Among Maurizio Cattelan’s 128 works that filled the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum the ones that stuck out the most were surely the taxidermied animals, so many of them—ten dogs, three horses, five donkeys, and an ostrich with his head stuck in the proverbial sand, plus dozens and dozens of pigeons and two solitary rodents (including the small mouse clinging to a rope with his tiny hands, number 114 in the diagram below)—that might have even made Walter Potter gasp.
As he had done throughout his half-life career Maurizio Cattelan set tongues wagging and pens scribbling with his Guggenheim show titled All. He dangled from ropes and cables every single work—or their images—he had created in the twenty-one years of his ‘making art,’ a gigantic mobile whose dissonance was defused by an undercurrent of humor: the trademark of the Italian artist. The critics teetered between degrees of awe and hostility. In part because in the months leading up to the retrospective he had dangled as well the notion that the show would be his last. At age fifty-one, he was retiring. A chorus from the art world cried, “Whaaat?” Was this just another gimmick of Cattelan—whom the reviewers and reporters had plastered throughout the nineties and the aughts with labels of “poet-prankster” and “provocateur” as they catapulted him to international fame? He had entertained them with hanging a sign that said in Italian ‘Be back soon’ on the door of an empty gallery space, that being the totality of his show; he had constructed a large sculpture of a hand giving the finger, it seemed, to the Milan stock exchange outside of which the piece appeared; he had created a fake ‘Biennial’ in the Caribbean that was nothing more than a vacation for him and his artists-friends; and more times than not when requested for an interview he had sent an imposter in his place. (Both the sign torno subito and a replica of the insolent hand were present in All.) Cattelan however assured his retirement wasn’t a stunt. He wasn’t retiring in the way we think of the elderly puttering about but he saw it as a means to start again. He told a journalist, “I’m not saying I won’t do anything else. I’m just reinventing myself.” Sort of like John Baldessari and his Cremation Project, I think, except Cattelan invited the world to watch.
Now back to the animals. The Guggenheim’s chief curator and Cattelan’s “long-time champion” Nancy Spector said, “[T]he animals are anthropomorphic and they are self-portraits and surrogates of him, they have a humanizing quality, if you think of Aesop’s fables – where there is usually a moral to the story – it is very much on that level.” She added, “They all have certificates from the taxidermists that they died natural deaths…”
Cattelan likened himself, the artist, to the animals in his art, the risk that he too could be defined by the work and not by who he is. Yet for whatever sense of fear he may have felt he shared with the animal kingdom, he would later clearly state, “I am happy as long as [the animals] don’t live near me. When they are conceived, I cuddle them but the moment they are released, they become orphans. Mostly I hate them.”
 Sarah Douglas, “The Elephant in the Room,” Observer/Gallerist NY, November 1, 2011.
Additional sources: Randy Kennedy, “Hanging with Cattelan,” New York Times, September 29, 2011; Roberta Smith, “Art Review: A Suspension of Willful Disbelief,” New York Times, November 3, 2011; Nancy Spector, Maurizio Cattelan, ed., Maurizio Cattelan: All, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2011; Peter Schjeldahl, “Up in the Air,” New Yorker, November 21, 2011; Francesco Bonami, Maurizio Cattelan: Autobiografia non autorizzata, Mondadori, 2011.
(Image: Photo and diagram (detail, click to enlarge) of the arrangements of the works, No. 114: Untitled, 1997, taxidermied mouse and string, Maurizio Cattelan’s All, from the press kit, Guggenheim Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)