The movement Arte Povera began in late 1960’s the key artists were; Giovanni Anselmo, Jannis Kounellis, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Pino Pascali and Michelangelo Pistoletto. Arte Povera translated, means poor art but this does not refer to the quality or types of materials used alone. The artists involved produced sculpture, photography installation and performance. There were also other types of art practice that had an affinity to Arte Povera; Land art, antiform, postminimalism and conceptual art. The artists within this movement ‘ were concerned with that point at which art and life, nature and culture, intersect’ (Christov-Bakargie 1999: 17).
Arte Povera found significance within physical forces present in every day life, such as gravity and electricity. Art that merely represented life and acted as a go between art and life was not considered by Arte Povera, experiencing a real life situation was the focus. Along with involving physical forces Arte Povera engaged with aspects of human nature. The objects and materials that the artist’s used to evoke aspects of human nature stirred the senses allowing the viewer to experience the work. For example Jannis Kounellis wanted the viewer to use their sense of smell he did this by using coffee within his work. The use of texture is applied within Arte Povera, suggesting that the viewer touch the work. The use of text was also popular with Arte Povera, the words were largely handwritten so would come across more personal. In terms of location the artists tend to work indoors however have worked in site-specific places. They have created installations, sculpture, film, and performance the artists also worked with ideas of the permanent and temporary. ‘The scale is often determined by the dimensions of the human body, its physical presence and behaviour’ (Christov-Bakargie 1999: 19) this is demonstrated in Fabro’s piece in-cubo which consisted of a cloth cube that was big enough for just one person. Kounellis also stated that ‘ I can’t exceed the height of a man’ (Bellini 2007: 114).
Arte Povera was an outlet for artists at the time to rebel against what they considered an oppressive society both economically and culturally. They believed both these things were trapped within traditions and focused heavily upon consumerism ‘devised to control rather than liberate’ (Christov-Bakargie 1999: 20). Many other things came under attack at this time such as education, sexuality and religion. The Arte Povera artists questioned all traditional materials, scale, form and concept. A key concept for the artists was to reduce the intellectual control and make the experience more important. Jean-Chrisophe Ammann gave a definition of Arte Povera:
Arte Povera designates a kind of art which, in contrast to the technologized world around it, seeks to achieve a poetic statement with the simplest of means. This return to simple materials, revealing laws and processes deriving from the power of the imagination, is an examination of the artist’s own conduct in an industrialized society […] A way of “dropping out” which is by no means a denial of society, but which instead asserts a moral claim: the subjectified in its objectified authenticity reflects a natural recollection of environmental phenomena, both universal and individual” (Christov-Bakargie 1999: 20).
The text Art Povera Notes for a Guerrilla War written by Germano Celant begins by describing a type of art that follows the system ‘First came man, then the system. That is the way it used to be. Now society produces, and man consumes’ (Celant 1967: 119). This system demands that the art produced by an artist has to follow a certain route; they must conform to the art they have made in the past. The artist makes objects that suit the system, they cannot create an object just for it to be an object they must justify the art and then make it fit for distribution:
Turning himself as an artist into a substitute for an assembly line. No longer a stimulator, technician, or specialist of discovery, he becomes a cog in a mechanism. His behaviour is conditioned into never offering more than a ‘correction’ to the world, perfecting its social structures but never modifying or revolutionizing them (Celant 1967: 119).
Marcel Duchamp is mentioned as an opposing example to this type of art, he was never interested in pleasing the system and instead made art that did not follow a linear path. Celant describes that art has two directions one being using existing structures and the other the choice is to make a free art which allows for progression within the work. Celant believes the first choice of using the existing structure is a complex art and the second choice, a free art is a poor art due to it involving unforeseen events and working within the present. ‘Over there a complex art, over here a poor art. Committed to contingency, to events, to the non-historical, to the present’ (Celant 1967: 119).
Arte Povera artists rejected societies system, the artist wanted to be free to grow from the ability to move in any direction with their art to produce art that is unpredictable ‘The artist, who was exploited before, now becomes a guerrilla warrior’ (Celant, 1967: 119). In a world where the system is well and truly cemented within society Arte Povera exists by not committing itself to any one system. This art is controlled by the practical objective to liberate art. Not to add ideas or art objects in to the world, which could fall in to the system:
Hence it does away with categorical positions to focus on gestures that do not add anything to our well-educated perception, that do not oppose themselves to life as art or lead to the creation of separate levels for the ego and the world, but exist as social gestures in and of themselves, as formative and compositive liberations which aim at the identification between man and the world ( Celant, 1967: 119).
