Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Maurizio Cattelan at Blenheim Palace

Victory is Not an Option by Maurizio Cattelan at Blenheim Palace.

Maurizio Cattelan is an Italian conceptual artist whose sculptures and installations address the darker and more difficult parts of history and society. With this work Cattelan seeks to turn a mirror back on us to examine our reactions when confronted with uncomfortable topics and invites us to have conversations about the past, the present and the future. He once said to this effect that 'Reality is far more provocative than my art'.

The exhibition at Blenheim includes sculptures and installations both in the grounds and inside the palace itself. You can see the work in the grounds here

We entered the palace via the great court where the Victory is Not an Option installation of a walkway of Union Jacks has been installed.

We'll Never Die, 2019.

A copy of the flag-bearing arm of Emmanuel Fremiet's 1874 sculpture of Joan of Arc in Paris. Joan of Arc occupies a complicated space in the French public imagination. For many, she is a youthful embodiment of leadership, courage and patriotism. She has, however, also been adopted as a symbol by the far right, representing a conservative France resisting foreign influence, and Fremiet's original statue in Paris is the site of annual May Day gatherings of far-right leaders.

Like the flag display outside the palace, Cattelan's We'll Never Die references ideas of national pride and identity, but also suggests the violence that these can engender.

Untitled, 2000

An unusual self-portrait, not in a frame but dangling by the back of his top, hung like a discarded coat. Here, Cattelan turns traditional self-portraiture on its head by making himself the butt of the joke. Displayed in the green drawing room, Cattelan hangs alongside the framed portraits of the 1st Duchess and 4th Duke of Marlborough, asking us to reflect on the ways we are used to seeing influential and powerful people represented.

Novecento, 1997

Cattelan has used taxidermy since the 1990s to explore the emotional relationship and cultural associations between humans and animals. With its principally domestic, agricultural, sporting and military associations, the horse is one of Britain's national treasures. This work invites us to consider how we feel wen we see a horse in this submissive position.

The title Novecento (nine hundred) is an Italian term for the 20th century, as well as the name of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1976 film tracing the rise of Italian fascism. Created just before the turn of the millennium, Cattelan's horse may symbolise a country exhausted by a century of upheaval and violence. The horse is here worn and tired, perhaps embodying a look back at the last century and a warning about the future.

We, 2010

A mysterious and chilling double self-portrait of the artist, wax-faced in dark funerary clothes and laid on a small bed, as if inviting visitors to attend his funeral wake.

This self-portrait attempts to break down the mythology of the 'great artist', instead showing Cattelan passive, vulnerable and mortal.

Untitled, 2019

Untitled encompasses two major tenets of Cattelan's work: self-portraiture and the critique of power. Untitled is a gold version of his original work Untitled (2009), which saw his distinctive profile encased in a taut black rubber boot. The black rubber boot references the uniforms promoted by both Italian Fascist leader Mussolini and Hitler. Italian fascism used the colour black as a symbol of the movement, calling its paramilitaries the Blackshirts. In this work Cattelan explores his Italian heritage and the memory of Italy's wartime experience.

By remaking the work in gold for his exhibition at Blenheim, Cattelan perhaps suggests that we should watch out for history repeating itself under different guises.

La Nona Ora, 1999

Cattelan drops a meteor on a likeness of Pope John Paul II. It seems to suggest that even the holiest man in the Roman Catholic tradition may not be safe from misfortune.

A comment on the Catholic Church's reputation for harbouring scandal beneath its moral surface?

Untitled, 2003

I did not see this one at first, but then I heard the beating of the drum, and looked up.

A sculpture based on the protagonist of Gunter Grass' 1959 novel The Tin Drum. The novel is about a boy who wills himself to stay a child as he lives through WWII. The boy's most prized possession is his drum, which he plays when he is fearful or confronted with danger. In one key episode, he disrupts a Nazi rally with the pounding rhythm.

The motif of the drumming becomes like an act of resistance or a warning. The drummer boy could be symbolic of much of the exhibition: a call for caution, for us to look to the past in order not to repeat its mistakes.

Him, 2001

In the Long Library someone was playing the organ and visitors stopped to listen.

Amongst them a little boy was on his knees praying... Or so we thought...

As we drew near, the figure was revealed to be Adolf Hitler, looking skywards.

Another comment on national memory and the importance of never forgetting, in order never to reproduce the mistakes of the past.

America, 2016

America is a solid-gold toilet that visitors were invited to use. As an extravagant object made to fulfil the most mundane of purposes, the work highlights how we all share the same bodily needs and functions, regardless of economic or social difference. It images the American Dream: an elite object made available to all. While making a comment on the inequalities in our world today, particularly in capitalist America, the work also asks us to reflect on Blenheim Palace's own identity as a place built on ideals of social hierarchy and wealth.

We were not able to see the toilet, just the cloakroom where it was situated, as the toilet was stolen, wrenched from its plumbing,  in a burglary on the 14th of September.

The guide book informed us that there was a further sculpture in the palace, hidden in a secret location. We were not able to find it, so we had to ask and we were told it was in the great hall, where we had started the tour. It is located above the door facing us in this photograph.

Mini-Me, 1999

An inquisitive, toy-sized likeness of the artist, questioning the ways we traditionally like to represent ourselves. Mini-Maurizio Cattelan cheekily sneaks into Blenheim Palace - filled with its portraits of Dukes and Duchesses - to infiltrate the site and its history in the same way as the artist himself does in this exhibition.

We then moved on to the chapel

Others, 2011

200 taxidermy birds taking over every nook and cranny. This work was first exhibited under the name Turisti (tourists) at the Venice Biennale in 1997. Cattelan compares tourists to flocks of birds that gather together in public spaces. The title humorously references Venice's reputation for swarms of pigeons and foreign visitors, which at times can be considered nuisances. Shown here at Blenheim - also a popular tourist destination - the work gently pokes fun at the nature of being a visitor, turning the attention back to us.

Oliver and Tom, 2019 

Oliver and Tom depicts two tramps, huddled in the Chapel pews. This work draws attention to these 'invisible' citizens, who populate our cities yet do not belong anywhere. Displayed in a stately home this sculpture highlights the inequalities in our society and the different lived experiences that exist along each other.

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