I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I met Maurizio Cattelan when we were seated beside each other at the dinner for the opening of Skin Fruit, the show of selections from Dakis Joannou’s fabled collection curated by Jeff Koons for the New Museum in March 2010. Maurizio was at my left. I knew some of his work from many museums both here and abroad, but I had no idea who he was. I’d never seen his face. And I didn’t recognize his name because while my memory for images is photographic, my memory for names is practically void. I liked his nose.
I reacted to this embarrassing situation by asking him a lot of personal questions and was taken because he answered very simply, without edge. I found out he was an artist and somewhere in the evening I told him I would interview him for BOMB, which he didn’t know. I thought this was a wonderful idea. He, on the other hand, was already making a magazine of second-generation photographs that seemed a little too remote for me. And as I now remember, he disliked explication. Politely, we waffled. Then, as I was saying goodbye to him, we were just inside the front door of the museum and my escort was bringing my coat, when suddenly, and for no apparent reason, his face flushed a deep, almost violet red. He was blushing. It was a yes.
By the time Skin Fruit was reviewed, I had put Maurizio’s face, name, and oeuvre together and linked the multilayered metaphors embodied in the seamless simplicity of his cyclical imagery to the playfully irreverent intricacies of the metaphysical sonnets. Like the Elizabethan poets, his work clothes the invisible and baffles or enlightens through symbolic connections of the dissimilar: the Pope and a meteor, a child Hitler at prayers.
I saw him for the second time in June at Bottino’s restaurant in Chelsea for lunch. Maurizio, who was in New York preparing for his retrospective at the Guggenheim opening early this November, was waiting for me with Claire from BOMB. He had a copy of his new magazine Toiletpaper in his right hand. Claire installed us at our table, turned on the recorder, and left us to ourselves.
I have always been fascinated by the power of depiction: illustrating. My earliest memory is of a billboard I glimpsed through the rear window of our maroon Studebaker driving west from Chicago across what used to be called the breadbasket of America. It was the painting of a woman seated amidst stars on a crescent moon. She wore a brimmed and pointed gold and crimson hat, a flouncy, décolleté red dress and charismatically soft, high-heeled scarlet boots. A circular inscription wreathed around this moon and this woman read: “Miller High Life, the champagne of bottle beer.” My almost three-year-old mind didn’t quite get it. What was it like to swing on the moon? Would I get to wear fancy dresses? Was she a witch? She was fascinating, but what did beer have to do with anything? Should I drink it? Champagne sounded better.
In the ’90s, when I was becoming involved in the contemporary art world, I picked photography. It was the push/pull of the photographic image, its tricky duplicity that drew me in. I read Susan Sontag’s essay on the essential surrealism of the photographic medium. Over and over looking at a photograph I would ask: where is what disturbs my eye? What is it in this that entrances me?
My mother taught me about taking candy from strangers. But when Maurizio gave me Toiletpaper ($10.00), it was like receiving a bouquet. The 22 staple-bound new photographs were shot with the slickness of a fashion spread. Only instead of selling things, they sold themselves. Personal, therefore forcibly mysterious, their seductively evocative realignment of the familiar objects of our every day—newspaper clippings, church iconography, old movies, ordinary childhood memories—triggered mischief’s kernel in the brain. Unfettered from the more artificial constraints of traditional concepts like edition, and vintage, the possibility of these untitled pictures loomed boundless before me—or at least as large as the influence of what we see. A vocabulary for the imagination they could be anything, go anywhere. But would people get this? Was it like Baudelaire’s “Voyage à Cythère”? Or was it a flop?
When I was editing the transcript of the interview on my computer, I clicked into Leonardo da Vinci, whom Maurizio and I had remembered during our conversation as we talked about art and science, landscapes and philosophy. Zipping through cyberspace I noted that, in addition to painting and sculpting, Leonardo had party-planned for King Francis I of France and, according to Wikipedia “conceived of ideas vastly ahead of his own time,” making conceptual sketches of a helicopter, a tank, the use of concentrated solar power, a calculator, a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics and the double hull. An example of imaging as discovery and creation, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, a human body inscribed in the circle and the square (fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order), is a drawn connection of science and art. It is stamped on the one euro piece and is the second most uploaded image on the Internet today.
