This venue, once a Pirelli factory, has been converted into a 15,000 square-metre exhibition space, one of the largest in Europe, and consequently has the ambience of a secular cathedral. Here, where until recently locomotives and agricultural machinery were assembled, three works by Maurizio Cattelan are being shown, under the enigmatic but important title Breath, Ghosts, Blind.
Cattelan is a provocative artist who has exhibited all over the world. In Milan you can see his installation L.O.V.E (acronym for Freedom, Hate, Vendetta, Eternity), and The Finger – a five-metre high sculpture of a hand with the fingers all severed except the middle one. The mocking Finger faces Palazzo Mezzanotte, seat of the Stock Exchange.
In 2004, on the branches of a centuries-old oak in a central square of Milan, Cattelan hung three realistic puppets of children. Barefoot and dusty, they looked down at us, representing the suffering of modern day children. The work scandalized the right-wing, to the point that a protester tried to tear them down.
Now, after 10 years of absence, Cattelan returns to Milan, at Hangar Bicocca.
His new work is a trilogy that symbolically represents the cycle of life, from birth to death, and develops in close relationship with the architecture of the building. In a profound silence, a dark space welcomes the visitor, who feels almost overwhelmed by the immensity of the place.
Breath is a white marble sculpture of a man and a dog lying in a foetal position, illuminated by a light that pierces the darkness. The position of the bodies indicates a link between the two subjects. The man evokes the figure of the homeless, while the dog is a symbol of fidelity, but also, in classical mythology, a guide in the passage between the world of the living and the dead. The two are united by the vital act of breathing. The figures resemble those we often meet on the streets, but the use of marble for the sculpture confers a sacred quality, elevating them to the works of Michelangelo or Canova.
Proceeding along the aisles, Ghosts is thousands of taxidermy pigeons, looking down on us, arranged along the walls, between the pillars, singularly or in groups. Already, in two Venice Biennials, Cattelan had surprised visitors to the Italian Pavilion by filling it with pigeons, like intruders observing the spectators, just as Cattelan considers himself an intruder into the world of artistic institutions. The pigeon has a positive value for him as a messenger during war, a bird that is also a type of dove, a symbol of peace and of the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography. But if in everyday life we are used to meeting these birds in all our squares, inside the Hangar they constitute a disturbing presence by colonizing the interior spaces and making us feel almost strangers. By association, the final sequences of Hitchcock’s The Birds come to mind, when the birds are about to attack.
Finally, Blind: a black resin monolith crossed by the shape of an aeroplane. The reference to the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001 is immediate. But there are other readings of the work, which almost becomes a memorial to the fallen, speaking to us of our fragility, of human pain in the face of immense tragedies. Cattelan has always reflected on dramatic historical events, such as the execution of the politician Aldo Moro or the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas, and investigated the themes of murder and death. Blind also alludes to the blindness of human beings, and their inability to see and feel the suffering of others.
This is another provocative exhibition by Cattelan which involves the viewer and makes us reflect. As the artist says: “Today art enables me to show things from a different point of view, from another angle. What you do is not always interesting or relevant, but sometimes you manage to touch a nerve, to take something that is there for all to see and put it in a light that awakens people, makes them think and discuss.”
Maurizio Cattelan, Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan, from 15/07 to 20/02/2022.. Reservation required. Free admission.
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021