A myth is a foundational narrative that may be based in truth or fiction but either way it tells a story of who we are. Thus self-consciousness is constructed by a shared narrative and helps us to give shape and even name our identity. If we think of identity in the usual terms of religion or nationalism, some examples of these mythological narratives include the King James Bible or the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. But in the art world, there are strains of mythology that are built on identity formations like artist, curator, or critic.
Maurizio Cattelan is notorious for using unabashedly bad-boy black humor to resist easy classifications of identity. He does so through imagery and institutions that are deeply tied to religion, nationalism and the art world. In his exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston, Is There Life Before Death, Cattelan has worked with the curator Franklin Sirmans to explode the distinctions between a number of categories. The exhibition includes art objects that are situated as “interventions” in the galleries of Byzantine, African and Surrealist art, culminating in a haunting set of works in dialogue with Arte Povera works from his native Italy. As a result the work is both art object and its context within the museum. In this sense Cattelan plays both artist and curator.
This blurring of boundaries is one of many attacks against authority that Cattelan perpetrates. But as Sirmans notes in the accompanying catalog, Cattelan has a long tradition of work in and out of normative roles. In addition to making sculpture and installations, Cattelan also worked on the publication Permanent Food and acted as curator for the Wrong Gallery and the 2006 Berlin Biennial along with curators Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. This kind of interdisciplinary activity cuts against the grain of traditional divisions of labor in the art world. The myth of these divisions is based on the notion that artists are dumb mute expressionists who use innate talent to make objects that are interpreted by critics, bought by collectors and arranged by curators. By resisting this mythology, Cattelan capitalizes on the expansion of artistic practice by many artists of the twentieth century such as Duchamp and Warhol found in the Menil Collection.
But Cattelan also challenges more traditional mythologies such as Christianity. His Untitled, 2009, a taxidermied horse on its side with a wooden sign reading INRI staked in its flank, was placed in a dark gallery of dreamy Magritte paintings. This obviously references the Latin acronym inscribed on Jesus’ cross declaring him to be king of the Jews. But placed on a dead horse, a symbol of foolishness, what does this mean? In the Menil’s comment book there were some Christian visitors that were very much offended by this work, assuming that is was heretical along with Untitled, 2007, a sculpture of a woman face down and crucified in a shipping crate.
These gestures cause controversy because they rupture the fragile fabric of our expectations. When these Christian visitors walked into the Byzantine section of the Menil Collection they were looking for something old and true. They were expecting artifacts that would deliver on the promises of their identity’s myths. Instead they were confronted by a Trojan horse, an object that trafficked in similar iconography but proposed something less clear and concrete. This was the true heresy, for mythology cannot tolerate ambiguity and skepticism. Myths are made to describe truths and their reproductions and meant to reaffirm them. But artists like Cattelan use mythology along with the strategies of artistic, critical and curatorial practice to reveal that a story is only as good as its teller.