I chose this as my personal proof of the possibility of intuiting whole universes of authentic, if empirically unverifiable realities (which, like Leonardo’s could be mechanical, scientific or simply existential), the universal charisma of that possibility, and the power of pictures as a means to that end. Toiletpaper was my abecedarian. Here is our lunch.
Maurizio Cattelan Thank you, Claire, goodbye. Why are we here?
Michèle Gerber-Klein I wanted—
MC —we met?
MGK At the New Museum, and you sat next to me at dinner.
MC Do you remember?
MGK It was the opening for—
MC —It was for Dakis, in February? No, it was the end of the year. It was the beginning of the season … .
MGK It was in the winter.
MC I brought you something.
MGK Oh! A magazine. I’ve heard about it. You made it?
MC I made it with Pierpaolo Ferrari, a photographer based in Milan.
MGK What was the idea?
MC A good question.
MGK What was the idea behind it?
MC That is a good question! Is that the right answer?
Waiter Care for some water? Sparkling, bottle, still, tap?
MC Norwegian water.
Waiter We have Evian.
MC You shouldn’t ask if we have any preference. You should say sparkling or still.
MGK I like still.
MC We’ll go for still.
MGK Why as a magazine?
MC In this case, since the production of these pictures is very complicated, we thought print was the right medium.
MGK As opposed to an edition, or framing them?
MC Let’s say as a platform. For these materials, print is the right choice. And then out of this, they can go straight online, or they can be an image, or a record cover. Anything. Does that work?
MGK Yes it works. Is it free?
MC No, no. It costs money. As you can see, every picture is created in a different set; it requires energy.
MGK You sell it?
MC Have you ever tried to give something away?
MGK When I was in third grade, I thought it would be amusing to hand out daffodils on Fifth Avenue. People recoiled.
MC People don’t respect you if they don’t—
MGK —give you something in exchange.
MC It means they choose you, when they buy you. We like people to take a stand.
MGK (looking through Toiletpaper) No text, just images? All staged, not found?
MC No, no, no. All made, all new, all produced.
MGK I like this picture with the pills all around this woman.
MC It reminds me of someone.
MGK It reminds me of someone. Who does it remind you of?
MGK Me? (laughter)
MC That could be a fantastic background for you. You should always walk with pills floating around you. It makes you more beautiful.
MGK Oh, thank you, an oriole of planets—my music of the spheres. My friend, the poet, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, has many allergies and she used to sleep like this, on the floor, crowned by a halo of pills, like a Madonna.
MC Our lady is on the floor, under glass. This is what we like about the pictures; if they are good enough, one can find different stories. I don’t look for meaning. We work from references.
MGK Which ones?
MC Sixties illustrations about substance abuse: pills, any pills, anti-anxiety or sleeping pills. Of course there are no references to drugs in my mind. But for you, perhaps, it’s easy to decode as drug-related?
MGK Oh you mean, Milton’s “high-raised phantasie”? They are pretty, like candy.
MC When do we eat?
MGK Let me see if I can wave—here he comes.
We’d like to order; I would like shrimp.
MC And I will go for the salmon. And this is our bread. That was fast.
MC Every picture is a different process. Sometimes it’s one click at a time. You keep working. Sometimes it’s accidental.
MGK This one looks as though it could be about substance abuse, too. She’s surrounded by—wine bottles? Is he dead? (laughter)
MC It’s like a film still. I like ambiguity. Ambiguity makes it better. It’s useful. You asked if this guy is dead or asleep. I believe they are sleeping, an unusual nap. And, of course, it’s in a kitchen. Are they drunk? Is this the end of a party? (laughter) I like the setting. It’s frozen in the past. You walk around the whole house—and suddenly there is this image. It’s a discovery, of those who stayed. We took this picture from outside, through a glass.
MGK So both these pictures include a remove?
