Arte Povera: Pistoletto, Kounellis, Merz

Drinking hemlock or being bitten by some poisonous animal may be fatal. But then again, so can abusing of the drugs that Damien Hirst displays in chock-a-block full show-cases, packed almost to overflowing in obsessively neat order. Technology is something that saves people and it is not always like that.  Let us see what is going  here and try to find how technology is working-whether favorably or unfavorably.  When technology works correctly it is a boon and when it turns out wrong it can ruin and even take away lives. “Biology’s biology and technology’s technology and never the twain shall meet” is a rash and indeed obtuse attitude. What’s needed is a new covenant between technology and humankind.

These are the words of critic Angela Vettese in illywords #15 and what she says seems still so valid with regard to the contemporary art that reflects our society.

In particular, the arte povera movement remains strong, propelled by its most representative artists whose manifesto is to use or reuse materials available to anyone – without, however, contesting the technology used by other artistic currents. I’ve been thinking about the arte povera artists I’ve met over the years – Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz who passed away in 2003 – and how I have personally experienced their message.

Pistoletto, Kounellis, Merz

I got to know Michelangelo a bit better than the others – we’ve met up at Biella during Love Difference, in Mantova on various occasions, in Venezia and Trieste with his wife Maria. As he says:

Art is the most sensitive and complete expression; now the artist takes on the responsibility to dialogue with every form of human activity, from economy to politics, science to religion, education to behaviour.

I met Merz towards the end of his life, when only his eyes still held the energy one sees in his works that were one of the main stimuli behind the culture [in Italy] of 1968.

From Greek-born Jannis Kounellis (1936) perhaps I best understood how the arte povera movement made a mark through its use of “poor” materials. In 1956 he moved from his natal Pireo in Greece to Rome to enroll in the Accademia delle Belle Arti. Influenced by Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, he pushed painting in new directions. His pictorial style became gradually more sculptural; by 1963 he was using found materials. As an indisputable representative of Arte Povera in Italy and abroad, Kounellis represents the tensions in our society through his contrapposition of objects, materials, and symbols from, on one hand, industrial civilization and on the other, primitive individual values. In 1967 he abandoned painting and became one of the most visibile Arte Povera artists. He worked with raw elements like plant matter, vegetables or flowers, fire, jute bags of grain, carbon, wood, and meat; or “summary” materials like wax, gold and lead. Materials that at times were associated with fragments of classical symbols representative of a lost language that is nonetheless necessary to understand the present.

I met him at the Olympics in Greece in 2004, along with his wife (beautiful and so affectionate towards him) who organized in a truly perfectionist way the exhibit at the The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens.

Just two years before, in 2002, Kounellis made his illy expresso cups, a project that I led. Four of these cups generated rather negative comments. I’ve always liked them, as much as I like the artist and his other works. For me, he embodies the contradictions of a consumer society that has to think about reuse if it wants to survive. The four cups are named after the heroines of greek tragedies – Elettra, Antigone, Fedra and Persefone. Their names are hand-written on the side of the cup alongside fragments of dolls – heads, legs, arms – while the saucer sports black ink dots. The artist’s own words describe the birth of this concept:

Non ricordo perché ho spillato le farfalle sui fogli di piombo.

Non ricordo perché ho appoggiato un pappagallo vivo contro il ferro dipinto di grigio martellato.

Non ricordo perché nè quando ho allineato dei cavalli lungo la parete di una galleria.

Non ricordo perché ho ammucchiato del carbone nell’angolo di una stanza ma ricordo che per lunghi anni ci ho vissuto accanto.

Non ricordo perché ho tagliato delle bambole con il proposito di disporne i frammenti intorno ad una tazzina di caffè, ricordo appena che si ispirava all’Apollo di Belvedere frammentato con furia ed esposto su quel palcoscenico che è il tavolo da pranzo.

I don’t remember why I pinned the butterflies onto sheets of lead.

I don’t remember why I set a live parrot against battle-grey iron.

I don’t remember why now when I lined up horses along a gallery wall.

I don’t recall why I dirtied the corner of a room with carbon but I do know that I lived next to it for years.

I don’t know why I cut up dolls with the idea of placing their parts around a coffee cup; I vaguely recall that I was inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, furiously fragmented and displayed on the stage of the dining table.

Elements of classical history mixed with memories and feelings for objects that end up being washed in the high-tech dishwasher in our house.

I’ll close with a brilliant answer that Kounellis provided to a journalist at Athens’ contemporary art museum – the question was “for you, what is an artist?”.

L’artista si rifà sempre a valori cardine del nostro spazio. La bellezza è un buon esempio: un uomo può essere bello la mattina, ma la sera non esserlo più, la bellezza è secondo l’ora. Non esiste una cosa definitiva. Solo in arte le bellezze le fanno di lunga scadenza e definiscono un momento reale, per questo rimangono per sempre: nascono ma rinascono all’infinito.

An artist is always cohesive with the basic values of her/his space-continuum. Beauty is a good example. A person can start out looking good in the morning and end up looking horrible at the end of the day. In this case, beauty depends very much on the time of day. Long-term beauty is art’s prerogative. It’s a very real instantiation and yet it holds a perennial value. Beauty is born and reborn an infinite number of times.