The Meteor as Art – Maurizio Cattelan’s “Pope Struck by a Meteorite” Sells for $3 Million


Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Oralso (1999)
Venice Biennalle Installation
wax, clothing, polyester resin with metallic powder, volcanic rock, carpet, glass

This critique is only for this particular art installation and not Maurizio Cattelan’s body of work which I like. I don’t normally write public negative reviews and I will reexamine what I have written at a later date to see if I was fair in my initial assessment or to see if my opinion has matured or mellowed. This is that re-examination.

On the surface level, this piece is humorous. It speaks of science versus religion. Science 1 : Religion 0. The meteor serves as a deus ex machina that asks Catholics to probe their relationship to the divine through the vehicle of irony. For the rest of us, non-Catholics, it can be read as a joke at their expense, or more generously, it is just a reminder of  how logic or physics flies against religion, literally in this case.

There is a quip that says, It’s only funny until someone gets hurt… then it’s hilarious! I was particularly offended by the fallout this art installation had on Anda Rottenberg, the Jewish gallery director who had to quit her job and probably go into temporary hiding as a consequence of all of the hate mail, angry phone calls, anti-semitism, the political turmoil and negative press that exhibiting this piece attracted. Modernity says that anything and everything is acceptable under the umbrella of free speech and artistic freedom, however, I question whether it is in good judgment to bash the icons of any of the world’s major religions, whether it be Muhammad or in this case the Pope. Strongly polarized feelings towards the Catholic church make it an easy target. It is with bated breath that the audience waits for the fallout. The art piece has come alive and anything can happen.

The use of the political effigy traditionally serves the purpose of a mob. And indeed, this piece successfully conjured up an ugly mob. Ugly mobs are only satisfied by a scapegoat; mobs want blood. In this case, it was Anda Rottenberg. The misery of one person pushed the joke a step further, to the point where it’s now hilarious. It was her bad luck for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who cares what happens to one person.

Art still has tremendous power to move people. If you bring a negative element into the world, sometimes it will find its expression through an angry or retributive reaction. Was it worth it? When a work is auctioned off for $3 Million, the market answers with a resounding Yes! This is one level on which La Nona Oralso hits its mark.

-April 20, 2011

My original post:

Maurizio Cattelan’s “La Nona Oralso” (1999, translated as “The Ninth-Hour”), was auctioned off at Christie’s in May of 2001 for $886,000.

In 2006, it sold for $3 Million.

Also known as “Pope Struck by a Meteorite,” Cattelan defends his installation at the 2000 Venice Biennale with a glib statement,

“In the end it is only a piece of wax.”

In the end, after the sound and the fury signifying nothing, after the media circus, perhaps this also means it is only an elaborate fraud.

The $3 Million price tag pains me to such an extent that I scrunch my face up in the same constipated expression worn by the life-size wax sculpture of Pope John Paul II.

Let me compare this amount with what $2.6 million can buy: a half-minute of air-time during the Super Bowl with a promised reach of nearly 91 million viewers.

It is obvious that “Pope Struck by a Meteorite” falls short of art and closer to advertising. It’s a visual one-trick pony, a one-liner along the lines of the Wendy’s classic “Where’s the Beef?”

In this case we can ask, “Where’s the meat?”  Is substantive discourse even possible when a work lacks “sincerity.”

On installation art, critic Mark Zimmerman writes1,

Installation stirs up a contest, the challenge of balance between the artistic and the merely decorative, the potent with the merely incongruous.

Installation as a medium arouses discussion of dimension and participation, precluding most earlier patterns of theory and manifesto, the object innumerable, the gesture as environment.

From the elevated architectural paradigm to scatological extremities, installation absorbs us, involving all our senses and physical limitations, often casting them in irrelevant poses.

The artist’s expression may be so completely infinite as to encourage a squinted misinterpretation.

The translated language of artist to viewer is encoded and we come to the question of intent…

1. Zimmerman, Mark, Performance Review: Installing Sincerity
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art – PAJ 58 (Volume 20, Number 1), January 1998, pp. 76-80

And we come to the question of intent.

If Cattelan openly admits that his installation is just a catalyst for drama in the public sphere, in this case between Catholics, art institutions and the local government, and if the main concept of the piece is to instigate “spectacle,” then not much differenciates it from a PR stunt.

The controversy in the press puts Maurizio Cattelan’s name on people’s lips and in the company of:

Robert Mapplethorpe and his 1989 retrospective, including, the piece called “Tie Rack”

Andres Serrano and his photograph, “Piss Christ”

Karen Finley and her performance, “Chocolate-coated woman”

Robert Gober and his chapel installation, also known as, “Virgin impaled on a pipe”

Chris Ofili and his painting “The Holy Virgin Mary”

Renee Cox and her photograph, “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”

Dennis Oppenheim and his public art sculpture, “Device to Root Out Evil”

Jerry Boyle and her sculpture, “Holier Than Thou.”

Name recognition and manufactured provenance also boosts the asking price to a hefty $3 million and guarantees no shortage of collectors.

