May, 2006, essay for my Conceptual Art class at SUNY Purchase:
Maurizio Cattelan’s “Hollywood”: Continuing the Dialogue When it Might Not Even Matter?
In 2001, for the 49th Venice Biennale, the artist Maurizio Cattalan created, or rather recreated the Hollywood sign and placed it on a hilltop just outside of Palermo. For the opening ceremony, the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation of Turin, provided a flight from Venice to Sicily for certain privileged collectors and critics to see the massive nine letters sprawled out across the rocky, arid landscape that bears a notable resemblance to Mt. Lee in L.A. The sign is 23 meters high and 170 meters long; an exact replica of the original. The hill that it occupied for six months is Bellolampo, a landfill that is being used by Asja Ambiente Italia, a biogas energy conversion plant, that subsequently illuminates the sign with its “green energy”. Although this fact is not highlighted by Cattelan’s New York galleries, Marian Goodman and Gagosian, Asja is a partner of the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation, and the foundation’s principal mission is to promote contemporary art to the community at large.)
Cattelan earns himself the title “prankster”, from press releases to interviews with the BBC. That is slightly misleading. A prank is a mischievous trick, and to see “Hollywood” or any of his work for that matter, in that way is to really miss the point. “Oh how clever! He put the Hollywood sign in Sicily.” More recently, for the 4th Berlin Biennial (now we are up to two hundred biennials world-wide), which Cattelan curated along with his Wrong Gallery colleagues, he installed a “Gagosian Gallery” on a quiet Berlin street. “By using the Gagosian Gallery’s international brand name in a humble space and highly local context, Mr. Gioni said, the curators sought to ‘create a kind of tension between the global and the local’.”
By misplacing signs, Hollywood and Gagosian (which are strangely similar in a weird way), Cattelan seems to be calling attention to their new sites, and to their newly prescribed meaning within these locations. The recreating of the Hollywood sign is highly conceptual. What is means to have this sign in a place where it is not plays with our notions of truth and reality. The letters that spell Hollywood have no meaning individually, but when we see the word we automatically come up with associations, the film industry, the physical place on the map, the image of the sign on Mt. Lee, the glorified movie stars, et cetera.
One of the sign’s functions is to mark a specific location. What would it mean to take the sign that says “Welcome to Connecticut” on I-95 and move it to New Jersey? It would be deceiving for an outsider. This also brings up the fact that we take text to mean truth. If something is written, it is trusted. Compare this with art, which is not to be trusted. Art, which is part of the word “artifice” and “artificial”, implies that it is not real. It is a copy of the real thing. A medieval concern in art was not to make anything that would appear close to reality because it would be deceitful. When Magritte made “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” (1929), among other things, he illustrated not only the differences between images and text but also between real objects and pictures. When Cattelan puts the Hollywood sign in Palermo, he seems to be saying that we shouldn’t trust words either.
In Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics” he makes the distinction between the “sound-image” and the “concept” using the example of a tree and the Latin word for tree, arbor,
“One tends to forget that arbor is called a sign only because it carries the concept “tree”, with the result that the idea of the sensory part implies the idea of the whole. Ambiguity would disappear if the three notions involved here were designated by three names, each suggesting and opposing the others. I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifié] and signifier [significant]; and the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and from the whole of which they are parts.”
The complexities of text and image were explored by Joseph Kosuth in “One in Three Chairs” in 1965, an installation of a fold up wooden chair, a photo of that chair, and a silk-screened dictionary definition of the word “chair”. Kosuth makes de Saussure’s semiotics physically visible, and expands on it with two elements: our notion of the photographic image, and the printed text-definition. It is an image of a chair, no less believable than the actual chair, because we understand the photographic reproduction to be true. (More true than a chair painted on canvas). Secondly, the dictionary definition, silk-screened, plays with our concept of “fact” vs. “idea”. The installation itself looks simple, but the ideas are incredibly challenging. Kosuth, and other conceptual artists, were aware of these complexities, and their knowledge is reflected in their writing.
