New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Maurizio Cattelan: All, 2011-2, p. 222, no. 73, illustrated in colour
Executed in 1999, Maurizio Cattelan's Sparky invokes a solemn yet disconcertingly ironic dialogue with the iconographic language of death and mourning. Articulated in a sombre architecture of form, forged in the monumental fabric of marble and installed within a peaceful garden environment, this diminutive tombstone gravely invokes the sober visual lexicon attendant to the commemorative remembrance of a loved one's passing. Indeed, our initial encounter with this work is instilled with a marked sense of unease: such a small grave painfully signifies premature loss of life. However, any such discomfort is immediately rebutted by the embossed name inscribed upon the gravestone's stark granite surface - Sparky. With blackest comedic value and nefarious derision typical to the artist's production, Cattelan subverts and overturns initial preconceptions. His farcical employment of the lugubrious values associated with human bereavement is here employed to mark the resting ground of a domestic pet dog.
Visual tricks, puns and deathly humour are common themes across the oeuvre of Maurizio Cattelan. With a disturbing level of veracity attendant to his uncanny modus of sculptural figuration, Cattelan has forged a career scrutinising hierarchies and institutions of power in tandem with a pervasive and drôle exploration of our attitudes towards death. In confronting the farcical nature of existence, animals, particularly dogs, play a central role. Accompanying the series of small burial sites to which Sparky belongs, Cattelan's corpus of taxidermied dogs evoke an analogous push and pull viewing experience. At first glance appearing as though peacefully asleep in the corner of a room, closer inspection reveals only a simulation of life; stuffed and preserved corpses, these dogs are evacuated vessels obediently curled into a permanent state of slumber. As explicated by Nancy Spector, "The dogs are practical jokes, perceptual tricks with ghastly implications. What looks to be charming and approachable, a dog to pet or cuddle, is really a well-preserved cadaver" (Nancy Spector, 'Duality and Death' in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Maurizio Cattelan: All, 2011-2012, p. 74). Acting as an apt counterpart to both Sparky and the stuffed sleeping dogs, Cattelan further overturns preconceptions of cuteness with the series of works made from animal skeletons. The scientific pretence of such a display, evocative of a preserved museum specimen, here takes on a farcical comic tone when posed to echo the appearance of a loyal paper-fetching cartoon dog. Inspired by the Grimm Brothers classic children's folktales as well as the anthropomorphic projections of human traits familiar to Aesop's Fables, Cattelan's use of animals embraces the moral tone and anthropomorphic projection of human traits familiar to these somewhat sinister stories. Representing an extremity of Cattelan's caustic application and evocation of lifeless animal surrogates, Sparky underscores the artist's keen affinity for all concerns moribund. Perhaps conveying the post-traumatic symptoms of an unhappy youth spent working in a local mortuary, Cattelan, with manifestly bathetic sentiment, silently confronts, exploits and dramatizes our attitudes to profound tragedy and loss. Surrounded by lush gardens and installed within the ground, Sparky's stark tombstone sardonically delivers a somewhat absurd Momento Mori. As stated by William S. Smith: "Death exists in the arcadia, but here it is merely the death of a little pet" (William S. Smith, Ibid., p. 222).
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