“Breath Ghosts Blind”: Cattelan plays at home, but nobody can tell if he won

Unmissable or negligible? Brilliant or disappointing? Maurizio Cattelan’s black triptych at Pirelli HangarBicocca opens its doors in Milan. As usual, the artist splits the audience.

“Another Cattelan joke” is the first thought that comes to mind when you cross the threshold of the Naves at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca.
The space is dark, apparently empty, and the confused gaze meets
Breath. It is the sculpture of a man sleeping in a fetal position, together with a dog. Both figures are made of white Carrara marble. Who they are, what they are doing and why they are there is not known, although if you look closely at the human being you can see the artist’s own physiognomy on his face. A self-portrait.

Breath is the gateway to “Breath Ghosts Blind”, an exhibition celebrating Maurizio Cattelan’s return to Milan after more than ten years, and which symbolically marks one of the most important milestones – precisely because it is a home game – in the extraordinary career of the artist, born in Padua in 1960.

Conceived as a dramaturgy in three acts, the second part of the exhibition is Ghosts, a re-enactment of the installation Tourists, presented at the Arsenale in Venice during the 1997 Biennale.

The entire length of the Hangar’s side walls is inhabited by thousands of taxidermied pigeons: they stare at us; the positions are reversed, we are the ones who become a sort of attraction to their tiny eyes. Silently, in the half-light, through a rarefied atmosphere, the birds remind us of the impending end, of the inevitable judgement, but they also show us that “they” represent a true community, unlike our humanity, which has never been as fragmented as it is today.

The ghosts of the pigeons camouflage themselves among metallic shadows, rewriting the perception between inside and outside and, through their motionless presence, they show what the identity of an exhibition space is: a space of memory and frozen life experience.
“They” are there, impassive. Telling us that “we” represent the global performance; not nature, not the animal kingdom.

Maurizio Cattelan, Breath, 2021, installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan,  2021
Maurizio Cattelan, Breath, 2021, installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2021

From Ghosts we move on to the spaces of the cube, where the third act unfolds with Blind, a completely black monolith of wood and steel, which embraces the visitor as a déjà vu. The blindness of the title, in pure Cattelan’s style, corresponds to the image of the work, a sixteen-metre-high parallelepiped at the top of which the silhouette of an airplane is completely inserted. It has been twenty years since 11 September 2001, but it is still very difficult to orient yourself around the collapse of an entire part of the world, especially when the smoke screen is an iconic hologram repeated on a global scale, constantly following a single direction. As if to say: we all have the image of the plane crash etched in our memory, but we have no idea what really happened, despite being told about it in all sorts of ways.

To further problematise the issue of the media overexposure we are surrounded by, there is a not-so-collateral phenomenon that occurs by visiting the exhibition. The transition from light to dark, and again from darkness to light is amazing. The message seems to be: it takes not only the intellect to orient oneself and survive in an overstructured and bankrupt society, obsessed with poverty and death, but especially the instinct.

Cattelan clearly demonstrates his new step thanks to this operation: the dematerialisation of history in order to render it more powerfully through synthetic images, and the result is – precisely – a definitely incorporeal exhibition. A ghostly exhibition.

In short, for those who expected the monumentality of “All”, the retrospective that the Guggenheim in New York dedicated to him ten years ago, after which Cattelan declared his desire to retire, the expectations have been betrayed.

“Breath Ghosts Blind” is a project of reduction and subtraction, which aims at deflagrating by using the minimum.
Could “Breath Ghosts Blind” be described as a resounding own goal or, once again – as mentioned above – as a demonstration of the incredible ability to shuffle the cards of the most inventive living Italian artist?
Open positions, doubts and questions are all on the table, just as the issues that, whether we like it or not, this original “triptych” raises on our skins.

Breath Ghosts Blind
Maurizio Cattelan
Pirelli Hangar Bicocca
Curated by:
Roberta Tenconi and Vicente Todolí
Opening dates:
15 July 2021 - 20 February 2022
Via Chiese 2, Milan

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