Two ways, one movement

Catherine Spencer on “Pistoletto Politico”, Luxembourg & Dayan, London, 12 February-12 April; Giuseppe Penone, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, until 11 August

Giuseppe Penone, Spazio di Luce. credit whitechapel gallery

The overlap of the Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibition “Pistoletto Politico” at Luxembourg & Dayan and Giuseppe Penone’s Bloomberg-commissioned Spazio di Luce, 2012, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery allowed formal and conceptual comparison to be made between them.

The burnished steel surfaces of Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings from the 1960s, four of which featured in “Pistoletto Politico”, explore the mirror’s incorporation and exclusion of the viewer, correlating its ability to unify, multiply, and split the subject with the contradictions of political consciousness.

In his seminal 1970 action Rovesciare i Propri Occhi (To Reverse One’s Eyes), documented by the archival display that accompanies Spazio di Luce, Penone obscured his vision with mirrored contact lenses that reconfigured his sensory relationship to the environment, while integrating glassy fragments of the landscape into his body.

These doublings and occlusions might be expected, given Pistoletto and Penone’s association with the Arte Povera movement in the 1960s and its engagement with precariousness, but the two shows demonstrate the various processes encompassed by the movement. Luxembourg & Dayan explored Pistoletto’s response to Italy’s “anni di piombo” (years of lead) from the late 1960s to the early 80s, when economic downturn catalysed violent conflict between Left and Right. In contrast, the Whitechapel's Penone is ecological, concerned with the delicate balance between humanity and its surroundings. Both artists, however, prioritise the small gesture that might reconfigure larger structures.

“Pistoletto Politico” ensnared its visitor in a game of perceptual cat-and-mouse from the offset: four large steel panels from La Gabbia (The Jail), 1967-74, dominated the space, their striated silkscreen bars bisecting the viewer’s reflection and fusing him/her into persecuted detainee and complicit jailor. This duality continued in two works from the “Comizi” (Demonstrations) series, 1965-66. These position the viewer in invasive and excluded relation to half-turned backs of members of the left-wing Red Brigades, hunched like mourners at a graveside, their red flags drooping sadly. Pistoletto’s figures, created by enlarging newspaper photographs and tracing them onto tissue paper with paint, aim to express the tenuous nature of documentary and historical claims to veracity, bleeding the images of definition and contrasting them with the crystalline reflections of their steel support.

As in the mis-en-abîme unfolded by Divisione e Moltiplicazione dello Specchio (Division and Multiplication of the Mirror), 1978, in a corner of Luxembourg & Dayan, this uncertainty extends to the viewer’s own status. The double-takes and wrong-footings that dog progress through a Pistoletto show instance the artist’s desire to deflect political or ethical certainties, encapsulated in his 1967 statement “Famous Last Words” quoted in Robert Lumley’s catalogue essay: “Walking by means of stepping to one side takes us out of the system that goes straight ahead”.

This epigram also resonates with Penone’s environmental interventions, which question ingrained distinctions between culture and nature. Spazio di Luce (Space and Light) is a re-investigation of a 1969 work, also recorded in the archive display, which involved coating a tree-trunk with wax. At the Whitechapel, Penone has created a hollow bronze cast of a tree using the lost-wax technique, broken up into sections that balance anthropomorphically on spindly branches. Reminiscent of a sloughed-off snakeskin, the sculpture’s interior, which is coated with the rich, glowing gold of an icon, retains the sinuous imprint of the tree’s bark, while the exterior bears the trace of busy human fingers.

The resulting reversal of inside and out in a kind of arboreal death mask dissolves boundaries between human and ecological, while symbolising the lip service paid to a highly aestheticised nature alongside environmental degradation. Yet despite Spazio di Luce’s elegance, several smaller, earlier works make visceral statements with greater economy: for example, a lump of plaster bearing the bite-marks of Penone’s teeth, entitled Soffio (Breath), 1978. Both exhibitions are relevant to the current economic, cultural and civil unrest in Europe, casting long political and aesthetic shadows from the 1960s.

Catherine Spencer is in the final year of her PhD at the University of York, writing a thesis on Northern, Latin American and European installation and performance art and assemblage.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 05:30:00 GMT

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