Arts Curriculum

The Aesthetics of Failure

My work can be divided into different categories. One is my early work, which was really about the impossibility of doing something. This is a threat that still gives shape to many of my actions and work. I guess it was really about insecurity, about failure. We can have a chapter here called “Failure.”

The Aesthetics of Failure

Untitled, 1997. Taxidermied ostrich and wood chips, 124.5 x 134.6 x 50.8 cm. Photo © DR, courtesy François Pinault Foundation

For Cattelan, the art world is the analyst’s couch. Since the beginning of his career as an artist during the late 1980s, he has freely enacted his vulnerabilities, giving them physical form and a distinct narrative. Without being directly autobiographical, Cattelan’s early work drew on his own emotional and psychological experiences. His goal, however, was not to invoke specific events or individuals but rather to summon up states of mind or emotions. While the work is not directly about him, he uses himself as a character whose foibles and travails invoke an empathetic identification on the part of the viewer.

Motivated at first by an almost paralyzing fear of disgrace, Cattelan created what can be characterized as an aesthetic of failure—an attitude that serves to manage expectations and make excuses before the fact. For his first solo exhibition in 1989, Cattelan was so disappointed with his production that he posted on the gallery’s locked front door a simple placard that read Torno subito, or “Be back soon.” This everyday shop sign reveals the artist’s discomfort with the critical judgment that comes with showing work in a public exhibition.

Cattelan has stated, “I have been a failure for most of my life. I couldn’t keep a job for more than two months. I couldn’t study: school was a torture. And as long as I had to respect rules, I was a disaster. Initially art was just a way to try a new set of rules. But I was very afraid of failure in art as well.”

In an untitled work from 1997, a taxidermied ostrich buries his head in the gallery floor, unwilling to participate in the exhibition and hiding in full view. The work was shown in the exhibition Fatto in Italia (Made in Italy) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, prominently signaling the growing significance of contemporary Italian artists. Cattelan expressed his feelings toward the recognition with an image of ambivalence. The ostrich elicits a sense of vulnerability. The flightless bird is in the gallery space seems to wish it were elsewhere, an attitude that may also have applied to the artist. Without a pedestal, the sculpture is stripped of any monumentality, and the viewer is transported into the surreal space of the artwork.

Maurizio Cattelan

Untitled, 1997. Taxidermied ostrich and wood chips, 124.5 x 134.6 x 50.8 cm. Photo © DR, courtesy François Pinault Foundation

  • Ask students to describe this sculpture and any associations they have with it. What appears to be happening here?
  • Cattelan uses the ostrich as a metaphor to express the emotions that he was experiencing about showing his work. When people are “burying their heads in the sand,” it means that they are trying to ignore a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. In this case, the artist is trying to avoid facing the fact that he is exhibiting his work. If your students were to symbolize themselves as an animal, what animal would they choose? Why? What pose would their animal personas take? Why?
  • Once Cattelan conceives an idea, the artist delegates the fabrication of his works to others. “I never even use my hands to create my work, just my ear glued to the phone. . . . Imagine: I never took a chisel in my hands, never even had a studio” (Andrea Bellini, “An Interview with Maurizio Cattelan,” Sculpture 24, no. 7 [September 2005], 

    When we think of traditional sculptural methods, many envision an artist working with his hands and tools in materials like marble, clay, or metal to craft a three-dimensional work and not ordering a taxidermied ostrich over the phone. Many contemporary artists leave the manufacturing of their work to others. What do you think about this method of production?
  • Have the class visualize Cattelan on the telephone describing the work that he wants made. Write, then act out a monologue (or dialogue) in which Cattelan describes, as clearly as possible, how he is envisioning this work and what will need to be done to realize it.
Untitled, 1997. Taxidermied ostrich and wood chips, 124.5 x 134.6 x 50.8 cm. Photo © DR, courtesy François Pinault Foundation

  • Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) may have started the myth of ostriches burying their heads in the ground when he wrote that the birds “imagine when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”6 Though this phenomenon is not real, it can be a useful way to describe people who ignore the truth and refuse to accept reality.

    We often use animals as metaphors or symbols for both positive and negative human behaviors and feelings. By themselves or in a group, students can write down as many metaphors using animal references as they can. They can use popular notions, like being a chicken or a pig, or invent new ones. Encourage them to think about which parts of the animal’s behavior they associate with various human qualities.
    English Language Arts

  • In his work, Cattelan gives voice to an emotion that most of us have experienced, but few are willing to acknowledge: performance anxiety, more commonly known as stage fright. This emotion is often defined as a fear of speaking or performing in front of a group.

    Many entertainers, including Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart, and opera star Renée Fleming, have suffered from stage fright. Similiarly, a 2001 Gallup poll noted that 40 percent of American adults are afraid of public speaking (Patrick Enright,“Pulling Back the Curtain on Stage Fright: Does Your Mind Go Blank in the Spotlight? Blame Biology, Experts Say,”,

    Cattelan has, in part, made this work to acknowledge his discomfort. Have students write about a time when they were concerned about disappointing themselves or others by their performance. If they are comfortable sharing this experience, ask them to do so. If not, they can think about the experience and how they might deal with the situation differently (or similarly) in the future.
    English Language Arts

  • Cattelan claims, “I am interested in people’s reactions, though: a work of art is not complete without the comments, the words, and ideas of whoever happens to be in front of it. They are the ones who create the work. I don’t do anything: art doesn’t exist without points of view and different interpretations” (Bellini, “An Interview with Maurizio Cattelan”). How does the class react to this work? What comments, words, and ideas does it elicit?
    Visual Arts,English Language Arts