If you show up at the right time on the right day at the Maurizio Cattelan exhibit in Shenzhen, China, you will meet a person wearing a giant polyester-resin head depicting the artist. Once, Cattelan paid a performer to don a giant Picasso head to welcome visitors to MoMA, mimicking the bigger than life Disney characters that greet people who enter the Magic Kingdom. This is a big-money exhibit, widely publicized and often packed with visitors, in an art-starved city of affluence (Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley, now has more billionaires than New York City). Many people will be coming to see the Cattelan spectacle, the work of the famous artiste terrible. To “real” art lovers he might be signaling that he knows what’s going on and is mocking the whole process. There’s Cattelan, there’s the work that he creates, then there’s the work as presented by the folks who want to cash in on his labor, and there’s the Cattelan they create for the public, to give the products of his labor more value.

So, he buys into all of the hoopla while simultaneously mocking it. You enter the exhibit and see a multitude of Cattelan facial sculptures staring at you from a wall with differing shades or tints of his skin color. You are encouraged to view these as types of sperm cells. You see lightbulbs in the shape of Cattelan’s head as you walk down a passageway. A “mini” Cattelan sits on a wall and watches you wander through the exhibit, like one of the many stuffed pigeons in the show. He seems to be asking, what else he is supposed to do. This is how art is promoted these days. The artist hands his/her work over to other people who need to make money from it. They own the system, they give you shows, they get your work in museums. This is the deal with the devil you make to have your work seen and preserved. He has said: “Fame is a strange beast. And as with all beasts, you are the prey, not the predator.” So Cattelan is aware of and allegedly not comfortable with the art reputation-building and promotion process, and openly mocks it, while he also tolerates (if not colludes with) it and makes a fortune from it.

But can he clean his hands through the messages or meanings in his pieces? Does he ultimately rise above the glitz and hype with dazzling insight and a humane message? Is there an overall message being given in the show, as the curators of the show purport (Cattelan supposedly wants to explore separation and longing)? Does the whole approach of his show make art more accessible to the masses or is it just glitz and fuss to attract spectators at 128 RMB a pop (a pretty sizable chunk of money to ordinary Chinese)?

Entering the show one sees stuffed pigeons all over the place; sometimes they are a part of a piece, sometimes they are just there, perched and watching. They are so pervasive one might consider them to be the multiple eyes of a god of mercy, or angels that shit. They are like that guy from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog who just sits next to an outdoor fire and helplessly watches each drama unfold. They are, basically, us, as we are the multiple eyes of the god of mercy, we are angels that shit, often hopelessly looking on at horrible or unjust situations that we feel unable to fix. One senses that to Cattelan, however, as we will see, pigeons are not the divine messengers or witnesses of injustice we might hope them to be, but agents of impersonal entropy with wings.

Further inside there is the Disney character Pinocchio, dead, lying face down in a pool of water in a cruciform state. In the 1940 animated film, the puppet sacrifices his life to save a human being and is then magically resurrected into a real boy due to his compassion and love. Yet, in the Cattelan exhibit, we just see Pinocchio lying there, no resurrection, no transformation. Cattelan’s piece is a cynical rejoinder to an optimistic film scene as Cattelan also comments on the absurdity of Disney appropriating meaningful symbols of spiritual development for cartoons meant to entertain children too young to understand theology. He wishes to give the lie to all the hope-filled, secret meanings and optimistic endings in Disney’s most iconic films. The piece is called Daddy! Daddy! which is spoken by Pinocchio as he is dying. Of course, Jesus calls out “Father! Father!” as he is dying. The piece is a denial of the Christian belief that after one “dies to oneself”, a new life with higher values and more humane behavior may mysteriously occur. Disney uses a cartoon to promote this belief, Cattelan rejects the ending of the cartoon and finishes the narrative before resurrection.

Actually, the show seems a hodgepodge of Cattelan’s work loosely categorized to try to give cohesion and a rationale to it. Akin to the Pinocchio piece is a mural of a gallery owner that Cattelan once duct-taped to a gallery wall. The massive amount of duct tape helps create the illusion of wings encompassing a person who is helplessly stuck somewhere between heaven and earth. Of course, we also find Cattelan’s iconic Comedian, the banana he taped to a wall at Art Basel Miami a few years ago. This is a piece where something nutritious and life-sustaining is wasted in an act of hoarding and worship. It is like the gallerist suspended between the sky and earth, it is like ideals spoken of and admired but not really embraced, ideals worshipped from afar but never lived. It is like the wealthy art buyers who profit from and enjoy art work which represents a life and ideals they would never want to live. Among the dead Pinocchio and the trapped gallerist and the worshipped banana, we see the giant, elongated foosball table he built so that 11 white Italians could playfully compete against 11 African immigrants.

Nothing presents ornately designed Rococo style mirrors with pigeons perched on them. The pigeons silently pass judgment on the value of the mirrors by using the expensive objects as perches while also defacing them. We are invited to view ourselves within the mirrors. We also see pigeons perched on a realistic sculpture of a homeless man while he is sleeping or even dead under thick blankets as if he has become nothing. In an art gallery show with objects by a cynic like Cattelan, we have to allow this. Crossing the barrier around the piece and kicking the pigeons off the man (as I wanted to do) would have landed me in jail and then on an airplane back to America (I proudly did 10 years of volunteer work for homeless folks at a Quaker shelter in Manhattan and deeply resented this piece). Only the laws protecting Cattelan’s private property kept the pigeons on that man. In real life, I am confident people would have scattered the birds and sought help and greater public dignity for that person.

Yet, perhaps Cattelan is not as much of a cynic as I am painting him to be. He does seem to think that dogs have values superior to humans. In a sculpture based on remains from the volcanic explosion in Pompeii, he shows a dog that has chosen to die next to his human friend rather than run away. We also see a skeleton of a dog with a newspaper still bravely grasped within his jaws. This dog will not abandon his duty to his friend. Even this value is portrayed as ridiculous, however.

Cattelan wishes we were there. Where? In a world where hope has been abandoned and the belief in individual and social resurrection is the meaningless stuff of children’s cartoons? Many of us already are there, where we live without thinking and give ourselves over to the worst desires and emotions, where we relish causing harm because we think we are vindicated, where we think that good is evil and evil is good. Cattelan was once asked whether he thought his work was funny. He said, “Not at all but for some reason people think it is…I find it quite tragic.” After seeing this show all I can do is pledge that I will hope and fight until my last dying breath for my change into a real boy.

Wish You Were Here is at the Sea World Culture and Arts Center in Shenzhen, China until October 16, 2022. Quotes from Cattelan are taken from a conversation between Francesco Bonami and Maurizio Cattelan in the exhibition booklet for Cattelan’s UCCA exhibit in Beijing The Last Judgment.