Maurizio Cattelan’s Wheelchair-on-Water Performance Is More Dunk Than Slam Dunk

The man behind the curtain was highly visible.


Edith Wolf-Hunkeler begins to roll backward on a track that will take her to a raft floating in Lake Zurich.

Olympic and Paralympic athlete Edith Wolf-Hunkeler was supposed to walk on water—or, more precisely, to appear to roll on water in a wheelchair—as part of a new work by Maurizio Cattelan on June 10 at Manifesta in Zurich. But the ambitious performance at this year’s European Biennial of Contemporary Art didn’t go exactly as planned.

Lake Zurich was the setting, and art-world insiders headed to the waterfront for the performance by the Swiss silver-medal-winning Paralympic racer.


Wolf-Hunkeler reaches the raft as observers and a camera crew look on.

For Cattelan, the resulting images were meant to be uplifting.

“Human progress has always moved forward through inspirational images coming from the arts,” he told artnet News in a recent interview. “In 1865 Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was a science fiction novel, a hundred years later it was a fact: as human beings we continuously raise the bar of our goals, and expand our frontiers.”


Wolf-Hunkeler prepares to float free.

But the raft that was meant to float just under the surface of the water, making Wolf-Hunkeler seem to wheel herself along on its surface like some Swiss Jesus, never quite disappeared, and at moments she seemed to flounder. At one point, a fully-clothed assistant plunged into the water to lend a helping hand.


A helper dove in, fully clothed, to help Wolf-Hunkeler.

Reactions from those in attendance ranged widely, both on the success of the optics and in their assessment of the stunt’s ethics.

“It was a success,” proclaimed Italian journalist Sara Dolfi Agostini. “She looked beautiful and proud, and it was quite a challenge for her.”


Her helper swims back to shore.

When asked if the wheelchair had flipped or had an accident, Art International Istanbul fair director Stephane Ackermann and Swiss art expert Silvie Seidlitz were in agreement, “Neither nor! It was an unexpected performance, and that’s the way it should be.”

“It looked like she was having fun,” Monica Salazar of the website Berlin Art Link told artnet News, “but it was supposed to look like she was rolling on water. Instead, it just looked like she was on a raft on the water.”

One observer was more critical.

“To me, it didn’t feel like just Cattelan’s usual gimmicks,” said an art dealer who declined to be quoted by name. “It felt more like exploitation.”


Wolf-Hunkeler’s helper, back on dry land.

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