This article was originally published on VICE Australia.
Maurizio Cattelan is the enigmatic Italian artist whose work manages to conjure up both awe and ire, laughter and discomfort. In the past, VICE has been lucky enough to have the gloriously grotesque images from Toilet Paper, his collaborative magazine with photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari, grace the cover and pages of our print edition. But he does a lot more than pump out glossy photos of dildos, nutsacks caught in zippers, and skeletons surrounded by raw meat. From the late 80s up until today, Cattelan has become one of the world's most exciting contemporary artists with powerful works that touch on everything from suicide and the fear of failure to the hypocrisy of religion and the decadent culture of the United States.
While his hyperrealistic sculptures of everything from a Pinocchio who's drowned himself in a pool of water to a boyish Hitler in a praying pose fetch millions of dollars and generate a great deal of press, there isn't too much known about the man himself. In fact, the fragile concepts of authenticity and identity are things he loves to fuck with. He once stole the entire show of another artist and tried to exhibit it as his own, before the police turned up to retrieve the "borrowed" pieces. Sometimes, he features his own likeness in his work. At other times, he declines interviews altogether or sends an impostor to impersonate him.
The closest you'll probably get to the man behind the mischievous art is Maura Axelrod's new documentary Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back. While it gleefully embraces the distorted reality that Cattelan loves to project, it also makes a strong case for why his artistic vision is extremely vital today and could be for years to come.
Axelrod started following Cattelan in the late 90s, specifically around the time he exhibited his most well-known and controversial work: a life-size sculpture of Pope John Paul II being crushed by a massive meteorite. The heart of the documentary, however, is centered on the outrageous 2012 retrospective Cattelan had at New York City's Guggenheim Museum, in which he hoisted all of his work up to that point from the oculus of the Guggenheim's rotunda in no discernible order.
Like that irreverent retrospective, the new doc holds up what Cattelan has brought to fore in the art world and allows us to view it from many different angles. In the film, his work is analyzed by top art critics, commodified by big money art buyers, and personalized by some of the women in his life. And Axelrod keeps things interesting by letting you feel at first like you're really getting to know Cattelan, just before pulling the rug out from under you. The result is a film that takes a big risk. And like much of Cattelan's work, that risk could be taken as a mere prank. But to me, there's a lot more there than a simple lark. Instead, the stunt opens up the kinds of complex conversations about truth and reality that are necessary to really engaging with Cattelan's oeuvre.
To find out what it was like intimately documenting a man who is notorious for deflection and distortion, I gave Axelrod a call. Her background is actually in producing and directing more hard news content for outlets like the New York Times and ABC, so I wanted to know what drew her to Cattelan and implored her to make such an unconventional film about art. Here's what she had to say.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
VICE: How did this project start?
Maura Axelrod: I met Maurizio when we were kids. He often says it was before he could even grow a beard. I met him at an opening at a gallery. He tried to get me to go with him to another party, but I couldn't come. Later on, I worked on a story about him when he was installing the pope piece at Christie's. We started hanging around each other and became friends. Years and years went by, but I always wanted to do a project on him. Eventually, when I heard about what he was doing with the retrospective at the Guggenheim, I knew we had to capture that because it would be the perfect jumping-off point.
Why was that the catalyst?
The engineering of that retrospective was so complicated. And the whole thing cost so many millions of dollars, and it took years, and it was so involved and so crazy. I thought it was worthy of a long story.
What would you say about Maurizio's spirit? His work seems to go from being incredibly fun to extremely sad and dark.
You know, he has highs and lows like everyone else. But he's not someone who hides his feelings. During the course of shooting this doc, I asked Marian Goodman, who brought him into her gallery when he was completely unknown, if he was any happier since he had become so successful. She said, "No!"
What is your relationship with him now? Like, you two were friends and then you started working on this documentary. How has that impacted the way you two relate?
That was hard. We went through a long period of time where I was hanging around asking for access to things. I don't think he loved that. There was quite a long time where it didn't do a lot for our friendship. He was irritated by the whole process. But in the end, the movie came out. It's got distribution, and people are watching it. Now we can be friends again.
