Home Magazine Maurizio Cattelan at Blenheim Palace: the perfect exhibition for an existential Great Britain

Blenheim Palace, the monumental country house in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England, has been through a lot in its 300-year history. Most notably, it was the birthplace and home of Sir Winston Churchill. More recently, however, it has opened its doors to the worlds of modern and contemporary art after one of Churchill’s heirs, Edward Spencer-Churchill, founded the Blenheim Art Foundation in 2014. 

Even with just a five-year timeline, Blenheim Palace has hosted large-scale solo shows by some of the most impressive artists to date, inviting them to respond and react to the lavish interiors of the 18th-century palace. Ai Wei Wei famously opened the program five years ago, followed by Lawrence Weiner, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jenny Holzer, works of the late Yves Klein and currently: Maurizio Cattelan. 

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The palace’s sixth ever show featured both new works as well as signature ‘cult’ works by the Italian artist. Despite the palace’s impressive roster of exhibitors, Cattelan’s show might very well be its most provocative yet. Planned around the palace’s main halls and its gardens, 13 Cattelan works converse with Blenheim’s lavish architecture as well as the current political climate in the United Kingdom in anticipation of Brexit. 

The exhibition begins with an intersecting fabric walkway at the palace’s gate, leading to the entrance, displaying the pattern of the British flag. The work, titled Victory Is Not an Option, shares its name with the exhibition. Marking the main entrance to the palace, the British flag in the form of a pathway is what visitors step on to enter the palace. Walking up to the palace by stomping along the British flag with muddy shoes serves as a radical statement on British politics before even entering the building. 

Overall, the exhibition serves to shock and raise painful questions about the past and present of Britain and Europe. Perhaps the most controversial is in the form of a sculpture titled Him (2001), installed inside the Long Library, which depicts a child-sized Adolf Hitler kneeling in plea before the main palace organ. Putting Hitler in the house where Churchill was born is possibly the most unsettling act of the entire exhibition. Churchill famously led Britain through the second world war and defended European democracy while now Britain is fighting to leave the EU under the leadership of Boris Johnson, who has suspended parliament and shockingly referred to himself as a modern-day Churchill. 

Other works on display equally provoke viewers in their construction as they do in their placement among the palace’s historic interiors. Replacing an original toilet in one of the bathrooms with Cattelan’s notorious solid gold toilet, titled America (2016), was done to ensure its use by the exhibitions visitors. Guests could have had three minutes on the golden throne, if it wasn’t discovered to have been stolen last week. News of its theft filled the art world with speculation and conspiracy, but Cattelan denied any such claim that he had orchestrated the stunt telling the New York Times: "I wish it was a prank."

The unplanned theft aside, which has been plenty reported on, there is enough shock in Cattelan’s exhibition to leave you pensive for days. Moving towards the palace’s Great Hall, an enormous white flagpole is fallen and seen to be held by Joan of Arc’s arm (and only her arm). Another fallen structure also makes an appearance, but this time it’s the figure of Pope John Paul II, after he was struck by a meteorite. His red shoes perfectly match the palace’s crimson carpets, making him seem somewhat of a permenant fixture.

Another Cattelan signature piece is his infamous and instantly recognizable taxidermy horse Novecento (1997). Unlike his typical taxidermy horses that appear head-less as their bodies hang from walls, Novecento hangs entirely from the ceiling. Its placement forges direct parallels with the aristocratic preference for taxidermy in such a palace. Taxidermy appears again, however less obvious with an entire flock of 200 pigeons nestled along the gardens and surrounding statues. Appearing like they are real, it’s only when none of them ever flickers does one realize they are in fact, part of the exhibition and that they are just sitting there watching eerily. Slightly more obvious in the gardens is Disney’s Pinocchio but he sadly seems to be dead. His playful structure is seen facedown in the palace’s fountains. 

The show climaxes with a miniature Sistine Chapel, which reveals the love-hate relationship with Christianity at the heart of Cattelan’s work. His 1:6 scale model transports visitors into a 360-degree Vatican miniature.  All in all, despite the chaos caused by the movie-like toilet heist, the exhibition, however golden toilet-free, emerges as the perfect exhibition for a Great Britain that is caught up in a political nightmare, with its main act still ahead. 

Cover image: Victory is Not an Option, 2019, by Maurizo Cattelan. Photography: Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation


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