Get Intimate with Maurizio Cattelans’ 18-Karat-Gold Throne – “You should call it ‘Guggen-head.’” This was Maurizio Cattelan’s pronouncement, made between appreciative spoonfuls of yogurt-and-berry parfait while he awaited a photo shoot at the Guggenheim. The Italian artist, who had come to New York in preparation for the opening of his new installation in the museum, “America,” recently learned that “head” is an American euphemism for toilet, and thought it would make for a good title for this article.
Anyone with an Instagram account and an interest in contemporary art understands the reasoning behind Cattelan’s suggestion:“America”—the first piece the artist has exhibited since his 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim—is a working toilet cast from gold that has been installed in a bathroom on the museum’s fifth floor. Cattelan intends visitors to use the toilet just as they would any other facility in the building.
While the Guggenheim’s chief photographer, David Heald, captured the artist in a series of increasingly hilarious poses, I asked Cattelan how he felt about the possible treatment the toilet could receive from visitors. “It will be a test of the piece,” he said, immediately becoming serious. As he put it, how people deal with the work is “part of the game”—and also something that comes along with giving visitors what curator Nancy Spector, writing in a new edition of the Guggenheim’s catalogue for the Cattelan exhibition All, has called “unprecedented access to something of unquestionable value.” In a gallery environment where visitors are constantly being told, “don’t touch,” this is an extraordinary opportunity to spend time completely alone with a work of art by a leading contemporary artist.
Cattelan’s inspiration for “America” seems to spring from a variety of sources. He has become intrigued with toilets as objects, and has amassed a substantial compendium of photos, gathered online, that illustrate the wide-ranging “variations of the vessels.” Then, of course, there is the legacy of Duchamp’s Fountain, which marks its centennial next year. As Spector has said,“America” “closes the transgressive loop” that Duchamp began with his groundbreaking “readymade.”
Another cultural reference now also attends the work: in a word, Trump. The aesthetics of this “throne” recall nothing so much as the gilded excess of Trump’s real-estate ventures and private residences. While Cattelan agrees that he could hardly have known about the rise of Trump when he conceived of the piece, he said that, “it was probably in the air.” He added, that the Trump connection is, “another layer, but it shouldn’t be the only one.”
There are certainly other layers to the piece, and some may also be related to issues that have become increasingly pressing during this election cycle. Cattelan has joked before that this is “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent,” though he prefers to allow the audience to interpret the work. “I’m not the one who has the right to say [what it’s about],” he said. As for the title, he noted, “In this case, the title came after [the work], and it was a matter of trying to deconstruct the object.” Separately, he said, the title and piece didn’t mean anything. “Together, it has meaning.” Come spend a little alone time with“America,” and you can ponder that meaning for yourself.
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