by Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi
Maurizio Cattelan pulled a number on me, and in more ways than one. Yet, in retrospect, I can’t say I was surprised. Manifesta 11 was Cattelan’s un-retirement, a coming out party to mark his return from playing truant to the art world. And he made sure he delivered a one-two punch to Christian Jankowski’s “joint ventures” curatorial approach—artists were paired with Zürich professionals to co-produce new work. Across the thirty new commissions, there wasn’t much bite, with many ventures appearing strung out on the feel-good side of work, never really staking a critical claim on matters apropos labor, exploitation, migration, anything really. But, ever the trickster, Cattelan added some pugilistic thrust to this ennui. In his stardust return, Cattelan’s stardom faded a tad, receding beneath the spectacle of a delegated performance out on Lake Zürich. Much of this evanesce was down to how Cattelan toyed with live performance—its ephemeral and reproducible preconditions—amid our current mediatized habitat. In doing so, the Italian’s showing at Manifesta 11 considers the shaky terrain of “liveness” in performance, asking, pointedly, what new cultural economy is created when a slew of dynamic images and video playfully (re)performs the performance?
This question was brought to bear in Cattelan’s joint venture with Edith Wolf-Hunkeler, a Swiss world champion wheelchair racer. Building on the artist’s love for water, swimming, and all things aquatic, Cattelan and Wolf-Hunkeler together with the Swiss Paraplegic Center in Nottwil set their sights on the impossible: to have Wolf-Hunkeler glide across Lake Zürich in her wheelchair.
What were the stakes here? Was this a truly forward-thinking gesture, given that the end result was photographic performance documentation? Staring down the possibility of the impossible, it seemed the cheek of Cattelan’s practice had imploded in this partnership with Wolf-Hunkeler; the athlete’s walk-on-water wheelchair performance out on Lake Zürich garnered lukewarm reviews. While Wolf-Hunkeler was generally lauded for her poise out on the water, others weren’t so forgiving, leveling that she never skimmed the water’s surface as Cattelan’s photo of the athlete led us to believe. Instead, she was on a raft on water. Sifting through the reactions, it became clear that Cattelan’s doctored photo of Wolf-Hunkeler that hung in Löwenbräukunst, one of the two main venues of Manifesta, was central to the live performance. If we meditate on this documentary photo alongside Cattelan’s practice, we come to see how the mediatized trace of Wolf-Hunkeler created convoluted expectations around image and icon, automation and authenticity vis-à-vis the performance.
In the photo Wolf-Hunkeler can be seen popping a wheelie in her wheelchair, the trailing tide-lines of water in her wake further suggest movement; and her Nike joggers convey a just do it attitude typical of Cattelan’s provocative, no-holds-barred oeuvre. Religious references are conjured. Cattelan’s return to art after five years in “retirement” vaguely evokes Jesus’s resurrection in the artist’s usual tongue-in-cheek mode—Cattelan as miracle worker-cum-mischief maker who dared to shift the order of the (art) world and has now risen again. Read this way, Wolf-Hunkeler is, perhaps, a modern-day Saint Peter, trepid yet tenacious in her faith in technology and, by extension, Cattelan.
Cattelan sought out an inspirational image, one to move human progress forward, push possibilities. And he got his wish. Well, sort of. The Löwenbräukunst bequeathed an entire wall to the Wolf-Hunkeler’s photo. At its worst, it resembled a stock image, but at its best, the veristic image inspired, taking hold of that wall—a makeshift proscenium—and performing a tremendous act of subterfuge. Did this actually happen? In posing such an audacious question, the photo was more than a theatrical vestige—it had a documentary bent that intimated a prior “live” installation, a run-through of something grand.
