The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is often described – rather dismissively – as a prankster. His new exhibition at Blenheim Palace, however, has been much applauded for revealing a deeper, more thoughtful aspect to his practice. While the disdain demonstrated in responses to his previous work as ‘mere’ jokes or one-liners reiterates a conception of comedy or humour as merely superficial, the issue of ‘cheap laughs’, or of laughing as a replacement for thought, remains a reasonable criticism. The use of humour in conceptual art is well established (Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Martin Creed among many others), but it does have a reputation for gimmickry, and Cattelan’s new exhibition suggests that this might relate, at least in part, to the context in which the art is shown.
One of Cattelan’s best known, and most notorious pieces is ‘La Nona Ora’ (a wax figure of Pope Jean Paul II felled by an asteroid), often interpreted as a savage satire on the Catholic church, but in Blenheim, a palace built to commemorate the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s military victories over the Catholic French, the satire becomes more complex. Positioned beneath a portrait of the Sun King Louis XIV, the Duke of Marlborough’s great enemy, there is a sense that the piece is no longer an articulation of Cattelan’s animus, but of Malborough’s. As the violent – and comic – wish-fulfilment of a long-dead aristocrat, that animus is starkly revealed, stripped of the pretensions of ‘History’ and grandeur. This dynamic is characteristic of comedy’s larger association with the concrete and the finite: turning from universal or transcendent values towards the individual and the particular and thus the limited and imperfect.
The piquancy effected by context is also evident in the piece ‘Daddy, Daddy’, a sculpture of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, which lies floating face down in the one of Blenheim’s elegant ponds. Most frequently pictured in the rather sterile context of the 2008 installation in the Guggenheim’s ground floor fountain, this installation feels both more poignant and more disturbing. The clash between the idioms of the cartoon and the stately is pronounced, and once again pomp and grandeur are undermined and mocked. As with ‘La Nona Ora,’ the context ensures that the comic shocks are given more room to ripple and reverberate.
© Emma Sullivan 2019.