Maurizio Cattelan cited in: Thibaut Wychowanok, ‘We met Maurizio Cattelan: “Is this interview our first analysis session"’, Numéro, online.
Imbued with a profound sense of horror and urgency, Untitled is an image of death, subversion and iconoclasm powerfully rendered through Maurizio Cattelan’s unique language of extreme provocation. Executed in 2007, the life-size sculpture depicts a young girl dressed in a white nightgown, her hands nailed to wooden boards above her head in pseudo-crucifixion. The feeling of ambiguity and unease is augmented by the girl’s position in a large wooden crate; her back to the viewer and face hidden as if suffocated by the crate’s tissue-paper wrapping. The composition of Untitled originates from a 1977 photograph by Francesca Woodman, who, in a self-portrait, depicted herself hanging from a doorway in a white nightgown. The image appears to profoundly foreshadow the photographer’s own death, as she took her life in 1981 at the age of 22. The original version of the present work, installed at Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria in 2008, replicated Woodman’s well-known photograph almost precisely: here the resin sculpture of the girl – without crate – was hauntingly installed in a doorway atop a dark, foreboding staircase. Nancy Spector, curator of Cattelan’s major 2011-12 Guggenheim retrospective, explains, “When installing an unnervingly veristic resin version of this figure at Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, a glimpse of the sculpture in its packing crate led Cattelan to decide to alter the work in future iterations. From then on he has exhibited the woman facedown in the crate with her hands pierced and arms and legs cordoned in place” (Nancy Spector cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Maurizio Cattelan: All, 2011-12, p. 66). In its current and final iteration Untitled is one of Cattelan’s most iconic and widely exhibited works, having been included in solo shows at renowned institutions, including Palazzo Reale, Milan (2010); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2011-12); Kunsthaus Zürich (2012); and the Monnaie de Paris (2016-17).
The unmistakable allusion to crucifixion, suicide and torture inherent to Untitled illustrates Cattelan’s succinct interpretation of death, a theme relentlessly explored throughout the artist’s greater oeuvre. Although sarcastic humour is present throughout much of the artist's work – his 2011 Venice Biennale installation of two thousand defecating pigeons is a prescient example of the artist’s light-hearted and imaginative wit – a rumination on mortality lies at the very core of his practice. Bidibidobidiboo (1996) is an early example of his meditations on death; here a taxidermy squirrel has committed suicide in his kitchen, his gun having dropped to the floor. Novecento, executed in 1997, follows suit as an embalmed horse is hung from the ceiling by a sling, its head hung limp and eyes eerily vacant. Earlier works, such as the present Untitled, allow Cattelan to question his audience’s perception of death. The artist himself claims, “To me the real question always has been: is there life before death? The thing that scares me to death is people around me being afraid of everything” (Maurizio Cattelan cited in: Thibaut Wychowanok, ‘We met Maurizio Cattelan: “Is this interview our first analysis session"’, Numéro, December 2005, online). While an undertone of mortality pervades Cattelan’s visual lexicon, so too does a focus on religious iconography; the pseudo-crucifixion of Untitled here recalls a plethora of art historical religious imagery, from the crucifixion scenes of Diego Velázquez and Caravaggio, to those of Salvador Dalí and Marc Chagall. Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (1999) is an early example of the artist’s subversion of religion, for here a wax figure of Pope John Paul II has been hit by a meteorite, and the Pope’s body is left splayed across the floor in a scene of palpable agony. La Nona Ora and Untitled question our contemporary understanding of fear, death, religion and, indeed, the complexities of humankind: “The duty of art is to ask questions, not to provide answers. And if you want a clearer answer, then you’re in the wrong place” (Maurizio Cattelan cited in: ibid.).
A masterful provocateur, Cattelan seeks to subvert and disrupt established order, while questioning our perceptions and most fundamental beliefs. As a sculptural analogue to photography, the shackled woman of Untitled is rendered with a phenomenal degree of realism, and her spectre-like body veritably haunts us. Through its premonition of mortality, the present work, together with Cattelan’s greater repertoire, thus functions as “a cipher for the human condition, the inevitability of death, and the power of the image to seduce and horrify with this existential truth” (Nancy Spector cited in: op. cit., p. 113).
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