself, have you been brave? And would you care to share a specific example? I’m not sure about braveness. One thing I have actually learned from the collecting experience is that you have to be slightly mad. And it’s nice. It has made me see collectors in a different light. I consider madness, in a moderate dose, an essential component of the full-rounded human being.

You’ve exhibited internationally. Tell me about the ways your works are viewed and embraced in, say, America or the United Kingdom versus Japan or your native Italy? It’s fun to see how the work is perceived differently, depending on where you are; but after years of exhibiting worldwide, I have reached the conclusion that the audience’s reaction cannot be estimated in geographical terms. It’s very personal. Some people tend to intellectualize it, others tend to see it as provocative. When Harald Szeemann invited me to show the Pope (La Nona Ora) at the 2001 Venice Biennale, I was half-expecting an uproar but everything went fine. A few years later, I had a trio of sculptures hanging from a tree in Milan [the work depicts three barefoot adolescent boys, nooses around their necks and eyes wide open] and they were vandalized. What I like about the public response is that it’s totally unpredictable. There’s just no way to ­anticipate it.

Is “irony” an international language? It sure as hell beats Esperanto!

Him, from 2001, is perhaps your most controversial work. What have you found to be the most surprising response to that piece – or to anything you’ve done?  A Polish politician once attempted to remove the meteorite from the Pope during an exhibition at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw. Many people thought I should have been offended by such a violent response, and yet I couldn’t help seeing the bright side of it. I liked the idea of salvation coming from the earth.  It put the work in a different place. As for Him, I think a lot of the views on that piece were quite disingenuous. Yes, it was provocative, and yes, I knew that it would freak some people out; but I don’t think in such black and white terms. I like to think that what I’m doing is a little more multidimensional than that.

Him, one of Cattelan's most provocative works, installed at Färgfabriken in Stockholm.

The untitled work that sold at Sotheby’s New York in May of 2010 showed you breaking through the floor of a gallery filled with Old Master paintings. Do you see yourself as an interloper, a thief, a thug? And to what extent are all contemporary artists burglars?  What if I was trying to break in just to have a look? I think that’s what artists do. They want to have a look inside.

How do you think that old crook Marcel Duchamp would cotton to your appropriations of his intentions?  Ah, if only Duchamp were alive. Where would he go to eat? Seriously, he wouldn’t have said anything, really. And that would have been absolutely fine with me. I think it was Joseph Beuys who said that Duchamp’s silence was overrated. He was probably trying to drag Duchamp out of his den. But being silent doesn’t mean abstaining or refraining yourself from expressing your opinion. To me, Duchamp’s silence was pure gold. That’s possibly the biggest part of his practice that I’ve been desperately trying to appropriate.­­

As an Italian schoolboy, you were exposed, I imagine, to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Did you form any thoughts as a child or as a young man on the pairing of the words “divine” and “comedy”? Today, do you think there’s divinity in humour? Dante’s work was originally simply called Comedy. I have no idea why the person who attached the word “Divine” to it felt compelled to do so; ­although I suspect that it was a way to bring the whole concept to a more ­abstract dimension. Comedy is not a divine thing, as far as I’m concerned. It’s as earthly as heaven, hell and purgatory. Dante probably realized that earlier than anyone else.

Speaking of heaven, hell and purgatory: which one is your favourite? Purgatory. It’s a transitory dimension. There is life beyond it, whether for the better or for the worse. It seems a more interesting condition.

What do you think is the funniest work of art ever made? And why? That’s a difficult thing to say. I have often run into works that are goldmines of humour, although involuntarily.

Comedy is generally undervalued in our culture. Comedic actors, like Chaplin, don’t receive the respect – or awards – accorded their more emotive counterparts. Do you see a similar bias in the fine-art field? Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers have all retrospectively been acknowledged for their comic genius and have influenced generations of artists – so the real question here is not why comedians aren’t respected, but rather why they are only when they’re dead. I think one of the strong points of comedy is its immediacy. It’s right there in your yard, and it’s difficult to fully appreciate its importance in real time. Another thing one should never do to humour is talk too much about it.

Humour is hard work. Tell me about the technical aspects of your work. The ideas are one thing, but then there’s the execution. What are the challenges of production? I wish having ideas was as easy as you have made out. That’s the hard part, in my book. The execution is strictly subordinated to the idea itself. There are times where the idea is clear enough that it’s just a matter of all the pieces falling into place, and other times where it’s not. But the production of an artwork, as opposite to its conception, is a collective process. All the artists, to a greater or lesser degree, need outside help when it comes to translating their ideas into objects.

I imagine your studio is humming right now in preparation for your upcoming Guggenheim retrospective. Can you give us a sneak preview of the installation?  I’m sorry, but I can’t. I don’t have a studio. I have never had one.

Recent exhibitions in New York – such as Tino Seghal at the Guggenheim or Marina Abramovic at MoMA – have pushed the boundaries of what the general public typically thinks of as a solo exhibition? What are your impressions of shows such as these and how do they inspire/embolden/influence your thoughts about your own Guggenheim show? I liked both shows. And I was impressed by the level of commitment, both from the artists and the organizers. It’s a rather gutsy way to run and use public institutions. On these occasions I try to enjoy what’s in front of me and not to think so much about my work. If I would, I’d probably start getting too analytical or paranoid.

If you weren’t involved in the art world, what would you be doing? I never considered myself an artist, so the question for me is not what I would be doing but rather what I wouldn’t. And I can tell you, this interview definitely would have never happened!

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]