When an Image Becomes a Work: Prolegomena to Cattelan’s Iconology


“The idea is to reorganize something already there, re-present something that already exists.” [2]

Open Google.com. Write “dead horse” in the search bar. Select “images”. The first search result is the image of a dead horse, lying on tar, a sign knocked in its flank. The sign says: “If you ban hunting, there will be lots of these.” The website featuring the image [3] explains that the macabre scene was arranged by some farmers protesting against a fox hunting ban. The blog post dates back to June 10, 2007. The image exists in two versions, almost identical, probably shot by the same camera a few seconds away: the point of view is the same, only the cars on the street and the passers-by change. In the second shot, in the background, a boy takes a picture.

Also, this image has a clone. It was created two years later, by an artist answering to the name of Maurizio Cattelan, in the shape of a sculpture titled, as most of his artworks, Untitled (2009). In the official picture, shot by Zeno Zotti and featured in the catalogue of the exhibition “All”, Maurizio Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York [4], the only differences are in the setting – the laminated flooring of a white cube – and in the sign, where the original warning has been replaced by a simple and evocative “INRI”. The framing is exactly the same: the white sign is at the center of the picture, and the position of the photographer brings the beast’s muzzle to the forefront. The horse is reproduced almost literally: the forelegs cross, and the hind legs line up in the very same way.

Once noticed the indisputable effectiveness of the original image, Cattelan made his best to stick to it, and he just took off the incidental details, like the passers-by and the blue rope used to drag the horse in the place where it was found and photographed; and to be sure not to lose this effectiveness as an image, he commissioned an official “media version” of the sculptural work [5].

Yet, these two images are also very different. The first refers to a news item, the latter is a work of art. The first has the richness of reality, the latter the pithiness of an allegory. Furthermore, the horse may belong to a found image, but it has also been for a long time an important part of Cattelan’s iconography, as an alter ego of the artist himself. In the original image, Cattelan sees the potential of a foolish sacrifice, and turns it into a universal icon with a simple but effective reference to the death of the Christ. A minimal shift, but one that turned the found image into something that, indisputably, belongs to Cattelan.


“I’m always borrowing pieces – crumbs really – of everyday reality.” [6]

Maurizio Cattelan is a self-declared kleptomaniac. In his personal mythology, the trope of the thief comes second only to the one of Oblomov, the idle artist running away from his shows, exhibiting fake medical certificates, inviting people to keep their vote, collecting money to pay a young artist (himself) to avoid working for a whole year, renting his space at the Venice Biennale and organizing another Biennale (actually a holiday) in the Caribbean. Cattelan the thief asked a sketch artist to make portraits of himself according to his friends descriptions; he stole the name plates of some professionals in Forlì; he stole Zorro’s Z, Fontana’s cut, the Red Brigades’ star, the neon sign of a cafe and a pharmacy, an entire exhibition by another artist, and made a portrait of himself entering a museum from a tunnel dug under the floor; but above all, he stole ideas: from other artists, the mass media, and everyday life.

For obvious reasons, his appropriations from other artists are quite well known. The analogies between his Love Saves Life (1997) and Katarzyna Kozyra’s Pyramid of Animals (1993), both inspired by the four musicians of Bremen tale, have been widely discussed. But the list could go on for long: All (2007) makes us think to Luciano Fabro’s Spirato (1968); Untitled (2007), the woman hanging from a door jamb, materializes out from a picture of Francesca Woodman’s Angel Series (1977 – 1978); and both La rivoluzione siamo noi (2000) and Untitled (2000) play with Joseph Beuys, his language, his mythology.

Art criticism often reacted to these robberies in an interesting way. Cattelan’s detractors used them to prove his lack of originality; his supporters often minimized them, turning them into “quotations” (that would turn him into a late postmodernist, which he isn’t). Clearly, the XIX Century myth of originality is still so strong to prevent us to follow an artist where he himself wants to bring us, confessing over and over his inclination to stealing.

What if we choose to follow him along this way, all the way? Let’s make a working hypothesis: that theft is Maurizio Cattelan’s favorite formal strategy, the one he used the most. That beyond most of his works there is another image, an hidden sub-text, awaiting to come back to light.

