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December 19, 2018

How to look at art: Creativity is capacity to add

‘America’, 2016, by Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan
‘America’, 2016, by Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan

Recently, the White House asked the Guggenheim Museum in New York to loan a painting by Van Gogh. The request was declined. Instead, the Museum offered the 18-karat gold toilet titled ‘America’ by an Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan.

Cattelan (born in 1960) is best known for his satires: a Pope struck down by a meteorite (‘The Ninth Hour’, 1999), Adolf Hitler on his knees (‘Him’, 2001), a dead Pinocchio face down in a fountain (‘Daddy, Daddy’, 2008), and a head of himself breaking through the museum floor (‘Untitled’, 2001). His work has sold for millions of dollars, and he has been called everything from ‘the great post-Duchampian’, to an ‘art world prankster’, ‘joker’, and ‘smartass’.

Starting his art career as a furniture maker in the 1980s, Cattelan gained a reputation utilising the technique called taxidermy (stuffing animals) stuffing a squirrel slumped over a kitchen table with a gun at its feet (‘Bidibidobidiboo’, 1996), and a racehorse that he hanged from the ceiling by a harness (‘Novecento’, 1997).  Later Cattelan began making life-size wax models of various subjects and people, including himself, and producing the magazines made out of the pages torn from other publications (‘Charley’ and ‘Permanent Food’), or out of the original images with a twist and ambiguity (‘Toilet Paper’ magazine).

When looking at Catellan’s art do not seek visual pleasure. You will not find the harmony of shapes or balance of the colours. To get his point across, Cattelan uses simple puns and clichés to mocks various systems and ideas, like substituting animals for people, for example. His originality, he says, comes from his “capacity to add”. Similar to Andy Warhol, he loves to discover the mundane in just about any object, personality, or event. “To probe the unconscious,” he explains.

With regard to the toilet ‘America’, I believe it is still installed in a bathroom on the four floor of the Guggenheim Museum, fully operational, and anyone can use it; the wait time is about two hours though… 

‘What does it mean?' people ask.  One visitor who used it said: “I peed in ‘America’ and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry”. Others said they saw in ‘America’ the Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, ‘the Trump’s gilded excess’, or even a metaphor for our love of shiny objects. But, what do You see? 


Alla Tkachuk is the founder of the Kenyan creative thinking school MASK, [email protected]

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