For Cattelan, the “art” here is in the buzz and the fallout.

In The New York Times we have:

A Fallen Pope Provokes a Sensation in Poland

… In Poland, John Paul II’s homeland, the response to the installation became the joke – at first grotesquely funny and then just grotesque.

On 21 December, a week after Warsaw’s museum of contemporary art, the Zacheta Gallery, opened a centenary celebration that featured “The Ninth Hour,” Halina Nowina-Konopka and Witold Tomczak entered the gallery and presented identification confirming their status as members of Parliament and granting them immunity to all but a few Polish laws.  They then removed the rock from the pontiff and tried, according to some news reports, to stand it on its wax feet.

They left a copy of the letter Mr Tomczak had sent to the prime minister, the minister of culture and national heritage and the minister of justice demanding the dismissal of the gallery’s director, Anda Rottenberg, on grounds that a “civil servant of Jewish origin” should not be spending the Roman Catholic majority’s money on disgusting works of art.  Ms Rottenberg should move to Israel, Mr Tomczak said, where she could commission wax sculptures of a chief rabbi knocked down by Yasir Arafat, for example.

A couple of weeks later, 90 members of Parliament joined Mr Tomczak in signing another, somewhat less offensive letter stating that “the restoration of a stately face to Polish national culture” required Ms Rottenberg’s immediate dismissal.

Before the exhibition opened, the president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, and two local priests acted to circumvent possible negative reaction by stating publicly that “The Ninth Hour” served as an allegory for the pope’s heavenly burden. …

But the official interpretation could keep neither the liberal and social democrats nor the conservative nationalists from casting Ms Rottenberg either as a victim of anti-Semitic nationalism or as a Catholic-basher.  Just in time for the Parliamentary election campaigns, the opposing camps got out their messages on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines. When Ms Rottenberg, a Soviet-born Polish citizen, finally resigned, in March, after receiving piles of anonymous hate mail (“You Yiddish whore, go back to Israel!” urged one note), Mr Cattelan’s “The Ninth Hour” had been largely forgotten. …

Mr Cattelan, who has been devising his spiky theatrical tableaus and actions since the late 80s, shares Marcel Duchamp’s belief that the artist begins the work but the viewer completes it, defining the artwork’s meaning and value and ultimately releasing it from its physical shell to become a story, a controversy, an image in the mind.  But unlike Duchamp, he is actively interested in his art partner – the spectator – and in the contrary social currents in which the spectator swims and drowns.  Mr Cattelan diverts the currents’ regular harmonious course and steers them toward collision. …

Lately, there have been two components to Mr Cattelan’s projects: the work itself and a carefully considered photograph of it.  The photograph of the toppled pope made its way into about 100 magazines, newspapers and Webzines.  “We live in a world of images, and I’m just an image selector,” Mr Cattelan said.

A few critics have described him, less charitably, as an ad man, a charge he embraces the way he does all charges, with infectious punk contrariness.  “I love ads,” he said.  “The more I work, the more I want to step toward pure, straightforward communication.  Who cares about art?  Art is such a little world.”

Source: The New York Times Sunday 13 May 2001; Apolllonaire Scherr contributes to “Goings on about Town” in the New Yorker.  Photo credits: Christie’s Images; Mr Cattelan’s photo by Chester Higgins Jr of The New York Times

In an interview with Alicia Bona published in the auction catalogue, Cattelan discussed this work at length:

“I like to think of La Nona Ora as a sculpture that doesn’t exist; a three-dimensional image that dissolves into pure communication – an object disappearing in the flux of information, news, comments, headlines, reproductions, newspapers and other seductive spectacles.On the other hand, La Nona Ora could simply be a bad joke taken too seriously, an exercise in absurdity….

Ideas never really come. They go: it’s all about distribution. I gather fragments, bits and pieces, crumbs of reality. Art works need to function very quickly, no matter how complex and varied they are: La Nona Ora is first of all a quick image – a mechanism for incorporating difference in a visual synthesis. When people are different, they tend to interact only through art or war. I prefer to use art as a field study for confrontation.

That’s where La Nona Ora came from or maybe that’s where La Nona Ora ended up….I don’t subscribe to the image of the artist as an isolated figure, hiding in his ivory tower. I’m trying to connect images and tensions,to bring together different impulses: I want religion and blasphemy to collide, as they do in our daily life. …

Our life is based on contradiction. In this sense, the Pope is just a pretext, a way to hold up a mirror to our daily mediocrity and existence, so we might as well start enjoying our symptoms. …

I might be idealistic or naive, but I think that any reaction is valuable and legitimate. Reactions transform art works, they change their shape and reception. Objects are nothing but projections of desire, images of a struggle. And I love when struggles happen right there in the daylight, so that everybody can see. What happened in Poland was a sort of upside down miracle; salvation wasn’t coming from the sky but from the earth, from the people….

Messages are for advertising, not for art; I always thought that art is not about explanations. It’s about opening up possibiities. Advertising, just like religion, tries to tell the truth. Art, instead, should try to tell lies.”