This is not an attempt to undermine the reputation that Cattelan’s work got along the last twenty years, but to understand the indisputable success of the images he created; this is not an attempt to reduce his works to the images that inspired him, but to measure the difference between the two; this is not an attempt to demonstrate his lack of originality, but to understand what actually Cattelan’s originality is; how he situates himself in the contemporary media arena, and in a cultural environment where, as novelist Cory Doctorow said, “we copy like we breath” [7]; and what he has in common with a new generation of artists for which appropriation is no more a subversive cultural strategy coming with an ideological baggage, but a natural, daily gesture, an habit, a way to contribute to an ongoing discourse [8].

Permanent Food

“Spector. What constitutes a successful work for you? Cattelan. I like when the work becomes an image.” [9]

Maurizio Cattelan has an absolute respect for images. The confirmation comes from the quote above, where the word “image” is used with a strong, unusual meaning, in some ways closer to the medieval concept of “icon”, or the modern concept of “meme”. In this sense, an “image” is a visual sign that circulates outside of the context in which it was produced; something which imprints itself into one’s memory, and which is reused, duplicated, altered by anybody, losing all ties with its “author” and developing new meanings any time it is used. It is something that doesn’t exist as a “work”, but as a “subject” with its own life, able to self-replicate and to spread itself.

Just a few artists are able to create “images” of this kind. With rare exceptions, the visual imagery produced by contemporary art remains within its jurisdiction. For the most part, the collective imagery of the twentieth century has been developed, rather than by artists, by other professional image-makers: film directors, photographers, cartoonists, designers, illustrators.

In this context, Maurizio Cattelan stands out as an exception. The Italian artist, who made such a few “artworks” along his short career, circulated much more “images” than any other artist of his time. How did it happen?

My answer is: feeding on images. An act of feeding that isn’t just stealing, but that rather improves an image which, once it’s out there, should be considered a commons, no more a property. Filtering, like a sieve, the tons of images that the media – newspapers, magazines, TV, the internet – pump on him (and on anybody else), and choosing the ones that he like and that better fit in his agenda, Cattelan rephrases them and sets them free in the communication flow again, allowing other people to find a new meaning for them.

This is, you may say, what any artist does, but what makes Cattelan unique is his hunger, his instinct, his ability to synthesize, his methodology and determination in producing artworks able to become an image, to enter the collective imagery and be reproduced and distributed in any kind of communication system. As Francesco Bonami said: “Cattelan’s works have three lives. They live in reality, in the media and in memory. Their first life is human, the second is spiritual, the third is eternal.” [10]

This reference to the semantic field of food is not accidental, since Cattelan himself (and his spokespersons) used it many times. Massimiliano Gioni recently referred to him as a “great consumer of images”, and talked about his “bulimia of images” [11]. Back in 1996, together with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and the designer Paola Manfrin, Cattelan conceived a magazine called Permanent Food, published in 15 issues up to 2007. Permanent Food describes itself as a “second generation magazine”, declares a “free copyright” and samples images from any kind of source: fashion magazines, illustrations, posters, art magazines, newspapers, fanzines, catalogues, and, of course, the internet. Everything is presented out of its context, without text labels and references, cleaned out from its functional status of advertisement, work of art, amateurish creation, and from its own history. Permanent Food is literally what the title declares: a permanent act of feeding imagination, thanks to what’s selected and to the way it was put together – an ephemeral assemblage open to the contribution of the user, since the binding has a tendency to break up. In other words, the magazine is an ode to re-use, a collage meant to be destroyed and put together again, a work of appropriation and sharing.

The semantic area of food is recalled also in the scatological title of Toilet Paper, Cattelan’s brand new magazine, launched with the fashion photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari in 2010, after his farewell to art. It is, again, a magazine made only with images, but these images are not stolen, but original, professionally produced in a studio. As Pierpaolo Ferrari explained:

Every image is the result of an idea, often simple, and later becomes a complex orchestration of people participating in a tableaux vivant. This project is also a relief valve for our minds. We both work in fields where thousands of images circulate. Producing images is part of our job… [12]

And yet theft, sometimes announced, more often not, takes place in Toilet Paper as well. Let’s take, for example, the November 2011 issue. The back cover declares its inspirations: Mike the Headless Chicken, Mario Sorrenti, Richard Avedon. Mike the Headless Chicken was a chicken that lived for 18 months after his head had been mostly cut off. The story dates back to the Forties, and was largely discussed in the media. The image published in Toilet Paper is a faithful reproduction of one of Mike’s best known photographic portraits: the chicken stands firmly, its head on the table, right in front of its legs.

Mario Sorrenti, an Italian fashion photographer, inspired the image of an anonymous model in pants, her body covered by an horde of yellow clothes pegs.

