Galleria Massimo De Carlo, Milan
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Francesco Bonami, et al., Maurizio Cattelan, London 2000, p. 69, 70, 71, the other version illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Abracadabra, 1999, pp. 28 & 29, no. 4, the other version illustrated in colour
"I’m always borrowing pieces – crumbs really – of everyday reality. If you think my work is very provocative, it means that reality is extremely provocative." Maurizio Cattelan
When, in 1997, Maurizio Cattelan was invited to mount a solo exhibition in the large Gothic castle which houses Italy’s foremost contemporary art museum, the Castello di Rivoli, he chose the occasion to introduce his alter ego ‘Charlie’ to the world in one of his most provocative and brooding sculptures, Charlie Don’t Surf. The exhibition became the launchpad for his international meteoric rise to stardom and the work was acquired by the Castello di Rivoli for their prestigious permanent collection. The present work represents the only other version of the piece.
Originally displayed in these grand antiquated surroundings, the viewer encountered a small boy sitting alone at a desk, back-lit by a large window at the far end of an imposing, empty room. Employing a suspense technique familiar from horror movies, the viewer approaches the boy from behind. Apparently quiet and humble in its appearance, gradually the realisation crystallises that this is a haunting, hyper-real re-creation of the artist himself as a boy with his hands nailed to a heavily grafitti’d schooldesk using pencils, in a kind of contemporary crucifixion.
Although apparently simple in its construction, the devastating attention to detail which underlies Charlie Don’t Surf provides the key to an intricate set of interlinked meanings. The title has its origins in the American soldier’s slang for the VietCong civilians in Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus on Vietnam, Apocalypse Now. Portrayed as outcasts in their own land, the cries by the American soldiers of "Charlie don’t surf" draws parallels with the otherness of Cattelan or ‘Charlie’ within the distinguished historical surroundings of one of Italy’s most eminent art institutions. By depicting himself as a schoolboy sent to a corner at the back of the class, Cattelan appears to be making a visual reference to a feeling that he may be "a kid in an adult’s world".
Throughout his work, Cattelan has consistently attempted to understand his place in the advanced Capitalist world through profound visual metaphors for states of being. Whether it be through the taping of his gallerist to the wall in A Perfect Day or the helpless suspension from the ceiling of that most powerful of animals, the horse, in The Ballad of Trotsky or the Pope being struck by a meteorite in La None Ora, Cattelan has always looked at the hierarchies of power which operate in our world. The situations, objects, characters and personas that inhabit his oeuvre are those which impact upon his daily existence and involve his own interaction in a theatre of the absurd suspended between reality and fiction. Up until Charlie Don’t Surf, he had only involved himself in this process through implication or photography, never sculpture.
This was an important development which allowed him to bring actual, tangible memories and feelings to bear upon his art using a plastic medium in a development of the age old tradition of self portraiture. However, where historically, self portraiture in its many guises has always centred around the artist’s own state of mind at any given time, here Cattelan was attempting to use his own experiences to evoke wider, more general states of being. In homage to the ever-changing concepts of the self, Cattelan revels in the challenge of repeatedly capturing his own likeness in the most unlikely of manifestations. Throughout his oeuvre, Cattelan has constantly referred to himself as an outcast, a criminal, a thief, an idiot or a joker. Whether arriving through the floor, wide-eyed, into a gallery of Old Masters in Untitled (see fig. 2), or perched doll-like, helplessly on a shelf in Mini-Me or duplicated in the form of rubber masks to negate his own uniqueness in Spermini, Cattelan’s self-portraits show the artist at his most subversive, attempting to undermine his individuality rather than accentuate it.
Cattelan’s oeuvre revolves around the expression of his life and his artistic identity within the context of the viewer’s as a means of provoking a subliminal recollection of similar events or shared experiences. He uses art as a vehicle to both verify reality and activate a memory of the past. Pivotal to this process is his use of memories from schooldays in which his teachers and the educational system are conveyed as more punitive than enlightening, thus becoming a metaphor for the institutionalised subjugation of the individual within an overbearing and uncaring modern society. Beginning with the occasion of failing his first Italian writing test - the point at which he saw the curtain of reality suddenly lift around him to reveal the landscape of daily challenges faced and fought by each individual – Cattelan has continued to reinterpret his own lived experience and infuse it with social, conceptual, cultural and psychological meaning. Charlie Don’t Surf involves the melancholic analysis of the guilt encouraged by society in individuals from their first contact with the structured world – here represented by the school system. It evokes a sense of isolation and vulnerability that reflects Cattelan’s own animosity towards the art institutions he sees as cynical and unresponsive. Here, he is teasing the art world without ever falling into the naive trap of thinking he can subvert a system of which he is an increasingly prominent part.
Another aspect of this attitude lies in his simulation and subversion of the conventions of culture and society in a continuous game of insubordination and visual theft. Here, Cattelan has raided perhaps the most loaded image in the history of art, the crucifixion. By using pencils to nail his subject to the schooldesk, Cattelan instantly brings that most hallowed and dramatic of events to an average everyday setting which draws several analogies to the relationship between the Italian artist and the Church. Seemingly cast as a kind of contemporary Christ, this small hooded figure who would become a hero seems unable to remove himself from his religious or artistic origins.
As such, through a subtle strategy of image creation and placement, Cattelan has created an infinitely profound work which updates the classic notion of self portraiture to incorporate multiple layers of meaning. Drawing similarities between the hierarchies of power which operate in the classroom throughout childhood and the religious and artistic burden of influence which can stunt creative growth, Charlie Don’t Surf depicts the difficulties faced by the contemporary artist as a reference to a wider sense of individual existence. The themes of childhood and isolation that are frequently so important to his work here find their most complete expression as the boy stares into space eternally bound to his desk which imprisons him. Seemingly ostracised from society for his naughty behaviour, Charlie don’t surf was the first sculpture to directly tackle his own sense of being in a world from which he felt increasingly detached.
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