Text by Daniel Potts
In Mario Merz’s (b.1925) first solo exhibition in the UK for nearly 30 years, What is To Be Done? presents 12 works made between 1966 and 1977, many of which have been rarely exhibited in the last four decades. Merz was a leading figure of Arte Povera, a term referring to a loose grouping of Italian artists who turned their attention to their surrounding environment in the immediate post-war period. The title of the exhibition, echoing a speech of Lenin’s from 1912, relates to a time of great political, social and ensuing, artistic upheaval, drawing attention to Merz’s creative reaction to the dileama he faced as an artist of: what can an artist do in the face of a precarious future?
Exploring the role of art in mundane human experience, Merz turned away from representing modernity for its own sake, instead seeking to explore the role of art in day-to-day life, turning to materials that were ready at hand. In Merz’s case, these include glass, metal tubing, blankets, bottles, wood shavings and neon, the focus of the selection of works in his exhibition. Merz began using neon in 1966, seeking to find a contrast between natural phenomena and the logical that would complicate and energise his chosen materials. The neon passes through different forms – in this exhibition these include a car, bottle, blankets, glass and wax. Merz described his use of neon operating as a ‘kind of thunderbolt that would enter objects’.
Using materials from daily life, in this case incorporating and arranging them with an injection of the complex mathematical sequences found in the natural world, Merz successfully married physically mundane objects with natural processes. This is executed perfectly in Igloo Fibonacci (1970). Here brass pipes, steel hinges and eight marble slabs with adhesive tape are arranged into a sort of parabolic cage (or igloo) with the proportionate increases in the length of the brass pipes reflecting the Fibonacci Sequence (a sequence of proportional increase discernible in the component units of pinecones). Certainly, the employment of the natural mathematical sequence engages the viewer with a sense of grace, made more emphatic by governing the fashioning of what one feels to be disposable, mass-produced objects, usually associated with a utilitarian sort of clumsiness.
A short video on repeat is the medium through which Merz expresses the dual combination of natural process and proliferation with objects found in the day-to-day. In Lumaca (1970), a film portrait of the artist from Gerry Schum’s Identifications series, Merz is seen to draw an equiangular spiral (a pattern found in sunflowers) on to a transparent Perspex sheet held in place in front of the camera. A snail is seen to be following the line of the spiral. The Perspex shown and, indeed, the television set on which it is displayed are reminders of the everyday, but they seem less significant when one perceives the contrast between the employment of an organism from the natural world and its use in a mathematical abstraction from that same world. There is something unsettling in this contrast, perhaps because of the incorporation of a living organism into such a clinically refined phenomenon. The disquiet is only compounded by the eerie repetitions of the video.
The exhibition pays particular attention to Merz’s use of neon lighting. In the piece Objet cache-toi (1968) the title is spelled out in neon around one of Merz’s signature igloo structures, constructed from iron rods and mesh and fleshed out with linen sacks. In Automobile trapassata dal neon (1969 – 1982) a car is shot through with an arrow of light. Again, this speaks of the incorporated contrast evident in the other pieces using neon: a contrast between the piercing shafts of neon light – these impart that sense of scientific abstraction from nature implicit in the use of mathematical sequences from the natural world in the aforementioned works – and found objects such as a wine bottle, a linen salami cloth and a vat of food, which, although fashioned through human abstraction, speak of everyday human experience. These objects speak of the utilitarian clumsiness associated with mass production and they are made complete with a grace that comes from the expertly chosen positioning of the contrasting neon lighting.
Reading the exhibition as a whole in this way causes one to reflect upon the aptness of displaying this work in the UK at this time. The incorporation of apparently mass-produced objects with the processes and proliferations of abstractions from the natural world as a reaction to post-war social, political and artistic upheaval, improves and resonates with our own sentiments surrounding the idea of the aesthetic authenticity, or lack of it, of mass-produced items. In a broader context, the comodification of culture accompanying the industrial revolution still affects how many perceive the authenticity of cultural artefacts as ‘high’ or ‘low’. The mass-produced capital of mechanised warfare in the Second World War was the more immediate and horrifying manifestation of mass production when Merz lived and worked. The everyday objects used by Merz in the twelve works are used in beautiful and graceful ways that cut through any false notions we might have regarding the aesthetic authenticity of mass-produced objects, and, in a way that pushed the boundaries of artistic convention in his own time.
Mario Merz: What is To Be Done? continues until 30 October.
To complement the main gallery show, on Thursday 27 October, there will be a one-day Mario Merz conference, The Politics of Protagonism, which looks at the social and political ambitions of Merz’s 1960s and 1970s work.
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Courtesy Mario Merz/SIAE/DACS
London 2011/André Morin