It must be stressful doing a doc on someone whom you know personally and you respect?
Yes. I didn't want to betray his confidence. But I also wanted to tell a true story. It was not an easy line to walk. He hasn't seen the movie, and I don't expect that he will. I don't think he will ever watch it.
So much of his work deals with the fear of failure. Did you feel that fear while you were making this documentary?
I think that part of why his work appealed to me because I can relate to those feelings. I am honestly someone who is never satisfied with my work. When I took on this doc, I took on the responsibility of representing somebody who has already built this incredible career, and I was terrified that I would fuck that up. He made something, and he sort of handed the ability to represent it over to me, and I took that seriously. I was worried it would not rise to the level of what he does.
Where do you think he's at in his career right now? He retired after the retrospective. But then he came back in 2016 with that 18-karat gold toilet that he installed at the Guggenheim, which he titled America. What's his course for the future?
Well, he was always working. He was always doing Toilet Paper stuff. He never ever stops working. I suspect that he will keep making art. Like [curator] Tom Eccles says in the movie, I don't think he knows how to stop.
Where would you put his work in regards to his peers, and how do you think he'll be viewed in the future?
I don't know. That is a question that I was trying to get at in the movie. I think that a lot of people don't take his work seriously. There is this whole range of people I was addressing in the movie. Like people who have never heard of contemporary art and don't care anything about it, to people who are in the movie who are the absolute most important experts in art. I felt like I had to address all of those people, but I can't say how it will be one way or the other. I don't know, and I don't think we know.
Obviously, you think his work is important.
Yes. I mean, I did this big movie and spent all these years with him. But I don't claim to know anything about art. I was coming to it as a relatively uneducated person on the subject of art. So, we'll see.
At least it's clear that his stuff is really highly valued today on the art market. In the film, we see his work fetching millions in auctions.
Yeah, I really wanted to explain that part of it to people. If you talk to my uncle Jerry or something, he'll be like, "What? That cost $10 million? You gotta be kidding me!" It makes no sense to some. I wanted to show that there are a bunch of different reasons why people pay so much for work like Maurizio's. For one thing, they are using it as capsules of wealth, so that it can increase in value. It's also a way to launder money. The whole art market is pretty weird, and also I think it is shady. Prices are fixed, and auctions are rigged. It is not a system that is fair.
It was weird to see people in the film with some of his most extreme works in their house.
Yeah. What's weirder is that there are a lot of people who buy it and don't put it in their house. They just put it in a warehouse until they are ready to sell it again. The work becomes this weird little commodity.
How does he feel about that—his art becoming a capsule for the wealth of rich people?
The gallerists don't like that. People who are pure of heart don't like that. But I don't know how he feels about it. You can't say it is wrong or it is bad, because it just is. You have to accept it. I imagine that is his take on it, because he knows what's what. Once you get to a certain point, you have to accept the way things they are.
Do you think his work with Toilet Paper is born out of an effort to be more egalitarian and break out of that stodgy art market? Everyone can get that magazine or see the work in publications like VICE.
I do think that he is interested in reaching a wide audience. He's interested in the idea of lots of eyes and the power of that. And I am, too. I think in this world, we all should be. We have the ability to reach so many people.
Obviously, he's pretty notorious for playing with concepts of identity and truth. How and why did you work that into the way the story is told in your film?
You know, Maurizio's work is always super prescient. Like, his toilet was installed before Trump got elected. At the time, some thought naming it America was super heavy handed. But now it is a perfect reflection of the moment we are living.
Maurizio's work has long questioned authenticity and authorship. Now, I think that idea is super relevant because it reflects what everyone is talking about: What is fake news? So, I really liked this idea going in of making a movie where you are not sure what is true. Playing with identity in the film just made sense, because his identity was a problem to be solved from the very beginning.
The risks we took with this film could be seen as something that is just funny or fun. But like Maurizio's work, you can dig in and try to figure out what it all means. You can look at it many different ways. Your experience coming to it and engaging with it is part of what makes it valuable.
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Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back will be at the Quad Cinema in New York City until April 27. For ticket info, visit QuadCinema.com.