Gold and gunfire: Italian artist Cattelan's latest satirical work is a bullet-riddled golden wall

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Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan poses with his installation, "Sunday," at Gagosian gallery on May 1, 2024, in New York. The installation consists of 64 panels plated with 24-karat gold and pockmarked by gunfire. (AP Photo/Jocelyn Noveck)

NEW YORK – The first thing that strikes you, arriving in the gallery that houses artist Maurizio Cattelan’s latest satirical work, is the gleam. The brilliant gleam of 64 panels coated with 24-karat gold — in all, a glittering wall 17 feet tall and 68 feet wide.

The second is the pockmarks on all that gold, created by more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition fired from six different weapons.

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But the third impression is probably the most arresting: Up close, you can see yourself reflected in the gold. And when you take a selfie, as many viewers have been doing the last month, it looks like you yourself are riddled with bullet holes.

Wealth and luxury in America, pierced by the agony of gun violence. That's the explanation most visitors take away from Cattelan's solo show, the first in more than two decades by a conceptual artist famous for a series of similarly eyebrow-raising works. They include: A simple banana affixed to a wall with duct tape that stole the show at Art Basel in Miami (and drew so much attention it had to be removed); a functioning toilet made of gold (it was ultimately stolen); and an effigy of the pope being felled by a meteorite.

But ask Cattelan himself to define his new work, entitled “Sunday,” and the 63-year old Italian is adamant not to point a finger at America. “We cannot be so specific,” he said in an interview, standing beside his work. “Actually it can be about any part of the world.” Ask to critique the critiques, he replied impishly: “I believe in plurality. Whatever they say is fine.”

The Gagosian gallery says the Cattelan show has been one of its most successful to date, with 14,000 visitors so far. Most viewers say their key emotion seems to be one of contradiction — of beauty and violence juxtaposed, leaving them confused as to how to feel.

“It's beautiful, but also there’s that sort of violence behind it, which is interesting because you’re not sure how to react to it,” said Brent Koskimaki, visiting recently from Calgary, Canada. “Because the creation was quite a violent thing, right? But now it’s so still and quiet in here.”

He’s certainly correct that the creation was uniquely violent. The artist supervised a session at a shooting range in Brooklyn, with professional armorers firing two semi-automatic pistols, two semi-automatic rifles and two 12-gauge shotguns. The 64 panels were made in Italy of stainless steel plated in gold, are 3 millimeters thick and weigh upwards of 80 pounds.

Cattelan notes the shooting session couldn't have happened in Italy. “Some of these weapons, they are only used by the army,” he says. Still, he says, all the gun professionals he encountered in America have been ethical and professional, which seems to have surprised him. “They were not fanatics at all,” he said.

Adding to the flurry of contradictions is the accompanying fountain, sculpted from Carrara marble, that Cattelan has placed facing the pockmarked wall. Modeled on a late friend, it is a likeness of a man curled up on a bench, urinating — with water coming out of, well, the obvious place.

Veronique Black, a friend of Koskimaki and his wife, Teresa, noted that the sad portrayal of the man was a direct contrast to the beauteous gleam of the wall.

"To me, it’s beautiful and it’s attractive,” Black, of Montreal, said of the wall. “So you want to get closer. You almost want to touch it. And then it’s a bit repulsive to see the man peeing. So you’re attracted to something violent and pushed away from something that’s humanity. We should help each other ... but you go towards the gold.”

Added Teresa Koskimaki: "I guess that's what society is really like! We're attracted to something that’s beautiful. But we also turn away from what’s happening in society and the suffering of others.”

Cattelan, describing an idea that developed over time, says that at one point, he envisioned a gallery divided in two, with shooters on one side of a see-through bulletproof wall, and visitors on the other. Perhaps thankfully, that did not happen. At another point he'd envisioned a single gold panel. But at Gagosian, "the space was asking for something bolder. One panel became 64.”

This being a gallery, some (but not all) of the panels are for sale. While Gagosian won't release prices, it says a third of the panels have sold, at a reported $375,000 each.

That's likely a lot more expensive than some similar bullet-riddled panels by another artist, Anthony James, showing elsewhere in Manhattan. James' lawyer has written to the Gagosian, the gallery has confirmed, asking for elaboration on how Cattelan got the idea. Cattelan, through the gallery, says any claims of copying are “without merit.” It is not the first time the artist has faced such accusations; a Miami federal judge ruled in his favor over a claim involving his famous banana.

Cattelan has been called variously a shock artist and a bad boy of contemporary art, difficult and hard to pin down. But on a recent morning, smiling and sipping tea in a glass, the artist seemed affable as could be. “Do I appear difficult?” he asked with a grin.

Asked about the “shock artist” moniker, Andy Avini, senior director at Gagosian, countered: “I would describe him as a very sensitive artist. The symbols being used are shocking. They are not necessarily his symbols — they’re symbols that are in society.”

Avini says “Sunday” is a continuation of Cattelan’s “America” from 2016, aka his fully functional toilet cast in 18-karat gold that was placed in a restroom at the Guggenheim Museum, realizing an “American dream of opportunity for all.”

Alas, some thieves probably took that idea too literally, taking the opportunity to steal the toilet later from Blenheim Palace in Britain, where it was on loan. It has never been recovered. (Since it was connected to plumbing, the theft caused extensive damage to the 18th-century house.)

In any case, Avini said, the current show takes the idea behind the toilet “one step further where the discussion is about violence and wealth. Very specifically, violence with guns.” And even more specifically, the ease of getting guns.

Cattelan won’t get nearly this specific. But that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in other takes. When Mark Folino, an art lover visiting from Boston, introduced himself to the artist and offered his own interpretation involving the longtime divide in American society, Cattelan listened intently and called out to a gallery staffer.

“Take notes!” he instructed.

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