As in the case of the dead horse, the differences between the copy and the original are minimal: Sorrenti’s black and white photo became a color photography, the layout changed from vertical to landscape. When the original image works well, variations are, for Cattelan, useless mannerisms: much better to keep it as it is.

It’s not easy to say how many other thefts, or loans, can be found in the various issues of Toilet Paper. Here, like in Permanent Food, Cattelan explores the underworld, choosing images cultivated in small niches, with a low level of visibility and not, like a pop artist, images that already entered mainstream culture. However, it’s quite easy to find, in the issue we are considering, the tribute paid to the cute cat meme. Well rooted in the popular imagery, this interest for cute cat pictures literally exploded online, where they have been shared and modified, adding short notes in a grammatically incorrect English that turned them into “LOLcats” [13]. Without any text, Toilet Paper‘s cute cat photo seems to be there waiting for its own transformation into an “image”.

Internet Memes

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” George Bernard Shaw [14]

The last example brings us back to the internet: a context that, according to what I wrote so far, is interesting for at least three reasons. First the internet, however ephemeral and always changing, offers good opportunities to keep track of the life of an image. Even when the original gets lost, images are often copied and uploaded to other websites. Often they are tagged in ways that makes it possible to get them back from the nowhere where they disappeared thanks to a simple “Google Search”. In other words, while it might be difficult or even impossible to trace the origin of an image seen on a magazine, an underground fanzine or a wall, online it’s relatively easier to find what Cattelan saw, years ago, and inspired him a new work. There, the reach of his plumb can still be measured.

Second, the internet is an extraordinary place for the circulation of images. An horizontal, democratic, bottom-up medium, the internet allows an image to become successful without making its appearance on the mass media in the first place. Internet images don’t belong to anybody, they are public domain. They spread and are used and abused according to their own potential, and not thanks to the firepower of those who make and distribute them. There, you don’t need money, powerful means of production and authority to be seen by millions of people: you just have to satisfy a specific need at a specific time, according to rules that’s not easy to convert into a recipe. Did you never make eye contact with the dramatic chipmunk? Did you never dance listening to Charlie Schmidt’s piano cat? Did you never share a lolcat on Facebook? If you are able to use it, the internet is an extraordinary source of “images”, and an addiction for those who are, like Cattelan, hungry of them.

Last but not least, the internet is the place where the idea of copyright that Cattelan adopted in his work as an artist and as an editor was actually developed in the first place. George Bernard Shaw’s sentence, quoted at the beginning of this paragraph, was displayed full page in the 11th issue of Permanent Food. That sentence is probably one of the most sampled quotes of the digital age, first appropriated by the free software community, and later by those who would like to apply the same model to any kind of cultural artifact.

Besides the dead horse, there are at least two more works by Maurizio Cattelan whose origin can be found for sure in an internet image. The first is a 2002 sculpture, as well called Untitled (2002), displaying a taxidermied donkey suspended to an overloaded cart. Cattelan found inspiration in an image widely circulated online in the late Nineties, shot somewhere in the Middle East and still quite easy to find googling “funny donkey”. This appropriation – mentioned also on the Guggenheim catalogue – strikes, again, for its transparency: in the official, “media version” of the work, now part of the Dakis Joannou collection – the framing is the same of the original image, and the visitor walking on the left is in the same position, and plays the same role in the economy of the image, of the Arab man watching the bizarre incident.

The third work, Untitled (2009), is a sculpture in polyurethane rubber and steel of a black rubber boot stretched over the bust of a human head. The original picture dates back to 2006, and was largely circulated around the Web, probably thanks to its fetishist and masochist implication, as a fast Google search for “rubber boot head” immediately shows. Cattelan reconstructs the vernacular image, playing with its high culture associations (Fantomas, Surrealist objects) and finding for it a position in his long gallery of self-portraits. Again, the official picture (shot by Zeno Zotti) displays the same framing of the original meme.

In this case, “meme” is the right word, because the image has been appropriated and used as well by many other anonymous web users. A comparison between Cattelan’s work and these vernacular appropriation of the same image is interesting. Whatever the purpose that originated the image was, the picture of the rubber boot head was used in many “demotivationals”, images created using a standard layout (a black frame with a sarcastic text label) that makes the picture “say” different things any time: jokes about originality, the right use of rubber boots, the safety of using it that way, or… diarrhea. Using a different language and approaching different audiences, Cattelan and the other users who appropriated the same image are actually doing the same thing: using an image produced by others to say something that belongs to them.