Had wheelchair technology caught up with the surrealist mind or was this classic Cattelan, masterful in hype and (photographic) manipulation? It was a bit of both. Cattelan traces the gliding on water image of Wolf-Hunkeler to From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne’s 1865 sci-fi text that about a projectile that could transport man to the moon. Verne’s text signals how imaginary thought can move from ego-driven images to actuality. For Cattelan, Manifesta 11 was his opportunity to write a similar prophetic script. That is, a man has walked on the moon. Now, how about a woman who uses a wheelchair on water? Although Wolf-Hunkeler’s photo at the Löwenbräukunst set the stage for some imaginative thinking, the wall text beside the photo informed audiences that an(other) acrobatic performance was in the offing—a (re)performance, perhaps, to take place out on Lake Zürich. Knowing Cattelan, one could easily imagine that this invite was a hoax, a bait-and-switch for a spectacle yet to come. After all, this was the man who, gripped with doubt around his first solo exhibition in 1989, closed a gallery for the entire duration of the show and hung up a discreet plastic sign saying Torno Subito or “Be Back Soon.”
The events of 1989 provide a fitting segue to grapple with Cattelan’s related troubling of expectations. In a way, Cattelan’s conceptual practice—sculpture, photography, and publishing, to name a few—have long been provocative outputs that are about complicating the symbolic order of the world. Take sculptural works like La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour) (1999)—a meteorite floors a life-sized effigy of Pope John Paul II—or the photography project, Permanent Food (2003 - ongoing)—a magazine that tugs at the comical absurdities of the abject and the tragic. Both reveal a body of work that toys with the power of the image in ways that reorder or question what makes them iconic. Indeed, Cattelan’s tendency to pit images against one another finds parallels in Jacque Lacan’s insistence that the relation between a word and others words are far more important than words and signified things. In short, meaning rests not in the signifieds, but in the link among signifier and signifier, word and word.
Cattelan confronts audiences with a symbolic exchange primarily through images. In doing so, he challenges and, at times, lampoons our visual literacy. As luck would have it, this malaise drives an approach to image (re)production that borders on absolution; it is as if image making seeks to fill this void of understanding that we fail to arrive at through language. That is not to say language should singlehandedly atone for all societal mishaps; and, to be fair, language probably cannot since not everything—the recesses of the psyche for instance—is reducible to word. Nonetheless, this disjunctive at the symbolic level is worth considering. To this point, psychoanalytic philosopher, Slavoj Žižek reminds us that Lacan’s symbolic order is constituted on a debt or “wound,” which “opens up a beance [or gap] that can never be wholly filled by sense…it is always truncated, marked by a stain of non-sense.” Thinking in terms of lack or debt is reckoning with the contemporary malaise, these are antics of uncertainty.
Reflecting on this moribund possibility, Žižek’s thoughts on this symbolic lack contextualizes Cattelan’s resurrection-cum-return to art, stating “the return of the dead is a sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt.” How do we, then, speak to death’s uncanny presence that is in so many ways perfunctory? One need only look to Cattelan’s All (2007)—a row of nine seemingly lifeless bodies lie with sheets draped over them; sitting with the marble statuary reveals odd bodily contortions—to glimpse how death stalks the Italian’s practice. His work wounds, exposing how we easily slip in and out of sense and non-sense. More broadly, Cattelan’s troubling of symbols or signifiers—words and images—is not to be understood as an all-out nihilist bent, but more so in the context of a deviant tending to the symbolic law (and flaws) inherent in language. That is to say, the symbolic order of things—from language to image—is flawed so why not rabble-rouse and make merry in this death wish?
Which returns us to Cattelan’s Manifesta 11 showing: Suspended in the symbolic, what became of this inspiring image-turned-performance? As alluded to earlier, the actual performance on June 10 felt bungled. Wolf-Hunkeler did not miraculously skim across the water. Instead, she was moored to one of Manifesta’s venues, the Pavilion of Reflections, an outdoor screening space and bar constructed on the lake. Staging Wolf-Hunkeler’s dismount from this architectural spectacle definitely belied the information we were fed that “she will embark and disembark out of view.” Here was spectacle reinforcing spectacle, but in such a way that flummoxed than flattered. Secured to the Pavilion was a ramp extending down to an unsightly (easily noticeable) catamaran contraption equipped with a wheelchair. An aide had to dive in to the lake to get her going. There were no stunts or wheelies either (as Cattelan’s had us believe); she bobbed awkwardly about. The scene on Lake Zürich ebbed and flowed with precarity and chagrin, a far cry from the photo that floored with its fantastical registers. There was a hushed disappointment at the iconic parable/photo not materializing in the performance. The whole joint venture no longer felt inspiring.
