Monday, December 10, 2012

Poor art, rich meanings

The Kunstmuseum Basel has staged a great show on Arte Povera, drawing about 100 iconic works by Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini, and Gilberto Zorio from the Goetz Collection in Munich, who holds one of the most extensive collection of this influential art movement.

In the 1960s, a group of artists in Italy started their artistic investigation against the established modernist art. Unlike Abstract Expressionists who prioritized personal emotions, Arte Povera artists reduced their artistic gesture and focused instead on the basic laws of nature and the energies in everyday life. Using the most elementary materials such as earth, glass, wood, stone, metal, and wax, they translated concepts into images, objects, spatial installations, and performance, in an almost stylistic anarchy.

In the first room there is Luciano Fabro’s bed linen piece. Is this art? One of the sheets is stretched over a frame like a traditional canvas. But the lazily draped one on the side still bares its full everyday domestic and even erotic connotations. In the same manner, Jannis Kounellis uses normal house paint instead of oil paint for his letter and number paintings, and Pier Paolo Calzolari covers a flute with frost. In another work, Calzolari puts an open walnut, a glass of water and a rose on a mattress. (The live goldfish in the glass is missing in this exhibition due to the disapproval of the Basel-Stadt Veterinary Services!) The fact that these objects are arranged in front of an Yves Klein blue background addresses the relationship between two and three dimensions – a still life painting that contains the actual subjects themselves.

Luciano Fabro, Pair of Sheets with Two Pillowcases, 1968
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1959
Pier Paolo Calzolari, A Sweet Flute to Make Me Play, 1968
Pier Paolo Calzolari, Untitled, 1972

In the middle of a pile of rags, Michelangelo Pistoletto generates an orchestra (literally) with three plugged electric kettles. This time sound becomes a material. Once in a while, the kettles go from humming, whistling, to screaming as the water inside reaches the boiling temperature.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, Rag Orchestra – Divided Glass, 1968

The loud rag orchestra is an expression of energy. Steam on the glass remains as a trace of the nerve-wracking moment of agitation. There are also quieter ways to visualize energy. Emilio Prini bends a 6.5m aluminum pole between two corners of a room. Similarly, Giovanni Anselmo holds a bent sheet of acrylic with a metal rod. The transparent nature of acrylic further reinforces the concept of visibility vs. invisibility. In another piece, Anselmo uses a wooden pole to twist leather straps that are cast in a cement cube, and then holds it against the wall in a horizontal position. These installations look static, but the forces are so intense that you feel they are threatening to unravel at any moment. Kounellis is also interested in the issue of energy. In this case, heavy-duty steel beams press a bag of coal dust onto a steel plate with a piece of rock.

Emilio Prini, Standard, 1967
Giovanni Anselmo, Untitled, 1967
Giovanni Anselmo, Torsione, 1968
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1988

Perception is another topic that Arte Povera artists frequently explored. Large Woman’s Pelvis by Pino Pascali represents a fragmented perspective of a woman, but blown up to a larger-than-life size. Being figurative and abstract at the same time, it plays in between easy recognition and ambiguous perception.

Pino Pascali, Large Woman’s Pelvis, or Mons Veneris, 1964

In Anselmo’s self-portrait, he wrote “Lato destro” (right side) on the right side of his own neck. Contrary to our habit of perceiving someone else’s right side as the left when facing that person, Anselmo’s right side remains on the right in this photo. It is the result of mirror writing the text, flipping the image, and showing the artist’s face as he would see himself in the mirror. The central question is, can the viewer still tell which is left and which is right?
Giovanni Anselmo, Lato destro (Right Side), 1970

In Giuseppe Penone’s self-reflection series, we see a young Penone wearing mirrored contact lenses on his eyes. These lenses make him look alien and even scary. But more importantly, they blind the artist and at the same time reflect his surroundings to the viewer. Penone describes the mirrored lenses as “the seer of my future seeing,” because he could only see what was around him from the photos later on. This delayed perception initiates intense body awareness and reflections on the boundaries between man and his environments, between the inward self identity and the outward world.
Giuseppe Penone, Spilling One’s Eyes, 1970

Another artist famous for the use of mirror is Pistoletto. By drawing on mirror, Pistoletto includes the viewer into his paintings. The viewer is confronted not only with the reclining woman, but also himself and his own voyeurism.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, Reclining Woman, 1967

Mirror provides overlapping perception by drawing the viewer’s space into the artwork. Staring at the Etruscan’s out-stretching hand, one feels the melting of the threshold between the space in front of the mirror and the one in it. The viewer participates in the installation while consciously positioning himself in space with the seemingly timeless figure and the reflections – an interaction between present, past, and illusion. A similar play of spatial interaction can be seen between the projectors in Anselmo’s Detail.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Etruscan, 1976
Giovanni Anselmo, Particolare (Detail), 1972/73

On the other side of the same room, two statues (strictly speaking two halves of the same statue) are placed against opposite walls. Giulio Paolini’s Interval brings up the questions of space, and inevitably, time. It plays the same trick as Alighiero Boetti’s Ping Pong. Blinking back and forth, two red light boxes move the eye across space with rhythmic intervals.
Giulio Paolini, Intervallo (Interval), 1985
Alighiero Boetti, Ping Pong, 1966

In the 1970s, Boetti started to make a series of embroidered maps of the world with Afghan women. Each piece usually took years to make, and by the time it was finished it was already inaccurate. Behind the brilliant craftsmanship are the challenges of time and the ephemerality of political systems. This is evident in the text at the bottom: “Alighiero Boetti against time, against wind, against will.”
Alighiero Boetti, Mappa, 1988

One of the most impressive is Penone’s 230cm Tree. He took an industrially manufactured wooden beam, following the growth rings, chiseling away the trunk, working his way through to the youngest growth ring and exposing it knot by knot. It’s an effort to reverse the process of making, tracing back the tree’s life history. With this sculpting technique, Penone acknowledges that the true sculptor is in fact nature.
Giuseppe Penone, 230cm Tree, 1977

Arte Povera, literally meaning poor art, is made with simple methods and “poor” materials, yet it conveys maximum expressivity and multiple layers of meanings. In the Kunstmuseum exhibition, I see all sorts of forces and elements in relation: subject and object, inward and outward, peace and tension, reality and illusion, visibility and invisibility, time and space, art and life, self and others, man and nature…

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