True, a swallow doesn’t make a summer. But three, demonstrable references do not only support  the main idea developed in this essay – that theft is one of Cattelan’s favorite artistic strategies – but also its main corollary – that the internet is one of his favorite sources, and one of the archives we have to browse if we want to trace the origins of his images. They invite us to focus on works whose dependance on existing images has still to be proved. They provide a fertile ground for research and hypotheses. In many cases, of course, it will be almost impossible to prove these hypotheses without a complete access to Cattelan’s “browser”, his physical, or mental, archive of images. An archive that promise to be huge, because of his hunger of images and because his familiarity with the internet started very early. Back in 1996, the American website Ada’web launched, in collaboration with Permanent Food, Permanent Foam, “a second generation webzine with a selection of pages taken from sites all over the world wide web.” The website – an ancestor of Delicious, allowing user to visit a collection of links and to contribute with his own links – is now a collection of “404 not found” pages, but it allows us to date Cattelan’s interest in the World Wide Web [15].

A work whose “internet pedigree” is likely, but difficult to prove is Untitled (2007), the sculpture of a suspended horse with its head stuck in the wall. Look for “stupid horse” on Google Images and you will immediately see the similarity with the image of an horse with the head stuck in a tree. In this case, some changes have been made: Cattelan’s horse is not sitting on the floor, but suspended at a considerable height, as if it got caught in the wall while jumping an obstacle, or as if it is the back side of an invisible hunting trophy mounted on the other side of the wall; and still, the similarities with the found image are quite strong.

The same ambiguity can be found in Untitled (2008), a sculpture featuring two abandoned shoes with plants growing in them. Apparently, this work was inspired by an image posted in 2007 on an Iraqi blog called “Soldier at home”. The two images display the same kind of shoes, and the same kind of plants; the framing is different, but they are both set on a threshold. Cattelan’s sculpture was made for an exhibition in a Nineteenth-century former synagogue in Germany, that survived the Nazis because a farmer employed it as a barn. But if its relationship with the Iraqi blog’s image could be proved, we’d probably understand more about the peaceful sadness, and the sense of impermanence that it generates in the viewer. Again, Cattelan appropriates a found image, giving it a new meaning and reintroducing it in the media landscape, allowing others to use it as well.

Yet, the relationship between these two images is mined by the emergence of many other, similar images. Using shoes as flowerpots seems to be quite a popular activity, as proven by searching for “shoes planters” on Google. So, the question is: is Untitled (2008) a classical example of appropriation, or rather part of the ongoing history of a meme?

The fact is that Cattelan’s work establishes a give-and-take relationship with the vernacular imagery circulating on the internet; and this relationship is extremely suggestive, even when it isn’t fully demonstrable. A tentative phenomenology of this relationship could be articulated like this:

1. Direct appropriation: Cattelan’s sees an image, and turns it into something else.

2. Preliminary research: Cattelan wants to do something, and before doing it he starts a web search for related keywords, in order to study similar visual solutions and finally come up with a successful image.

3. Interference: Cattelan’s image is part of an ongoing flow, or, as we said before, of the ongoing history of a meme.

Most of the examples we did so far probably belong to either the first or the second category: Cattelan finds the image of the dead horse and decides to turn it into a work of art; or he wants to write a new story for his favorite alter ego, starts a web search for “stupid horse”, finds an image and use it as a starting point for a new work. But what about, for example, A Perfect Day (1999), where he taped to the wall his gallerist Massimo de Carlo? Is it just another occurrence of the “taped to the wall meme”, that produced a plethora of pics and YouTube videos easily available online, or the starting point for it? Did Cattelan appropriate an image, contribute to a meme or start it?

And again: what is the relationship between Untitled (2000), a picture of a man with a big cork in his mouth, and the pictures of freaks filling their mouth with almost everything?

Or between Betsy (2002), the old lady sitting in the fridge, and the dozens of pretty girls who tried to do the same? May the two bunnies with big eyes (Untitled, 1996) have been influenced by the popular culture obsession with large pupils as displayed in manga, porno and sci-fi iconography related to biotechnologies? And what do the two big dogs nursing a chick have to share with the popular interest for images documenting bizarre relationships between beasts? Are we really sure that now famous images such as the suicide squirrel (Bidibidobidiboo, 1996), the ostrich with his head stuck in the gallery floor (Untitled, 1997), the cow with two Vespa handles inserted into its head as horns (Untitled, 1997), the donkey with a TV set on its back (If a Tree Falls…, 1998), the buried fakir (Mother, 1999), the Ku Klux Klan elephant (Not Afraid of Love, 2000), and even the kneeling Hitler (Him, 2001) and the Papa crushed by a meteorite (La Nona Ora, 1999) are only the outburst of Cattelan’s imagination and genius? Maybe they come from somewhere else. Maybe he just discovered them, navigating that rich forest of signs that was once the city, and that is now the net.