MC We took pictures from all over, from different rooms looking in through a doorway, but then, just before leaving, we were outside and we said, “Wow, this is a fantastic point of view! Why we don’t try to take some extra pictures.”
MGK So this doorframe is the barrier.
MC It makes a different angle. Yeah, all the first pictures were taken from a frontal point of view, but the doorframe was invisible. It was strong, but after I saw this man … You know too much about these pictures now.
MGK Now, this reminds me of the sculpture you made of arms coming out of a wall.
MC That’s true. What we liked here was the iconography. These references are taken from piles of pictures we’ve accumulated of women fighting for, how would you say, a belief? We depowered them by cutting away the weapons they were holding, and left the power of their bodies.
MGK So, why does this come first? Well, first comes this.
MC Yes, because it is a cover. And that one comes second because it is on page number two. (laughter) Michèle, really … It is a …
MGK You can say it.
MC Deconstructing a work doesn’t make you understand it. It probably makes you more confused. It’s nice to talk about, but that should be from your side. My comments would diminish it. I’m not saying that I can’t. But this picture has been on my wall for three months and I still don’t know what it is about. It works because I haven’t tired of it. That’s my proof.
MGK Okay. I’ll talk.
MC I’ll move my head.
MGK Look at this hand. Perhaps this woman’s index finger is dipped in dripping blood. This is the beginning of the magazine. Why is it called Toiletpaper? Is it dispensable?
MC Naming a work is difficult, as hard as making it. A good title completes and protects it like a bulletproof vest. To name something is to own it. It’s a great title for a magazine, and easy to remember. Everybody knows about it. Everybody uses it.
MGK A little shocking?
MC No, it’s the evolution of our previous magazine. Permanent Food was about going to the newsstand, buying all the magazines there, going home, and tearing out the pages that we liked. We reconfigured them and send them to the printer. That was a second-generation magazine made with images from other magazines. In this case, the process is to distill whatever is at hand, select it—make it new. We wanted a title with irony. But mainly, we wanted a title for the picture that would make you want to look at what’s inside.
MGK I looked at it—twice.
MC In a bookstore you have to fight with hundreds of other magazines. Online it’s thousands. So, if you say twice, this is already winning. I win.
MGK I pick it up and we win. I’m looking at the hand, and I’m thinking of the sculpture of your hand in Milan, where you cut off four fingers. I especially like the absence of blood. They’re just truncated.
MC They were severed midway. It was very brutal, with a saw. But since it’s marble, there was no blood.
MGK But here, in this photograph, the way the edge is… it could be that it’s cut off. And then there’s blood dripping down. That bothers me.
MC I like what bothers you.
MGK It could be red ink.
MC It could be anything. Should we talk about January 2011?
MGK I was going to talk about January 2011.(laughter) January is the first month.
MC And how was January for you?
MGK Bad. But it was a beginning.
MC Yeah, it’s always difficult, exciting because it is a new year, but also dreadful.
MGK Well, it’s about time, which does interest me.
MC Correct. It is also about time—it’s always about time.
MGK When did this happen? When was this taken? Did this exist when it was taken or does it exist only when I’m looking at it?
MC That is too profound for me. (laughter) I have to give up. You are surpassing my level of understanding.
MGK Oh, no I’m not.
MC You lose me.
MGK (sigh) Oh, well … Do you know when this was taken? When it was taken were there actually … ?
MGK There were never?
MC Never. But it was inspired by—
MGK —something in the past. This is a classic propaganda picture.
MC We wanted to do a propaganda picture our way. And you know what? I don’t like it as the opening page. I always hate to see this picture first. But it’s how we chose the sequence. It was the best of what we had.
MGK Now you’re surpassing my understanding. You hate this as an opening?
MC But among all our opening possibilities, this was the most decent, the most interesting for the following pictures.
MGK You could have made another picture.
MC We didn’t have time. There is a moment when you have to end; otherwise you would never finish.
MGK So, it is about time.
MC No, I’m just saying that sometimes you make decisions that are not ideal, they’re just good.
MGK But this picture of people in niqab also references the past and the present. I mean, how could you avoid it?