Celant later wrote another text on Arte Povera in 1969, within this text he reiterates that the artist is renewing events that happen in nature. He compares the artist to an alchemist, having the ability like nature does to create magical things. The artist does not intend to represent these natural processes ‘ Like a simple-structured organism, the artist mingles with the environment, he camouflages himself with it’ (Celant quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 198). Consequently the artist does not aim to change the world or influence it anyway, instead wishes to appreciate natural processes that occur and then experience them through making art. Celant identifies that Arte Povera involves the abolishment of following trends within your work and what you are expected to create as an artist and instead allow the work to organically progress.
He abolishes his role as artist, intellectual, painter and sculptor. He learns again to perceive, to feel, to breathe, to walk, to understand, to use himself as a man. Naturally, learning to move or rediscovering one’s own existence does not mean playing a new role or making movements, but using oneself as a continuously mouldable material’ (Celant quoted in Christov-Bakargie1999: 198).
In 1968 Marisa Volpi wrote American Art and Italian Art: New directions, within this text she explores what is primary or minimal art. She defines this type of art as devoid of complicated form and absent from traditional aestheticism ( Volpi quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 196). She also writes that these types of artists tend to be sculptors, as they believe that painting is limited in its two dimensionality, which restricts its capabilities of illusionism. ‘Their focus is on involving the viewers in their presence and prompting isolated and particularized sensations, rather than on making them reflect, think and exercise judgement’ ( Volpi quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 196). Volpi states that the distinctive feature at the time the text was written between European artists and others differed by their intellectual understatements within their art. Volpi describes what the Arte Povera artists produced ‘They work on that perceptual fabric which comes before our logical-historical relations with the world ‘ (Volpi quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 196). This quote is expressing similar ideas written by Celant, that Arte Povera is a rejection of producing work that follows a pattern and instead works with human nature as content. She describes many different themes within Arte Povera one being the use of ordinary processes such as ‘ filling up, covering up, opening, rolling up, lighting etc’ (Volpi quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 196). Volpi ends her essay by writing that the Arte Povera artists intended to change the way that art was traditionally perceived.
Chapter 2 part 2
This section of the chapter will explore several artists’ work who were involve within the Arte Povera Movement. Looking back at the question, what is Relational Aesthetics relationship to Arte Povera? Does Arte Povera include social interactions as part of the practice in the same way as Relational Aesthetics? Considering artist practices and how they use interaction and participation within their art. The artist Michelangelo Pistoletto (2001) said about his work:
‘I am interested in the passage between objects more than in the objects themselves’. ‘I am interested in the perceptive faculty, in the sensitisation of the individual’.’ Objects, the state of things, human movements accepted in their conventional appearance, do not contribute in any way to the profound stimulus of man, the full use of his cerebral capacities’ (Pistoletto quoted in 2001: 7).
He is saying here that the object is not the most important part of the object but the channels between objects. He is interested in the interaction of the individual with the work and the awareness the viewer has of the work by way of their senses. Looking at objects in their normal capacity will not motivate people to use their full intellectual abilities.
Pistoletto was recognized as a key artist of Arte Povera, his most famous pieces are Mirror Paintings and his series Minus Objects. Mirror Paintings consisted of human scaled images applied to reflective steel. The use of steel and the reflections from the viewers of the work meant the paintings were breaking with traditions of figurative painting. The involvement of the viewer within the art evoked a link between art and life. Minus objects was a series of sculptures ‘that offered psychological and physical experiences’ (Tate 2001:..). One sculpture Lunch Painting 1965 is a cross between a picnic table and chairs, a painting and a sculpture thus questioning traditions of painting and not creating objects as commodities.
In an interview with Paola Noe Can Art still Save Our Souls? 2008 Pistoletto identifies the beginnings of his Mirror Paintings:
The figure of a man seemed to come forward, as if alive, in the space of the gallery: but the true protagonist was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own reflection and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the figure in itself to such an extent as to cause one to call their very existence into doubt: it was the dimension of time itself (Noe 2008: 64).
Pistoletto distinguishes that the central theme of the work is the interactivity between the artwork and the spectator. He explains there are two different types of present the one of the reflections and the time the image was captured, the image captured is also in the past as a memory. Past, present and future are all involved in the piece in different combinations, the future being the continuation of visitors to the gallery.
Noe considers Pistoletto’s Minus Objects foretold Bourriaud’s theory Relational Aesthetics. Pistoletto responded in agreement suggesting the theory was born from Minus Objects ‘ with which I moved from the diversity of objects to the diversity of people’ (Noe 2008: 67). He states by taking his work outside the gallery it opened up art to a wider audience and to the unconventional. However Bourriaud states that relational art is not a re-interpretation or revival of any art movement. Relational artists do not use social interaction because it is the trend at the time or as an accompaniment to their practice. The social interaction is the subject matter of their work, and also the outcome. Bourriaud contends that previous use of participation in art specifically in the 60’s was concerned with the definition of art as its focus and not social interactivity. Bourriaud also comments that art in this period was creating utopian ideas of society unlike Relational Aesthetics that created existing spaces.
