Thursday, 4 August 2011


Serpentine Gallery until September 17

I arrived soon after the Gallery opened and the first thing I noticed was a comforting waft of paper and cardboard. All I saw was the entrance to a labyrinth, a winding maze of paths which curled and swirled through the Gallery lined with whorls of cardboard chest-high, leading to hidden installations and sculptures.  ‘A labyrinth is a place where one loses oneself in order to search for oneself’ said Pistoletto. Inside are artefacts symbolising four religions: two mirrors for Judaism, a prie-dieu for Christianity, a prayer mat facing Mecca for Islam and a large sculpture for Buddhism. Laura Cumming in the Observer describes 'an overwhelming sense ...of open-armed generosity towards everyone on their journey through life'.

But it’s the mirrors which are magical. As early as the 1960s Pistoletto received critical acclaim for his Mirror Paintings.. Mirrors, no longer hung at window height like paintings on a wall but reaching down to the floor, change everything. They can reflect anything except themselves. They create a passage through which space seems to pass, doubling the size of a gallery and opening a door between art and life. For whereas figurative art usually meant an object out there, fixed once and for all, now the viewer became an integral part of the work. What’s more, with every movement the picture changes.

Pistoletto was one of a number of Italian artists in the 1960s who believed that  art could be made from anything: people, products of earth, moisture, sound, energy... No longer did you need skill to use expensive paints, brushes and precious materials: art could be crafted, written, filmed, spoken, even grown. And while it could be built to last, some might exist for a few short hours, or even seconds. Their work, labelled Arte Povera, has been described as ‘poor art of poor materials in exultation of a poor life’. This is unkind. It provided important spaces and opportunities for trying out new attitudes and actions in a decade which propelled Italian artists, for too longer outsiders, to the centre of an increasingly liberated art scene.     

When I visited the exhibition I walked through Gallery One. All I saw was a circle of corrugated cardboard standing end-on and chest high. It wasn’t until I noticed a child being lifted up to peer inside that I stopped and leaned over. What I saw was spectacular - and vertiginous. I saw not only the cupola above my head reflected back as a bottomless cup, but deep, deep down was a perfect circle of blue summer sky. An abstract painting?  A detail from a landscape?
Because I have vertigo I had to pull back quickly and reassure myself that I was standing fair and square on the gallery floor. A circular mirror had transformed that floor into a deep-cut well and the sky looked like a fathomless ocean.
Some interesting reviews are listed below: Charles Darwent's in The Independent 24th July 2011 is  sub-headed 'An Arte Povera pioneer reveals the miracle within cheap materials – and gives us a vision of our wonderful selves'.

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