MC In this issue there are many references to the past. People don’t understand the new pictures; they are really confused. Frequently they ask how I found this material. I say, “in my grandmother’s trunk,” but that’s not true.
MGK Are you sure this guy isn’t wearing eye makeup?
MC Ladies wear makeup.
MGK They are women?
MC Yeah. They also wear, like, fancy underwear. (laughter) Don’t underestimate the Arab world. They are extremely fancy, modern. Not what you expect. If they are covered, it doesn’t mean—actually, they are more provocative than we are. No, they are unbelievable. You know, you would have made a deep impression on me if you had arrived dressed like this.
MGK I would?
MC Michèle … I … you … I don’t know which is more surreal, the name of this magazine or our conversation. (laughter)
MGK The minute you stop having fun, we can change it.
MC No, I don’t know where we’re going, you are leading.
MGK I arrived with just a few thoughts about what you’ve made, the absence of blood in your images of dead things, for instance.
MGK Is she dead?
MC Is she dead to you? She seems pretty dead to me.
MGK There is no blood.
MC Maybe she had a heart attack. Do you always expect blood when there’s a death?
MGK But in the case where the fingers are cut off, you would expect blood. Where there is a horse with a stake in it, even if the model for it is a taxidermied horse. If it were a representation, if it were a painting—
MC I have to tell you, I’ve seen an animal killed in that way and there was no blood.
MGK When they stuck a stake in it?
MC Maybe it was dead previously, but …
MGK There is something that vaguely makes me think of religion in your work. There’s a prohibition against representation in the Old Testament.
MC If I were depicting a crucified Jesus, I would do it with no blood.
MGK It becomes a different kind of icon.
MC In this case, there is no blood, because it wouldn’t add anything thing to the picture.
MGK I can’t tell whether he is closing her eyes because she’s dead, or if it’s more brutal.
MC To me, it’s a respectful hand. For a long time I wanted to make a picture where the eyes disappeared.
MC Because it is powerful.
MGK Sometimes they put coins on the eyes—
MC —or in the mouth, to pay the toll for—
MC We tried this image with coins, but that would be another reference.
MGK Is this your hand?
MC We just tried to make, in our own way, I love you.
MC I heart U.
MGK A horseshoe?
MGK A dead animal’s heart? And there are red blood spots. Did you cut out your heart?
MC You were asking for blood. Instead of drawing a heart, we thought, Why don’t we have a real one?
MGK A real one must be a dead one. Is this like sacrifice?
MC We had this horseshoe because we wanted to do another picture, so it just happened like this.
MGK Is this through a looking glass?
MC It’s bleak, but a classic as well. She’s going through something. After these other pictures, it might be natural to think she is passing through something dark.
MGK And then face to face.
MC We do not know if it is death or an imaginary world.
MGK Or another, parallel time. I was going to ask you, when you made the realistic-looking horse sculpture that is mounted high on the wall and looks as if it is going through the wall—where is it on the other side? (laughter)
MC There is no head.
MGK Yes there is. Poetry is not like magic, it is magic.
MGK That is pretty funny. Are these clowns? Are they artists?
MC These pictures are inspired by other pictures. This was in Addis Ababa.
MGK Street performers?
MC The signs are blank. They also look like dancing zombies.
MGK What are zombies: corpses incanted alive with no souls? Do they eat brains? Are they evil?
MC Why do you see them as evil? This one makes me laugh; he’s really out of proportion and looks like a skeleton.
MGK He is eyeless. There’s blood dripping from his eyes.
MC Oh, my God. Let me see. I wasn’t aware the makeup artist did something like this. It is spooky.
MGK What are the little red nails?
MC We had in mind these ’60s advertisements and we thought it could be good for a wireless company, a telephone company, anything.
MGK Look, there are only four nail points. Is one missing?
MC It’s very difficult to do something so simple.
MGK Vivid colors.
MC There’s no blood.
MGK And there is no blood. (laughter)
MGK They are in some sort of school or a prison?
MC It’s trance-like. We were shooting in a school and doing something different, but it wasn’t working, so then we moved them to a … how do you say playground? In that school it looks like a prison. And then the picture started to change and we reduced the number of kids. It works. I was really pleased with it.
