Thursday, 5 May 2011


Walk into room 5 of Energy and Process  on Level 5 at Tate Modern and you’ll see this large puzzling metallic structure dangling from the ceiling. It seems to flourish in a room which is just a cube of air. It’s said that Merz’ works ‘appear to grow like plants or grip on like living creatures’.  

Marisa Merz finds meaning in the spiralling coiled organic forms of everyday life. She made this work by winding and clipping together thin strips of shiny aluminium. I’m using this picture because, although the colour is inaccurate, it best represents how Merz has made something solid, palpable and three-dimensional, yet at the same time fragile and tranquil.You walk round, see it from different angles and make your own connections. The sinuous shapes may remind someone of life underwater.  Cylinders may look like giant paint tubes crushed underfoot. Perhaps it  battle-ravaged armour?  And are those ‘arms’ cradling other pieces,  or holding them up high like joyful trophies?  Mert gives us no answers. She maintains that her work has no social or narrative context.  It’s just ‘organic shapes, symbolizing the continuum of growth, transformation, and progress' which is at the core of her thinking.

She and her husband Mario were part of the revolutionary Arte Povera movement centred in Northern Italy (Marisa was the only woman artist in this movement). I'm told that 'Povere' is best translated as 'frugal' rather than 'poor'. It  tackled established categories one after another until they came tumbling down. Artists used lowly everyday materials, including the synthetic – not for them the lapis lazuli or the exquisite marble artists had used for centuries. 

Some tried to integrate art with real life by using living plants, animals, even people. Rules and conventions about what was the ‘right’ size or an appropriate location for a work of art were ignored. It maintained that art need not be permanent and welcomed the temporary, the fleeting, even the ad hoc.  Above all it challenged Western Europe art’s assumption that art could only be practiced by professional specialists such as painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, and engravers.  Instead it honoured works of art which needed little or no technical skill, or skills found in daily life.

For example, in 1968 Marisa Merz began knitting nylon or copper threads into delicate web-like works such as simple geometric shapes to fit her body.  Knitting is associated with female domesticity, where manual skills are widely distributed and raw materials abundant, but her action was part of her commitment to social change and the radical role art can play in society and culture at large.

‘There has never been any separation between my art and my life’, Merz famously said.

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