Blenheim Art Foundation is hosting a solo exhibition by Maurizio Cattelan at Blenheim Palace running until 27 October 2019. This is Cattelan’s first and most significant solo exhibition in the UK in twenty years and features new works specially made for the show. The new works are joined by a number of his most iconic pieces as part of a themed selection displayed throughout the 18th century Palace, engaging with Blenheim Palace’s history and unique setting.
The exhibition features America (2016) – one of Cattelan’s most recognisable works – a solid 18-Karat gold toilet which was installed inside the Palace. Visitors are welcome to use it during their visit and experience a rare individual encounter with one of contemporary art’s most famous works.
Maurizio Cattelan became front-page news when his sculpture America was installed at the Guggenheim museum in New York in 2016, two months before Donald Trump won the US presidential election. A fully functioning toilet made of 18-carat gold, America has now been plumbed into Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, near the room where Winston Churchill was born. Visitors will be able to use the prankish Italian’s artwork, provided they obey a three-minute time limit.
Why did you make a golden toilet? The toilet is a place that everyone frequents and sees during their daily routine. As I started thinking about this work, that point was quite inspirational. Then came the material: gold is the religious material par excellence, plus the very essence of capitalist culture. I laughed at the idea, spoke with some friends, and joked about it with them. Then I realised it might be interesting to combine the rarest material with the most common site.
How expensive was it? Very very expensive, especially because such a huge melting had never been tried before, as far as I know. It involved engineering knowhow and artisanal skills. Even we were surprised by how staggering the price was.
Why is it called America? Is the nation a toilet? No, not at all. I’d say it’s a double-edged work: it is 1% art for the 99%.
The 1% being the gold and the 99% being us plebs peeing in it? It holds out the promise of a quintessential American dream – access to opportunity and development for all – while making visible what is not attainable for most: gold.
How did New Yorkers react? There was a queue from opening time until closing, for the whole exhibition. America offers the possibility of being one-to-one with the newest cult object. It’s about having a spiritual moment of pure, lonely contemplation in the least obvious area of a sacred spot, a museum. That’s something that doesn’t happen so often.
Have you used the toilet? I never had the chance. It was always busy – and before the opening, I was travelling. I believe that the first one to use it was the plumber, to test it. When I arrived, it was already too late. The line was too long. But I hope I’ll be luckier at Blenheim.
Trump asked the Guggenheim if he could borrow Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape with Snow. They said no, but offered your toilet instead. What did you think of that? Nancy Spector is a great curator with a really sharp mind. She has the right to propose any work from the Guggenheim collection. I would have been honoured for my work to be shown in such a prestigious place as the White House.
Would Trump use a golden toilet? I couldn’t say for sure. It would probably depend on his urgency.
You’ve been called a prankster. Do you want people to laugh at your work? Humour functions like a good work of art: they are both intended to make you look and think twice. A laugh might have two souls: it can be an escape from an embarrassing situation, or a moment of clarity. In this sense, humour is critical from a cognitive standpoint. That’s why it interests me so much.
Is satire the best way to respond to this political moment? Satire has always existed and it’s a blessing that someone is still capable of it. It can be a commentary about what’s happening, but it’s not the answer. To be informed, speak out and take to the streets is the only way to change the situation.
You were supposed to have retired in 2011. What happened? Let’s say that I pretended to be dead for a while. But like Dante after his tour of hell, I chose to come back to life. If it’s true that you’ve never really lived until you’ve never nearly died, I’m ready to start my new life! Seriously, I was looking for a way to get some distance from a system that was becoming suffocating. Stopping for a while was the only valid way I found.
When you exhibited a live donkey at Frieze in New York, you were accused of animal cruelty. In my experience, it’s difficult to force a donkey to do something it perceives to be dangerous – and the organisation took care of every detail for showing that piece. The space had been adapted to let the donkey have all it might need. There was an animal trainer taking care of him, avoiding any overwork. Horses doing tours in Central Park definitely work harder and in worse conditions. I later discovered that the donkey was a musical and movie star, and was used to being on stage. Now he also has performance art on his CV.
Where do you go next when you’ve made a golden toilet? The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why. I’m still working on the latter.
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