MGK In school I was bored and daydreamed. (laughter)
MC Yeah, but why do you see them as pupils? Perhaps they’re just exercising.
MGK It doesn’t look like a gym. Well, maybe it is.
MC It is.
MGK Then they’re meditating and that’s the exercise. (laughter) Bingo!
MC I don’t know. I don’t know. What I like in the end is the whole, and the difficulty in choosing any one meaning.
MGK This I adore! I like feet. I like clocks.
MC And there is no blood. (laughter) We don’t know what is happening.
MGK No idea. This rope looks tight. It might hurt—
MC I don’t think it matters.
MGK Her feet don’t touch the floor. In Alice the rabbit has a watch. Oh! Is she dead? And with a pocket watch attached to her?
MC I would say, yeah, you can see her as Alice, but in my mind she is hung.
MGK Millay’s “Childhood is not from birth to a certain age / Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies”? The watch has stopped?
MC We don’t know.
MGK So does time imply death?
MC To me, in this case, it is more like you think about the time of her death. In advertisements all clocks are always placed at 10:10. You never noticed?
MC This one is 9:10. (laughter) But this is like a clock that belonged to someone’s grandfather and that precise hour has a meaning. We left it the way it was.
MGK I wanted to ask you about Is There Life Before Death?
MC Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah. This was the title of the publication I made for the Houston show at the Menil. Of course there is life before death.
MGK Well Plato might not agree. Another thing I noticed in your work, there are a lot of references to freedom.
MC Thank you for noticing. Maybe my freedom to do things?
MGK Your freedom to not do things?
MC Yeah, sometimes they force me.
MGK Perhaps freedom is death. In life there are always encroachments. It occurred to me, when I was thinking about you. I’m uncertain.
MC Do you think a lot?
MGK Maybe, I think too much.
MC No, that’s not …
MGK Well, this is great after the dead girl, because this horse soars through air.
MC It was made first for an album cover, but it was perfect for this—a jumping horse.
MC A Pegasus.
MGK A new constellation; gorgeous, and free.
MC He is frozen in the sky. We wanted to do a horse jumping from the edge of a building, so there was a building before. But we didn’t like it.
MGK This is like a dream realized.
MC It’s a dream-dream picture.
MGK Here are more clocks. Are they all different? I’m in love with this magazine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to open it and now I’m bewitched; it is taking me from one way of seeing to another.
MC I’m starting to love it as well. I might get a copy for myself later. (laughter)
MGK So here is an old person who I think is a man, or is it a woman?
MC She is a woman.
MGK Who seems to be having a good time reading a book and is surrounded by clocks of all different—
MC Not any book, a book about Columbus.
MGK About Columbus discovering a new world? YES!
Waiter Would you all care for any coffee or dessert today?
MC Two rice puddings.
Waiter We don’t have rice pudding.
MC Do you have any pudding?
Waiter Two bread puddings?
MGK Anyway, all these clocks are set at different times. Maybe two show the same time. This one is seven; this one is a little before seven…
MC Some are the same, some different. This is a very complicated picture. We had to rent from different shops.
MGK Do you know Donne’s metaphysical sonnets? He uses words like pictures. They have different meanings depending on placement and reference. There is a line from him about worlds. It was written at the time of Columbus: “ … And makes one little room an everywhere. Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone. Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one… .” It’s infinite.
MC (shakes his head)
MGK So, all these clocks in this little room and the book on Columbus remind me that she’s speeding through infinity to mortality in such a very little space.
MC It’s a comic picture, as if you could count life by counting the years. It’s a very noisy, loud picture.
MGK A crescendo with the clocks all chiming and ticking simultaneously at separate intervals?
MC As the great poet said: What do we talk about when we’ve finished all the pages? (laughter)
MGK “Had we but world enough, and time.”
MGK You can smell them. It’s like a game.
MC We had them playing. It’s a beautiful image. It is the punctuation, a rest.
MGK Yeah, it’s good.
MC Good in this sequence, but in itself transient.