It’s worth asking: was this the “work” Cattelan had in mind, and in any case to what ends? One could argue that Wolf-Hunkeler came off looking second best. Yet, reducing this venture to a reiteration of exploitation—the safety of Wolf-Hunkeler out there on the lake is a valid one, but it is also an ableist one—or a display of agency on the part of Wolf-Hunkeler is too easy. More telling is how Cattelan troubled our cultural attachment to live performances relative to mediatized iterations. Do we cling to the photo, the live performance, or the online iterations that (re)perform the performance? Wrestling with what to cling to, Cattelan, in essence evoke Yve Klein’s Leap Into the Void and asks us what we find inspiring in the first place.
Taking it even further, with digital technology hovering incessantly over live performance, Cattelan’s disjunctive showing captured the symbolic order in all of its misgivings. The Lacanian lack was palpable and, perhaps, provoked the dissensus around the questionable performance, the originary photo, and the underlying parable. With the iconic image undergoing a suturing of sorts, the image and icon, however, could not be reconciled owing to the healed “wound” being incised, again and again, thanks to a mediatized incursion that produces not just intimacy and immediacy, but, in this case, enmity. At the same time, an incision also augments and abounds in an invaginative cut type of way. Hence, the (mediatized) picture is never perfect, always already stained, contradictory. Was this dissensus to inspire us? Reconciling the lack? Locating the authentic? Symbolic capital was decidedly complicated, a showdown between live and mediated with no clear-cut victor. What’s more, Cattalan’s guile once again exposed our ironic obsession with images and icons. We had bought into his religious iconography so that his, and our, hyper-mediatized reality betrayed the authentic. But what was authentic here?
Welcome back, Maurizio.
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi is a Nigerian Australian curator and writer based in New York City. He is a curatorial assistant at PERFORMA and the 2016-2017 Curatorial Fellow at The Kitchen. His research interests cut across blackness in visual culture, the epistemology of the image, contemporary photography of Africa and the diaspora, and performance and performativity in new (digital) media. Onyewuenyi maintains an ongoing writing practice, with his work appearing in Afterimage, ARTS.BLACK, BLOUIN ARTINFO, and Carla, among others. He is an MA candidate in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts, New York.
Much thanks to Steven Henry Madoff, Dorothee Richter, and Adrienne Edwards for their encouragement, prompts, as well as feedback. A short form review of this performance was published online for BLOUIN ARTINFO in August 2016.
1 Hili Perlson, “Maurizio Cattelan’s Wheelchair-on-Water Performance Is More Dunk Than Slam Dunk,” artnet, June 10, 2016, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/maurizio-cattelan-wheelchair-water-manifesta-photos-516545.
2 Ewa Hess, “Maurizio Cattelan Will Have Paralympics Athlete Ride Wheelchair on Water,” artnet, June 9, 2016, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/maurizio-cattelan-conquering-water-wheelchair-manifesta-11-514076.
3 Félix Gauterri noted that not everything can be committed to language, writing
that the “grave error on the part of the structuralist school [was] to try to put everything connected with the psyche under the control of the linguistic signifier.” Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul
Baines and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 5.
4 Slavoj Žižek, “A Hair of the Dog That Bit You,” in Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure, and Society, ed. Mark Bracher, Marshall W. Alcorn and Ronald J. Corthell (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 46.
6 Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992), 23.
7 Philip Auslander suggests that the incursion of mediatization into live performance is responding to a need for intimacy as well as immediacy. See Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 2008).