Wrestling with Installation Art, p. 3

But then there is Michelangelo Pistoletto's "Metro cubo d'infinito," which consists of six mirrors lashed together, reflecting side in, to form a gray cube of precisely one meter square. Inside the box, the signs explain, the mirrors are "forever reflecting each other invisibly." We do not know this for a fact, since we cannot look inside the cube. The best we can do is gaze at its gray exterior and imagine. What is so fabulous about this work is precisely that the object, in this case a rather uninteresting box, is not the art. Rather, the art exists inside our minds, for that is the only place where we can hope to get a glimpse of the infinity contained within the cube. True, this is another case of having to rely on a sign, but here the sign was a prompt, rather than an explanation of what was going on inside Pistoletto's head. Besides, what mattered with this piece (unlike Merz's) was what was going on in my mind, not that of the artist. Pistoletto's installation was simple in execution and simple to communicate, yet it was not simplistic.

A similarly pleasing work is Giovanni Anselmo's playful "Invisible," consisting of a slide projector facing nowhere in particular. I looked across the hall for a wall other surface upon which something might be projected. Nothing. But then I reached out with my hand. Bingo. There on my palm appeared a single Italian word, "Visible." I stood there like a child, extending and removing my hand, visible, invisible, visible, invisible. Anselmo is also responsible for what is perhaps the most talked about piece in the show. Hoping to make art of and about natural phenomena, he used copper wire to attach a small piece of granite to a larger granite block measuring 70 x 23 x 37 cm. However, the wire is not tight enough to hold the smaller block in place by itself. To provide the necessary tension, Anselmo wedged a head of lettuce between the two blocks. "If the lettuce is allowed to wilt," the explanatory sign reads, "the smaller stone will fall, demonstrating the impact of natural forces such as evaporation and gravity." "In order to preserve the structure, the lettuce must be continually replaced." I liked this piece because, having read the accompanying sign, I could appreciate its elegance. Anselmo, like Pistoletto, had found a remarkably efficient way to represent an abstract idea visually. He had, moreover, devised a way to make of solid granite a sculpture that represented impermanence

My other favorite is Gilberto Zorio's "Phosphorescent Fist." Located in a separate room closed off by thick black curtains, this piece consists of a timer, a large lamp, and a large human fist made of glow-in-the-dark clay suspended from above on wires. The lamp is on a cycle, periodically recharging the clay and then shutting off, making the glowing fist appear to float in a pitch-black space. Visually, the effect is stunning. On a purely visceral, aesthetic level, I enjoyed standing in the room through several cycles. Afterwards I read the signs in the exhibit describing how Arte Povera artists tried to "consider the relationship between the concrete and the ephemeral." "Phosphorescent Fist," read one placard, "only exists within a continual cycle of light and dark." It is concrete (clay), but ephemeral in that it is as much an expression of time as it is of matter.

These works by Pistoletto, Anselmo, and Zorio all achieve with admirable efficiency what the exhibit catalog explained as the installation artists' shared "desire to break down the separation between art and life, and almost alchemical interest in employing unorthodox materials. . . Their radical attitudes and anti-hierarchical approach to materials were intentionally contrary to traditional artistic practice, specifically the supremacy of painting." They used innovative materials in innovative ways and incorporated very abstract concepts such a infinity, time, decay, gravity, and ephemerality into otherwise concrete artwork.

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Images: Michelangelo Pistoletto,
Metro cubo d'infinito (1966)
Gilberto Zorio,
Pugno fosforescente (Phosphorescent fist), 1971

December 2002

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