In “Art after Philosophy”, Kosuth writes, “The ‘value’ of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art; which is another way of saying ‘what they added to the conception of art’ or what wasn’t there before they started.” Knowingly or not, Cattelan is adding to the discussion. By recreating the Hollywood sign, he is sort of doing what Warhol did with his Brillo Box in 1964. When the sign is in Hollywood, it is just a sign. But if the same exact sign in recreated for the Venice Biennale, does it become art? The conception or idea is what, arguably, gives it its status as an art-object. Maurizio Cattelan must be aware that what he is doing has been pioneered by Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917, Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” in 1928, Warhol’s “Brillo Box” in 1964, Kosuth’s “One in Three Chairs” in 1965, and even Sherrie Levine’s re-photographing of Walker Evan’s photographs (questioning authorship), but his statements do not reflect a clear understanding. Maybe an artist today does not need to articulate their ideas as much as they did when the world was still opposed to revolutionary ideas of art. Perhaps the trails have been blazed and our notions of what is art have been expanded to such an extent that it doesn’t matter. Or perhaps Cattelan does know what he is doing is not totally original, but assigns the role of explaining to the critic.
“Installing a reproduction of the Hollywood sign on the hill of Bellolampo is a dream constructed by cutting and pasting, where the images are productions of our desires and two different worlds overlap. Hollywood is a work that tells us about the limits of our beliefs,” claims Cattelan. This says little of semiotics or “art-objects” vs. “real objects”, which I think is at the basis of the work. However, bassed on the artist’s conviction, we are reminded that a complete understanding of the work does not exist solely on the letters, but also on the space that it occupies. Bellolampo is as much a part of “Hollywood” as the Guggenheim was a part of Daniel Buren’s “Peinture-Sculpture” in 1971. Eventually rejected for the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition, the gigantic banner hung in the center of the museum, involving the circular space that it occupied as a crucial part of its viewing.
Placing “Hollywood” in Sicily, specifically above a landfill, can be interpreted in a number of different ways. One perspective involves an understanding of Sicily. Until rather recently, the Mafia had been the island’s protector against the poisons of the outside world. While other parts of Europe have become Americanized (think McDonald’s in Paris), Sicily has held tenaciously to its own culture- a self sustaining economy that would rather be poor and enjoy la dolce vita then have to sacrifice their love of life for a booming capitalistic society. Talk of a bridge connection Sicily to mainland Italy is a heated debate currently, as both older and younger generations worry about increased traffic, tourism, and ultimately the destruction of a beautiful country.
So, to get back to Hollywood, by putting this sign there, it is making a statement about the universality of the industry. Hollywood is everywhere. It doesn’t matter anymore that where the sign is placed, because Hollywood is actually inside homes, on TV’s, and at local movie theaters. It is on magazine stands, on the cover of magazines like US Weekly, where thousands of Americans grab copies to see Brad and Angelina’s baby.
Throughout Sicily, ancient Greek temples remain standing. Their placement is specific to the landscape, the sea, and to how the sun would illuminate them, at sunrise or sunset. As people once walked uphill to lay an offering to the god or goddess of the temple, we have photographs of people going to see Cattelan’s “Hollywood”. In procession, these people become part of the whole scene, and ironically climb the hill to Hollywood. Are our exalted actors and actresses the gods and goddesses of today? And then is Hollywood a recreation of the temple?
Maurizio Callelan’s “Hollywood” holds endless possible interpretations, but it is hard to give him much credit for total originality. He basically reworked earlier ideas without coming out and nodding to those who forged his trail. I am not sure if an artist is required to do this, or if the critic takes that role. In any case, while his work is without question conceptual, it also lacks the “attack of the system” aggressiveness of his 1970’s predecessors. An online biography of Cattalan describes him as “a knowing and sophisticated artist who teases the art world without ever falling into the naïve trap of thinking he can subvert a system of which he is part.” In this way, he differs from Buren, Levine, Kosuth, and others who, albeit naïve, strove to break down institutional power and remove economic value. Photographs of Cattelan’s installations sell at a huge price. Under the name of the “Wrong Gallery”, Cattelan participates in a weak version of institutional critique. Anyone who believes that Gagosian didn’t know they were making a mini-replica gallery for the Berlin Biennial is falling for the biggest prank of all.