Images in the Piazza: The Destruction of a Work by Maurizio Cattelan (Milan, May 2004) | Flaminia Gennari-Santori
The one thing to say about art and life is that art is art and life is life.—Ad Reinhart, 1962
In May 2004, a case of iconoclasm occurred in Milan that mobilized the city and the local and national press for several days and had significant reverberations in foreign newspapers. On the evening of May 6, a man armed with a ladder and shears cut the cords by which three life-size hyper-realistic figures of children had been hung from the oldest tree in Milan, the oak in Piazza Ventiquattro Maggio. Untitled, an installation by the famous artist Maurizio Cattelan commissioned by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, had been unveiled just the day before and was to remain on display in the piazza for a month.1 The destruction of Untitled became immediately a political affair that revealed conflicting ideas about the city and its public spaces. The event brought to the surface anxieties about Milan’s reputation as a cultural magnet, as well as incompatible ideas about contemporary art in the public arena. The press transformed the event into a miniaturized and grotesque representation of Italian politics and relegated it within the domain of the entertainment industry. While it was an eminently site specific event, embedded within the Italian loud, self-deprecating, and anxious public discourse, in this article, I argue that the destruction of Maurizio Cattelan’s installation pertains to the wider context of recent destructions of works of art in public spaces and most importantly, that it cannot be understood unless we link it to the historical tradition and meaning of public images.
Maurizio Cattelan’s project was commissioned by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, a nonprofit institution founded in 1996 that since 2003 has supported interventions by major international artists in non-museum spaces scattered around Milan. A close engagement with the city and its forgotten or abandoned spaces is the mission of the Fondazione. Its projects have been at once innovative and popular, and well received by both the citizenship and the art world.2 In this regard,Untitled was an exception, yet the debate it stirred and its destruction raised fundamental issues about the status of art and images in general in the public domain. Piazza Ventiquattro Maggio, where the work was installed, is one the city’s most symbolic squares: the figures were hung from the oldest tree in Milan, a huge oak that was placed there in 1924 in memory of those who had fallen in World War I. Near the tree, a neoclassical arch celebrates Napoleon’s victorious entrance in the city in 1796. The date marked the beginning of a significant period in Milan’s history when the city was first the capital of the Cisalpine Republic and then of the Kingdom of Italy.3Untitledconsisted of three life-size figures of children hanging from the branches of the oak. Realized in fiberglass and wax, they were quite realistic when viewed from a distance. They were not hung as if lynched, even through the cords were around their necks, but were suspended and looked down from above on passersby, turning slowly. They were barefoot and, as many noticed, their feet were dirtied with earth (Fig. 1).
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