The man behind the Guggenheim Museum’s solid-gold toilet, Maurizio Cattelan has been described as a prankster, a fraud, an imitator, an innovator, a genius, a xylophone, and “quite possibly the most infuriating smart-ass on the contemporary art scene.” Actually, I have no idea whether any of that previous sentence is true, but it sounds plausible, which is good enough for director Maura Axelrod. A hard-hitting news reporter who took a break from covering international danger zones (like Rio favelas and Afghan front lines) to make the softball art doc “Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back,” Axelrod plays along with her eccentric subject’s insouciant attitude vis à vis his own identity to mostly delightful effect.
Like so many recent films about contemporary artists, the movie functions more as publicity than portrait, reminding viewers within its first two minutes that Cattelan’s work sells at auction for $10 million — as if that has a whit to do with his actual value to the art world. And yet, in Cattelan’s case, it kinda does, since part of his shtick has been an uncanny ability to command outrageous prices for work that openly critiques the very institution that has embraced it (such as his 2010 commission for filthy-rich art patron Peter Brant, which resulted in a wax bust of the billionaire’s spouse, supermodel Stephanie Seymour, mounted like some sort of safari prize — unofficially known as “Trophy Wife”).
Made at the time of Cattelan’s career-spanning 2011 show at the Guggenheim and first screened at the museum during last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Axelrod’s slippery doc is easily the most entertaining “art film” since Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and culturally inclined audiences would do well to catch it during its theatrical run — even though the film itself, backed by Cattelan believers, feels destined to be sold in the Guggenheim’s gift shop.
“I’ve been always very good at faking things,” says a man whom Axelrod guilefully encourages us to mistake for Cattelan himself, but who is actually art curator Massimiliano Gioni, who has been playing Cattelan for the sake of interviews and public appearances for years. Posing as the artist, Gioni pretends to be offering candid insights into Cattelan’s work, but is actually reading from a script, as are many of the doc’s other sources, which include gallerists, (ex-)girlfriends, relatives, art critics, and the director of Cattelan’s own archive, who claims to have had very little interaction with the famously reclusive figure.
With a title as facetious as its subject, “Be Right Back” refers to the very first gallery show of Cattelan’s career, which was devoid of any work, save for a sign that read “Torno subito” (“Be right back”). But it also serves to anticipate the disingenuity of Cattelan’s claim at the time of the massively popular Guggenheim exhibition — in which he suspended the entirety of his oeuvre from the ceiling of the museum — that he would be retiring. Sure enough, he would be right back … with the aforementioned commode, fully functioning and installed last September in a Guggenheim loo (after the film’s completion).
So, while the film is essentially hagiography posing as exposé, it does serve to question Cattelan’s curious place within the contemporary art canon — which is perfectly fitting for an artist who has openly rejected that particular label (“I am not an artist, I make art, but it’s a job,” he has said). And though art may be work for Cattelan, the results are playful enough to amuse newcomers, who may find Cattelan to be just the antidote they needed to the otherwise self-important conceptual art scene.
A couple years back, British artist Miriam Elia published the ersatz early-reader book “We Go to the Gallery,” whose satirical sensibility seems perfectly suited to an artist of Cattelan’s ilk. On one page, a boy named Peter considers a canvas. “I could paint that,” says Peter. “But you didn’t,” says Mummy. Cattelan is that kind of artist — a man whose ideas seem so obvious, and yet he got there first.
Here, Axelrod takes us through his greatest hits, including the piece in which Cattelan duct-taped his Italian gallerist to the wall, the Cattelan-conceived “6th Caribbean Biennial” that hosted a handful of the world’s hottest artists but offered no new art to speak of, and the time he erected a full-scale replica of the Hollywood sign over a Palermo landfill and then bussed art snobs and collectors to the site. There are the lifelike dead animals, the hanging children (re-hanged from the Guggenheim rafters), and waxworks effigies of a penitent Hitler and blasphemous Pope.
It all adds up to a cheeky survey of the artist’s contributions, complete with animated recreations of some of his earliest stunts. Breezy and mind-boggling in equal measure, the brisk 95-minute roundup leaves plenty more work to be discovered, from the golden toilet to his bold Toiletpaper design magazine, while raising many of the questions that make Cattelan’s work simultaneously catchy and controversial. Is he an artistic genius or a genius self-promoter who’s learned to game the system? Playing it as coy as her subject, Axelrod succeeds in leaving the man’s true identity an enigma, while giving audiences enough to form a fairly good opinion for themselves.