I step in to the iconic lobby and there, dangling like a sweater from a hand is a horse, dead and stuffed and majestically sad. The way it hangs is so undignified, both ends drooping as if it died that way (how would it have died that way?), the juxtaposition with the balletic spiral of the curving white walls so incongruous it almost inspires a laugh. Almost.
It's my last of five nights in New York City and I am sitting on the bed in the guest room after a last dinner with my hosts, musing over the Cattelan show I saw today - the layers of it, the outrageous imagery (the Pope laid low by an asteroid, Hitler kneeling as if in prayer but cross-armed and cartoonish, a grumpy bobblehead professor; the ship's prow/store mannequin bust of a woman, portrait-specific and staring while fondling her own bust), all adding up - to what? I had asked myself almost right away.
Because the second I see an artist hanging random stuff in a space a switch flips in my mind...stand by to determine if this eclectic collection amounts to anything meaningful or if it's a molehill of cleverness for the sake of its own shocking, random oddness.
Shocking random oddness doesn't interest me.
It has to add up to something.
I kept walking, very slowly, looking up as I turned the first spiral, taking in a giant newspaper, a black man kneeling, head covered, a white boy hanging by the neck, a fake tree on its own cubic planet of carpeted dirt, glimpses of toys and more animals and signs and photographs peripherally, without knowing what they meant, yet somehow inhaling an overall sense of their quality and their meaning, as if they pulsated electric waves of intent.
Next to the elephant covered in a sheet like a kid playing ghost, in front of the open casket, a handsome docent smiled then sweetly informed me that the elephant's sheet did not, as many thought, refer to the Klan, that the man in the coffin was JFK with his feet bare so that despite having died with his boots on (as "they used to say in old times") he might go to heaven, and that the young woman strapped arms overhead and face away in her box was an artist friend who had killed herself.
As soon as I politely could I excused myself. He was trying to be helpful but I didn't want to hear, I didn't want to know, especially in case it was misinformation (in the catalogue, which I glanced at later, I saw no reference to a suicide), I didn't want my raw experience influenced; I wanted to see for myself. To me the measure of a piece is often in how well it reads with no support, how much comes across without verbal assistance.
I enjoyed how many things I could see for myself and interpret with no explication. Individual pieces impressed me in the fullness of their conceptual realization as I stared and slowly made sense of them. A couple made me literally gasp, such as the granite monument engraved with the names not of soldiers but of European soccer scores; this alone was worth the admission. I could only imagine its power in the original context.
In fact, it's precisely the raw first visual impression from the lobby that stays with me even now as I sit here in my room in my host's beautiful loft, typing this with one finger on my iPhone.
Something happened as I gazed up from ground level, ignorant of any information about the artist, at the eclectic collection of elements cavalcading above my head. Almost immediately, I was struck by a distinct sense of the Italianness of it all - the crusts of history, the world view from the Boot, from the entrenched depth of ages, of colossal sculptures (here, cathartically snapped off fingers flip the bird in Carrara marble), of appliances cobbled into ancient dwellings (the menopausal woman in the fridge), the weight of Romans to Renaissance, the hypocrisy of absolute religion and most of all, the embarrassment and lingering pain of WWII, couched in so shallow a grave as to haunt the living still.
It's a dark and melancholy show, deeply funny, political and personal and therefore universal, yet despite what resonates on this broader level, inescapably, specifically Italian.
On a round cushioned pouffe I sat and charged my phone and admired the delicate bones of Mr. Wright's design. It stands, as always, curiously removed from whatever you mount inside it, its odd tri-corners and elegant bands interested really only in themselves. Yet Mr. Cattelan has his way with the famous space, boldly and with wit, and the pair of them together held me there, engrossed, for hours.
This was not shocking random oddness hanging from the ceiling. It was the greatest hits encapsulation of a fearless, funny commentator, each part springing with meaning. They collude in a sly play on the idea of a retrospective that interacts with the unique space and swirls into a whole, new and resonant and full-blooded.