Giovanni Anselmo is another artist from Arte Povera who worked with nature and phenomena, one example is his use of the physical force, gravity. These things play the part of content as well as material within his work. ‘ At the centre of his art which integrates nature, perception and philosophy stands the human being ‘ (Werd and Watkins 2005: 106). The human being is an integral part of Anselmo’s work, as the gallery goer is transformed into a participant. For example his work Invisible 1971 involved a projected light, if anyone came into contact with the light it would then project on to his or her body making the light visible.
Anselmo’s work of the 1960’s and 1970’s is an exploration of the obvious connection between art and the difficulty of understanding the world around us. In relation to the important aspects of Arte Povera mentioned earlier in this chapter Anselmo tries to break traditions for example having his materials created by someone else removing the workmanship and the traditional idea of processes like stone carving. He makes the experience of the work more important rather than the intellect in the work. Anselmo is re-inventing things within nature and phenomenon whilst keeping the work simple and bridging the gap between art and life however not representing it. Anselmo states he ‘ tries to be real,’ noting how he finds it ‘ incredible to be on earth, walking about and looking…it is magic just to be here. And often one forgets that’ (Anselmo quoted in Werd and Watkins 2005: 112).
Anselmo (1969) writes that he does not fix situations but keeps them open, as situations in real life are not fixed; they are in a constant state of change. ‘ Because energy exists in all guises and in all situations, to work with energy requires total freedom in choosing and using materials’ (Anselmo quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 233).
Jannis Kounellis was also an artist that was associated with Arte Povera, Kounellis questioned conventions and traditions within art and also made art that cannot be sold. He did this by using live animals within his work, such as parrots, horses and goldfish. When asked what it was that defined Arte Povera Kounellis responded by saying that there was little planning or rigidity involved, ‘Not having any dogmatic paranoia, not starting from a manifesto, the acceptance of contradictions’ (Bellini 2007: 114). In his work Opposite (1967) Kounellis placed a variety of objects that contrasted within the gallery space, by doing this he created a theatrical environment in which visitors became more than viewers and instead were transformed into actors. Kounellis also created an installation Untitled (12 horses) the use of twelve horses was not just to contest consumer society, but also referenced historical painting and were seen to represent power and energy. The human senses were also important to the Arte Povera artists in Kounellis’s case he used smell. Nature as a theme is also included within his work, he often places fire within the work from quite aggressive jets of fire to a more intimate use of fire in candles.
In an interview with Marisa Volpi (1968) and Kounellis discuss whether chance is a determinate factor with his work. Kounellis states that ‘ When you have a plan, there is the fixed idea of development. When you plan, you eliminate openness. (Kounellis quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 248). Kounellis (1968 a) also reiterates an important aspect within Arte Povera and that is the intention to unite art and life. ‘ He demonstrates this unity through the transformation of the gallery into a theatre where real life and fiction merge’ (Tate). Kounellis (1968 b) explains that art should strive towards authenticity and by using this term he means an art that does not categorize itself within a product or tradition that it doesn’t want to shed. He states the work should be defiant towards conventionality the artist then becomes ‘a permanent disturbance’ (Kounellis quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 248). It is also important however that the viewer also sees the work in this way they ‘ must react to them as ‘signs’ of otherness and as ‘indications’ of unconventionality’ (Kounellis quoted in Christov-Bakargie 1999: 248).
In an interview with Andrea Bellini, Kounellis speaks about several topics the first one explored is drama. Drama is a fundamental part in his work and this is because drama is the basis of his culture. Kounellis is asked to explain what drama is and replies, ‘ In Italy, wherever there is drama, there is a new perspective; everything new is dramatically new, the rest is not actually new’ (Bellini 2007: 112). Language is also referred to Kounellis feels the most important gesture he has ever made was when he broke away from the canvas and started to work outside of it, this allowed him realize more ‘this gesture opened a world for me’ (Bellini 2007: 113). The approaches made by Kounellis and others within the Arte Povera movement have lead to the rethinking of the gallery space or as Kounellis (2007) states by considering intervention within the gallery has changed the rules of the game. For example the piece where he placed a mass of carbon in the corner of a room as a gesture showed a different way to use the gallery. He strongly believes that the gallery is not a place to purchase artwork. The artist must make work that is socially relevant and make a declaration at the same time.