Michelangelo Pistoletto at Blenheim Palace by Joseph Lichy
Receiving questions reclined on a bench at the entrance of Blenheim Palace – the site of his upcoming show – the 83 year-old co-founder of Arte Povera was dressed all in black replete with trademark wide-brimmed felt hat. Completely at home holding court, it wouldn’t have felt untoward to address the veteran artist with a title in our conversation, perhaps Godfather.
While we talked, a stream of workmen carried shop-front size angled mirrors and equally large shining chrome instruments up the Georgian steps of the entrance and into the palace’s domed reception area. There was something familiar about the setting and the comings and goings. I realised I was thinking of Hergé’sTintin, a mix up of professor Calculus preparing for a scientific experiment and Marlinspike Hall being invaded by a travelling circus.
The mirrors and instruments were in fact Pistoletto’s work being installed in the Palace, a process the artist was completely ignoring. Perhaps unsurprising given that his previous shows have included live performances of attacking mirrors with sledgehammers and scrawling graffiti on his own work: “Fragments are equal to parts of the whole”Pistoletto explains enigmatically, just as Lao Tzu might have done. On the other hand, the artist doesn’t make any of his own work, and maybe it’s that that accounts for his lack of nerves.
“I haven’t made anything since the 1950s when I stopped painting. After that I found I liked to work with assistants, to share the work, nothing can happen by being alone. Like a scientist I like to understand life through phenomenon. In order to create something there needs to be two people, then something is created that has never existed before, a baby for example, Something bigger than the sum of the parts is created, like God. This was the idea [of the hanging piece in Blenheim’s domed entrance] the symbol of infinity but expanded to produce a triple helix.”
Pistoletto can remember his early years under Mussolini and the ensuing chaos. It’s possibly something that explains the artist’s inclination towards the sagely and also communality, however fascism and its connection with Italian Futurism isn’t a subject the artist seems to enjoy dwelling on: “One person alone creating can become authoritarian, society sometimes looks for one [person], for easy answers…”
By the time of the American funded economic boom of the 1950s, it looked like Pistoletto would become a fixture in the family’s furniture restoration trade. That kind of stability wasn’t to be however, and when at college he discovered the Italian modernists intent on splicing open canvasses as well as social fabric there was no turning back:
“I discovered [Lucio] Fontana and [Alberto] Burri, it opened my eyes, I learnt everything about modern art. I knew I could live comfortably with my previous career, but with art I could do research on the human and I had to do it.”
By the 1960s Pistoletto was being courted by numerous Italian galleries and in 1966 had an important solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Then 1967 saw the artist win first prize at the São PauloBiennale. Curation at the artist’s late-career shows at the Louvre, London’s Serpentine and at the Venice Biennale has tended to focus on Arte Povera, the movement Pistoletto helped found, often misrepresented as simply ‘the art of poverty’. When challenged however, Pistoletto says he doesn’t consider himself ‘defined’ by the 1960s as much as the era being foundational:
“Arte Povera is in fact a concentrated vision of art, an exclusion of what is not needed, based on energy and the material physicality of life, it is based on a research of identity. After the war there was a great explosion of the new economy, a loss of ethics along with American consumerism, a feeling of living in an artificial bubble, arte povera was the moral voice and has carried along since.“
Pistoletto reflects that although he was aligned at the time with pop artists such as Warhol in terms of their removal of biographical content and the movement’s immediacy and accessibility, the period also saw an important divergence:
“Pop art was a critical understanding of capitalism and consumerism, but I didn’t want to just stop at criticism, the protest isn’t the finality. I am an artist for preposition not for protest. When there’s a revolution everything goes back to the same as it was before, no-one knows how to organise the situation. In the sixties I was making theatre in the street, after 1968 the big dream turned into a nightmare, especially in Italy with the Red Brigade etc. it was art itself that could give me answers, transcendancy. My mirror paintings gave me my first answers – I discovered a balance between different sectors of life, philosophy and spirituality.”
Transcendancy, philosophy,spirituality.Words Pistoletto uses a lot, but it doesn’t come across as an embroidered or empty way of talking but rather something connected to life long pursuits. In 1996, the artist founded Cittadelarte – literally the city of art – in an old textile factory in Piedmont in northern Italy. The centre seems to lie somewhere between an ashram and an art school and includes the disciplines of politics, spirituality, and economicsas well as art. It’s an actively right-on approach that’s perhaps not particularly common in the art world:
“We need to find an ethic beyond religion, beyond the pyramidal system of the church and social order. Everyone needs to take maximum responsibility. The responsibility always seems to be very big, in reality just daily responsibility is needed.”
It wasn’t exactly an inconsistency – Pistoletto’s idealism and a show at Blenheim Palace – a symbol of imperialism and the extreme top of the social order, but it was all I could come up with as a challenge. Pistoletto’s answer came naturally, a career-long consideration:
“The mirror shows life as it is, the viewers become part of the work, without restriction. I try to propose something that is already in people’s mind, their best desire, the big ego creates the sublime sometimes. Art was previously commissioned by the palace, but the 20thcentury wanted to be autonomous and independent from the palace. Now there needs to be a balance between poverty outside and the riches within. It’s fantastic and very important that Blenheim want to bring art inside. I am, free, they offered me a chance to be free here”.