'I couldn't even kiss him hello! He looked like a giant dick!' she said, leaving Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin (aka MA Galerie) after seeing the gallerist dressed in Maurizio Cattelan's man-sized-rabbit-eared-bunny-footed-flesh-coloured ceremonial phallus-wear. During office hours for two of the five weeks of the exhibition - 'Errotin le vrai lapin' (Errotin the true rabbit), a play on the name of sexaholic Perrotin - the gallerist sported the bunny-cock costume that Cattelan had commissioned from costume designers at Cineccita in Italy. Perrotin the Errotin looked like a giant leg-humper; his wrinkled, testiculated legs made him seem ever on the verge. To validate this threat, the walls were splattered with a convincing faux-ejaculant. But not everyone's reaction was to shrink, and some exhibited tactile, even serious, responses. The atmosphere recalled an art of creative rather than financial speculation: at first sight it was Woody Allen's Sleeper with a smiley Disneyland concessionaire and fantasies of frolicsome sex. But on reflection, it was more wry and salacious: imagine a mise-en-scène, say by Fellini or Godard, in which the actors turn the camera on a producer who has been treating them like children. Now imagine Perrotin - let's call him Humpy - as both producer and performer, and maybe we'll uncover one of art's paradoxes.
In the 70s, artists made monkeys of themselves in order to generate a new kind of art. Apparently non-artists, such as Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman, expanded art's taxonomy to include now familiar forms such as performance and installation. But that generation's dealers ultimately had the last laugh: turning flimsy documentation and maybe a few expensively framed doodles into saleable product for which the artists became deservedly famous monkeys. Now, two decades later, an unassuming Paduan is giving the art/life problem another go, but this time making the gallerists do the dancing. Cattelan is succeeding better than most, particularly because he's found a way to continually surprise us; something 70s artists were particularly good at.
His escapade at Perrotin's wasn't his first poke at the artistic homefront. He's made a career of making art question rather than answer: founding the imaginary Co-operativa Romagnola Scienziata whose first activity was to publish 'Your vote is precious. Keep it!' in various Italian newspapers; taking the rubble from a terrorist bombing of an art centre where five people were killed and depositing it in a gallery and calling it Lullaby; raising money for an artist not to exhibit for a year (hoping to be so lucky himself); selling his room at the Venice Biennale's Aperto to an advertising company, who mounted a perfume ad; walling off a gallery so that his exhibition could only be seen from the window; installing large safes (emptied by real burglars) in a gallery; soliciting contributions from art patrons as a work of art. Under the nom de plume of A.C. Forniture Sud and an invented transport company called RAUSS (German for 'get out!') he managed and sponsored a football team composed entirely of Senegalese immigrants. It combined Italy's greatest religion - soccer - with the 20th century's greatest social problem: racism. All the while he has made these economically trying times even more trying for his dealers. At least at Perrotin's gallery there were drawings of Humpy's escapades - all done by a professional Italian cartoonist named Manfrin; Cattelan always enlists the aid of professionals in his difficult-to-label artwork.
Although the focus of the show was the relationship between creativity/commerce and art/money, it was a recent animal obsession that led him to this psycho-theatrical form of portraiture. In Naples, gallerists Raucci and Santamaria were the first to 'wear' an exhibition, donning soft lion costumes. At Daniel Newburg's, Cattelan's first solo show in New York - and one of the briefest shows ever - he hung a chandelier, strung a few sausages to the wall and roped off the gallery, in which he sequestered a sad-faced donkey that looked like the one in Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. Because of lease laws and the donkey's honking and braying, it was retired to a farm in Connecticut where, hopefully, its end was not as sad as Balthazar's.
You get the feeling that Cattelan wants to show but doesn't want to have to be there; as was the case for a group exhibition at the Castello di Rivara, where he tied sheets together and then performed a convict's escape trick on the night before the opening. Naturally, his absence created a more resonant presence. But nothing could prepare you for the spectacle at Perrotin's, where you had no choice but to respond to this Jungian transference in which the artist fabricates the dealer's psyche and then gets him to wear it. This was Surrealist theatre at its best and most intimate, bringing visitors into direct contact with the child/parent relationship of artist and dealer. When you connect the shows together, an aura begins to develop that seems like a cross-fertilisation between the slanted purview of Robert Altman, all of Peter Sellers' characters in Dr. Strangelove and a jazz Situationist. We get a glimpse of Cattelan as innocent subversive; his artistic purpose a tricky blend of self-searching, a determination to avoid clichés, and a commitment to keep his audience in tow.