To become an image means to abandon the condition in which a work of art is referred to by name, in a usually narrow discursive space, and embrace the condition of those images who everybody knows, usually without knowing what’s their name and where they come from. Cattelan was able to reach this goal better than any other artist. Probably this is why most of his works are untitled. His sculptural works are made to be photographed, shared, distributed, commented and manipulated by others. We may go even further, and say that they are born to be used in a demotivational poster. Often they come out from the information flow through casual browsing, looking for such keywords as “squirrel suicide”, “sitting donkey”, “dead horse”. A few artists share the same awareness about the ways images are circulated in the media. Cattelan proved it with his publishing projects, Permanent Food and Toilet Paper. With his recent retrospective, which is literally invading the internet with its kaleidoscopic photo documentation [16]. With L.O.V.E (2010), the first true “memement” in the history of art: a monument born to be photographed, shared, used as an emoticon in a chat, or as a response in an email.

But to consider Maurizio Cattelan’s work this way may also provide a better ground for understanding the work of a younger generation of artists who grew up in the same information environment, and who relate to it in very similar, or completely different, ways.


[1] This essay has been inspired by a conversation with Eva and Franco Mattes. They first discovered, and pointed to my attention, some of the appropriation discussed in this text. I stole them many ideas, but of course I’m fully responsible of the way I used them. I’m also in debt with Alterazioni Video, who after the publication of this text in Italian sent me some new links.

[2] “Nancy Spector in conversation with Maurizio Cattelan”, in VVAA, Maurizio Cattelan, Phaidon Press, London – New York 2000. P. 8.

[3] http://www.targetrichenvironment.net/?p=897.

[4] Nancy Spector (ed.), Maurizio Cattelan. All, Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York 2011, p. 241.

[5] According to Massimiliano Gioni, “when he makes his sculptures, Cattelan thinks since the very beginning to their translation into an image. Usually only one image of his sculptures circulates, and it becomes the media version of the work.” “In media res”. Massimiliano Gioni interviewed by Lucia Longhi, in Flash Art Italia, Issue 299, February 2012, p. 34. My translation.

[6] “Nancy Spector in conversation with Maurizio Cattelan”, cit., p. 17.

[7] Cf. Jason Huff, “We Copy Like We Breathe: Cory Doctorow’s SIGGRAPH 2011 Keynote”, in Rhizome, August 12, 2011. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/aug/12/cory-doctorows-siggraph-2011-keynote/.

[8] Cf. Randy Kennedy, “Apropos Appropriation”, in The New York Times, December 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/arts/design/richard-prince-lawsuit-focuses-on-limits-of-appropriation.html?_r=1.

[9] “Nancy Spector in conversation with Maurizio Cattelan”, cit., p. 22.

[10] Francesco Bonami interviewed by Lucia Longhi, in Flash Art Italia, Issue 299, February 2012, p. 31. My translation.

[11] “In media res”, cit., p. 34. My translation.

[12] Pierpaolo Ferrari, in Elena Bordignon, “Toilet Paper Magazine”, in Vogue.it, September 14, 2010, www.vogue.it/people-are-talking-about/art-photo-design/2010/09/toilet-paper-magazine. My translation.

[13] Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolcat.

[14] Quoted in Permanent Food, Issue 11, 2003.

[15] Cf. http://www.adaweb.com/context/pf/foam/toc.html.

[16] Francesco Bonami goes even further, saying: “His work is related to the media image. The pictures of the Guggenheim exhibition tell us about a show that doesn’t really exist. The museum looks much bigger, the works seem to explode in space […] But what will remain in memory and in the history of art are the pictures, and thus another show […] The pictures of the show are the true show, the one the artist imagined, without the technical problems. The ideal show.” In Francesco Bonami interviewed by Lucia Longhi, cit., p. 31. My translation.

  1. [...] Quaranta, “When an Image Becomes a Work: Prolegomena to Cattelan’s Iconology“, in Pool.info, May 4, [...]