Close your eyes. Count briefly to 10. Listen to the footsteps of your playmate(s), as they grow faint. Open your eyes. You’re now it. The elusive search begins. More clues please? You may not realize, but as you seek, you are being sought. Somehow, while playing — you’ve been played. And somewhere in the midst of this tricky cyclical game stands the ever-shifting art world maestro of hide and seek: Maurizio Cattelan. You’ve been beckoned to play; although he might’ve left the building.

From curators to collectors, art lovers to dissenters, Cattelan’s explosive works and triumphant career as a conceptual artist and visionary provocateur remain the fodder of debate. One of the art world’s ultimate tricksters, both he and his body of work are considered an amalgam of brilliance or deceit, depending on who’s summarizing. Yet as an outlier, the playfully pensive, and wildly subversive Cattelan seems perfectly content that the polemic remains as such; that you are left perplexed, searching — unsure. You’ll never quite pin him down. And with a beautifully beguiling feature documentary that manages to capture a whimsical glimpse of the ever elusive art world superstar, from his impoverished youth to his crossover crisis with the power elite, filmmaker Maura Axelrod’s new feature documentary Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back shines a light on the film’s intriguing namesake. A notorious, attention-grabbing scene stealer, yet an obsessively private art maker, Cattelan declared his retirement in 2011 with a jaw-dropping, self-proclaimed “final” exhibition entitled ALL — a career retrospective that hung from the museum’s rotunda ceiling – which was the second most attended show, and perhaps the most dangerous to date, in the history of the Guggenheim.

With a solid background of producing news documentaries for over fifteen years in war-torn areas of the globe, Axelrod has aptly shifted her attention to the “contentious world of contemporary art” where spectacle battles content in a quest for fame; and the outer circle battles the inner circle for a slice of ‘cred’. It is here that we meet Cattelan, disappearing and re-appearing over time in a hall of mirrors in Axelrod’s film, as he’s done since the 1980s. Born in Italy, Maurizio Cattelan’s controversial, often tragic, and darkly humorous sculptures as well as action installations have poked fun at the establishment — including a range of taboo no-no’s: from depicting suicidal taxidermy, to a drowned Pinocchio, to perhaps his most famous – Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteor. As “bowled over” as Axelrod was by her wily subject, is as sucked in as you’ll get by her film that pulls you into a mystery that leaves you guessing whether or not the game has ended.

Making its world premiere at the 15th Annual Tribeca Film Festival with a special event screening at the Guggenheim Museum to boot, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back stepped out and took a sensational bow. Its proud director shared some words with us.

L.A. COLLINS: How did you come upon Maurizio as a subject, and when did you begin filming?

MAURA AXELROD: I had known Maurizio for years in New York. I had shot some video of him in 2000, and always saved it, wanting to do something with it. Then in 2011, when he described the show he was going to put up at the Guggenheim, as his career retrospective, I was totally bowled over, I knew I wanted to do a bigger project with him. In 2011 we started filming in earnest.

LC: Speaking to the strength of the movie, there are wildly divergent opinions about Maurizio’s artistry. What were your own feelings about this?

MA: One of the most interesting things about Maurizio’s work is the fact that people don’t agree about it. He’s wildly popular with the public, and in the market, and by most of the art establishment. But at the same time, some serious art critics and academics completely dismiss the work, and of course a segment of the population is offended and disgusted at first glance.  He inspires very strong sentiment, positive and negative. That always makes a compelling story. 

LC: Did filming Maurizio and his world impact any of your own assumptions about artists, or the art world, or your own artistry in filmmaking?

MA: I think to a degree, every new project changes your perspective, but this one really changed me in some significant ways. Maurizio created a situation in which I had to solve some difficult problems — because he was so elusive and was really ambivalent about appearing on camera. I had to make a departure from the way I work as a journalist — which is to search for the real story and to try to locate the most accurate truth in a given situation. In this case, I had to let “truth” float around, in an acknowledgment that identity and facts are unreliable when it comes to a person’s internal life. 

LC: The pressures of trying to capture an artist’s retrospective on film — particular a subversive one — must have been many… when it came to his work, what did you most want to focus on?

MA: The Guggenheim show was really spectacular — it was visually shocking, and it was a minor miracle of engineering. That was fairly easy to capture.  But to try to expose the deeper lament — the kind of mournful dynamic of the show — that was the challenge.

LC: What did you make of this announcement that he was retiring? Do you think that could actually happen? 

MA: I didn’t say this at the time, of course, but I didn’t believe that he would be able to actually retire. Anyone who has met him knows that he’s not really able to turn his brain off and stop working. 

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Yes Maura, quietly kept, we’re also thinking, he’ll probably “be right back”…