In Turin last November, the talk of the town – besides the truffle season – was Maurizio Cattelan’s group show, ‘Shit and Die’, at Palazzo Cavour (commissioned by Artissima and co-organized with Myriam Ben Salah and Marta Papini). I kept mishearing the title as ‘Shit or Die’, which I guess implies I’d prefer to have a choice. But if such a Freudian slip was revealing, it also reminded me that, traditionally, the concepts of the grotesque (shit) and the sublime (die) have been kept separate, in order to prevent the former from profaning the latter. Thus, before even having seen Cattelan’s show, the grotesque/sublime perspective tinted my views of every exhibition in town, from the survey of Cecily Brown’s viscerally expressionist pictures at GAM, to Andrea Kvas’s dissection, at Galleria CO2, of painting’s material supports and spatial extension. Similarly, at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, David Ostrowski was happy to turn his sparingly marked canvases into objects probing each other’s status as autonomous. F (Ideal Women) (2013), for example, was suspended on thin threads in front of two other works, creating shifting vistas depending on the viewer’s movement.
Also on show at Rebaudengo, ‘Beware Wet Paint’, a collaboration with the ICA, London, curated by Gregor Muir, featured works by eleven painters, including Korakrit Arunanondchai’s bleached denim with burns and laser-printed flames, Jeff Elrod’s digital/analogue meditations and Christopher Wool’s deadpan routines. But the show’s claim to explore the conceptual potential of painting felt oddly stale given that the canvases were hung with little attention to, well, the conceptual potential of hanging paintings. Instead they seemed lined up as if in a revue of ‘hotness’.
Tunga’s show at Galleria Franco Noero emitted a sense of pleasurably polymorphous perversity: with an abundance of materials (mother of pearl, bronze, terracotta) and forms (recalling organs or kitchen appliances, from nipple to ladle) arranged around a central black steel tripod, the Brazilian Tropicália veteran’s works (all Untitled, 2014) felt as if an alchemist, sifting through the waste-bins of antique deities, had found nose-pickings-turned-pearls and supersize coke spoons, and fashioned them into body parts for demigods.
Francesco Barocco at Galleria Norma Mangione seemed to hold a similar fascination for alchemical workings, albeit in a more minimalist manner. On each of three table-like steel fittings, placed on a grey concrete-like ‘stage’, the artist arranged constellations of subtly turquoise-tinted jam jars and a small freestanding terracotta relief, on which either a sculpted nose protrudes above a beard delicately drawn with graphite or, vice versa, a beard is sculpted under a drawn nose (all works Untitled, 2014). The fragmentary faces recall antique heroes trapped in a pleasingly arranged domestic interior, evincing a romantic sense of irony.
‘Shit and Die’, Cattelan’s second major stab at curating after the Berlin Biennale of 2006, was sardonic in comparison: 400,000 real dollar bills covered the walls of the baroque Palazzo’s grand staircase like a tapestry. The similarity of Eric Doeringer’s piece to Hans-Peter Feldmann’s Hugo Boss Prize of 2011, for which the artist pinned the $100,000 prize money to the walls of the Guggenheim Museum, New York, was intentional: its title, The Hug (2014), as the artist has explained cheekily, represents 40 percent of the letters of ‘The Hugo Boss Prize’. This copycat confession is mitigated by the fact that Feldmann had, in turn, been accused of plagiarism by Turin-based artist Gianni Colosimo, who made a similar piece in 2006. The Hug creates an association between dirty money and the death of the author, lost in a long line of copy-paste plagiarisms. Given the show’s connection to the art fair Artissima, this may be read as a – perhaps all too obvious – comment on the art world’s schizophrenic relationship to money and authorship, values simultaneously desired and decried.
But Cattelan may have also had a more specific history in mind: that of Turin and its moneyed elite. Palazzo Cavour is a place of significance in that regard, yet the viewer was lead there as though through a labyrinth, following a thread through a series of juxtapositions that clearly carried the ‘retired’ artist’s own fingerprints. One such was the positioning of two legendary Turin artists alongside each other: Carlo Mollino’s famous series of ‘Polaroids’ (c.1962–73) was shown with Carol Rama’s Dorina (1940), a watercolour of a woman with a long serpent coming out of her vagina, thus inflecting the former’s male-fantasy stylishness with the latter’s female-fantasy Surrealism. In another conscious coupling, Cattelan married Jonathan Horowitz’s Je t’aime (1990) with Lutz Bacher’s Jokes (1987–1988), Marilyn: the former, a video featuring the Serge Gainsbourg / Jane Birkin song as soundtrack to the static shot of a cigarette burning, suggesting the finitude of desire; the latter a black and white Marilyn Monroe in bed with suggestively parted lips and the speech bubble ‘Go Fuck Yourself’. Close-by were Andra Ursuta’s Floor Lickers (2013), five life-like silicon cow tongues on the ends of mop sticks.
In this roundelay of cool ‘shit’, the ‘die’ part was easily overlooked but, to give a subtle hint, Cattelan also included an actual 19th-century gallows. Borrowed from a local museum, this exhibit served as the opening chord of the exhibition’s climax, as it was followed by a period salon once used by the building’s most famous resident, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, statesman and architect of Italy’s 19th-century unification. With the entire room covered in transparent plastic and fitted with two 1898 photographs by Maurice Joyant showing a laughing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec taking a crap on the beach, the curatorial intervention insinuated kinky private boudoir, not venerable public office. According to persistent gossip amongst Turin’s autochthonous bourgeoisie, Cavour had scatological leanings. I can just imagine Cattelan’s chuckle, unable to resist responding to the rumour with characteristic glee. As the Postmodern heir to a legacy that runs from Antonin Artaud to Kathy Acker, Cattelan muddles the separation between the sublime and the grotesque: the noble figure of the statesman who died three months after becoming first Prime Minister of Italy tainted by an obsession with shit. Both concepts culminate in the idea of losing control, and that of inevitability. Shitting and dying are inevitable, Cattelan is inevitable, and so are truffles in Turin, in November.