MGK That is very sexy. What is she licking?
MC I like the geometry. Knobphelia? It’s religious, like receiving Christ’s corpus.
MGK No, it’s the older icon?
MC She is not really licking, but touching. Going around the knob.
MGK Is it feeling or taste?
MC Okay, so she is undecided. She closes her eyes. Mmmm.
MGK And the foot holds the nail; that could be religious.
MC Yeah, that is the problem.
MGK The foot is a hand.
MC And the foot is like a hand. There are too many details. The next one I want to do should be landscapes. Mental landscapes.
MGK Do you want to finish the magazine or talk about landscapes?
MC No this is a great one.
MC This is a picture that I really hated in the beginning. And now, in this issue, it’s one of the most popular. I like when people re-blog.
MGK They choose this one a lot?
MC What’s this symbol?
MGK Three obese, male tummies in bright cotton knits, and one very thin cigarette. The girl smoking is so blank. (laughter) Very Sixties? Film still. Sexual politics.
MC Yeah. Mad Men. It could be in a commercial advertising for softener. It is funny, but not so funny.
MGK Not remotely funny.
MGK Ah! No water. And all empty, glass vessels.
MC The double penetration. (laughter)
MGK The relic.
MGK Freud bordering on kitsch?
MC It is a little bit kitsch, like cabaret. In German, Freud means also joy.
MGK This? Hope? A staircase?
MC No light. Our campaign for Obama. (laughter)
MGK What’s this?
MC South America? Central America?
MGK They look like dominos toppled from behind.
MC They’re using him for protection.
MGK Oh. And is he afraid?
MGK (pause) The post on the Internet will be these pictures and our conversation. You and I have put words to your pictures. Do you mind?
MC I don’t mind. (eating) Is this really bread?
MGK Alchemy. Did they infuse rum, raisins? Definitely raisins.
MGK Do you cook?
MC It is my specialty. I do all the variations of salad. Salad and salad, salad. Salad without salad, salad. (laughter) I don’t think of myself as a cook. I never applied myself. It’s as creative as painting or composing.
MGK I like the transience. You eat. It transforms. But I want to talk about your landscapes.
MC It’s an idea for our next issue. I think the challenge could be a different dimension. Landscape as the parting moment, where we don’t know where we’ll end up. The beginning of our research.
MGK What landscapes do you like?
MC (pause) What I don’t see from windows.
MGK What I don’t see from windows?
MC I’ll keep you posted.
MGK You know what I like? The landscapes in the background of Renaissance paintings with colors that seem eerie. Except when you go to where they were painted, you realize that everything is precisely accurate.
MC They are very detailed. If you think about Leonardo—the amount of information is amazing.
MGK I want to go into that landscape.
MC I don’t know if it is biblical. It is a world that I’m not sure I want to be in, but it’s a world that I recognize.
MGK Perhaps it’s from a discarded image, a philosophy where there’s no separation of religion and thought. I don’t know that Leonardo—
MC He believed in young boys.
MGK Religion as the poetry of sex?
MC He was worshipping. Yes, it was definitely religious. (laughter) Who was our last Leonardo?
MC Edison. For Americans he is the closest you can get. He brought electricity.
MGK Art and Science—or science as art—I imagine.
MC This recorder is an invention. Such a big machine for these days, eh?
MGK You’re touching all over the machine. Just don’t press and erase.
MC It’s three o’clock.
MGK I saw a work of yours in Italy—the living tree.
MC I always wanted to do something with the tree. Sometimes you have works in your mind that sooner or later you want to confront. There was a moment when I wanted to make an earthwork in the tradition of the ’70s.
MGK Earth works are imposed on the earth. Yours is the opposite. You reveal.
MC I like the idea of taking the displacement. It was a neat thing to do. And the roots are the pedestal.
MGK You took the pedestal that was.
MC And then another time, I used a tree and a car. That was more site specific. So, basically, if they see the root as being planted during the night and super powers—
MGK The tree shoots up overnight blasting through the car.
MGK That’s beautiful!
MGK Hello, Claire. Here’s the recorder. We only just talked about food.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee