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The Late Sixties saw the establishment of one of the most influential modern art movements, Arte Povera (literally 'impoverished art') in Italy. You've never heard of it? Well, I can't say I'm surprised, I hadn't heard of it either, until this exhibition at London's Tate Modern, collecting together works by all of the major artists involved in the art movement. It is fairly unsurprising that the movement was largely missed, at the time, the world's attention was largely focussed on the rise of the Beatles, and the art world was more interested in pop art, with Andy Warhol holding his first retrospective in 1965. Arte Povera, as might be expected from the title, is a far rougher, more raw, style of art, generally using cheap materials, and focussing far more on the nature of the materials than much of the art of the time. ARTE POVERA The term 'Arte Povera' was coined in 1967 by the Italian art critic Germano Celant, when he organised an exhibition of various artists that constituted the movement, as he perceived it. The art he selected could be characterised as "anti-formal, private, elusive and interested in the essential nature of the materials used." The movement was dismissed in America, as being heterogeneous, and numerous papers criticised the "European complexity". This partly criticism stems from the fact that the American art world was moving towards minimalism at the time, and consequently the diversity of the pieces in the art would have seemed to lack any consistent properties. However, today, the common themes of the art are quite apparent – all of the artists have tried to keep the inherent properties of their materials while arranging them into artistic statements. There were seven artists originally associated with the Arte Povera movement – Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero e Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giuseppe Peno
ne and Giulio Paolini. All of the artists interpreted the credo of the movement in their own ways. Anselmo and Penone both use raw materials to highlight the beauty of nature, Kounellis's work has a more industrial theme but still uses some natural elements in his work, including animals (though none of the pieces on display in this exhibition feature animals). Paolini refers to Greek myths, and makes modern interpretations of them. Merz's work is often characterised by use of the Fibonacci sequence – a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the previous two – a series which occurs frequently in nature, from the formation of animal shells to the pattern of leaves growing on a sunflower stalk. THE EXHIBITION The exhibition fills about two-thirds of the fourth floor of the Tate Modern, consisting of fourteen large rooms containing art either by individual artists, or grouped thematically. The rooms all share the Tate's trademark bare wooden floorboards and stark white walls. Most rooms are lit by natural light from the windows on the North side of the building, supplemented by artificial light. As I've remarked in previous opinions on exhibitions at the Tate Modern, the artificial light is extremely good there, and hence, even in those rooms which are entirely artificially-lit, lighting is perfectly adequate. The labels on the various pieces of art displayed is somewhat disappointing, rarely providing more details than the artist, the title of the piece, the year and the media. In a way, this is good, as it allows the visitor to form their own conclusions about what the artist was seeking to achieve, however, sometimes I would have liked a little more information. The introductory panels explaining the theme of each room, however, were well written and provided some useful insights into the room's contents. ROOM 1 The first room is something of a mixture of pieces, intended to p
rovide an introduction to the themes of Arte Povera. The most interesting pieces here are Michaelangelo Pistoletto's 'Cubic Metre of Infinity' (1965-6), which consists of six mirrors bound together into a cube, with the reflective surfaces pointing inward, and Mario Merz's 'Fibonacci Igloo' (1970), an eight-spoked dome, with bolts connecting sections of the metal spokes at intervals related to the first seven numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Both pieces give you an idea of what to expect of the exhibition – they are both presented in a very raw, imperfect way. The cords holding together the Pistoletto's cube of mirrors look shoddy, and almost temporary, and the spokes of Merz's igloo are left dirty with oil and marks from their welding. The room hums with the continual sound of Pier Paolo Calzolari's 'Untitled (Zerorose)' (1970) – a series of thirty white neon zeros attached to the wall at eye height, which pulsate continuously. At first, it seems that it is the pulsing neon creating the sound, though this actually comes from a CD player on the ground, which continually plays a sound which might equally be the words 'zero' or 'rose'. ROOM 2 The second room consists of the work of Luciano Fabro. You enter the second room by passing under a piece of work entitled 'Contact – Tautology' (1967) – a strip of thick metal a little too narrow for the doorway, which has been split by a diagonal cut, and welded back together with the two halves slightly misaligned, such that the welded piece exactly fills the doorway. Fabro primarily worked with metal, constructing eccentric shapes, such as the giant 'Cross' (1965) which dominates this room, and the smaller 'Square' (1965), where a pair of metal tubes sticking out from the ceiling and a wall form a square with the walls. ROOM 3 The third room is a thematic one, dealing with the artis
ts' use of the traditions of painting in their art. The room is dominated by Pino Pascali's sculpture 'The Decapitation of Sculpture' (1966), an abstract white shape, reminiscent of an organic form, from which a white cone at one end has been cut off, and is positioned at one end. Several of Giulio Paolini's pieces are displayed in this room, including the large 'Title (Agenda)' (1968), consisting of a huge sheet of paper attached to a canvas, on which a grid of tiny letters have been arranged in neat rows. Pistoletto is also represented here, with one of his many paintings painted onto a mirror 'Three Girls on a Balcony' (1962-64), in which the viewer's reflection appears to be the subject of the attention of the three girls painted onto the mirror, who look away from the gallery, and into the reflection. ROOM 4 This room collects together some pieces by Alighiero Boetti, who sought to reduce the content of his art to a bare minimum. To the right of the entrance to the room is a black wooden box, containing a huge lamp – 'Yearly Lamp' (1966). The lamp illuminates for a total of eleven seconds per year, so the likelihood of a viewer actually being present to witness the illumination of the lamp is extremely remote. This typifies Boetti's art, virtually all visitors to the exhibition will simply see an extinguished lamp in a box – about as minimal as content could be. In another work, 'Columns' (1968), Boetti presents columns of paper doilies supported by iron rods, and in 'Little Coloured Sticks' (1968), approximately circular bunches of small coloured sticks are bound together. On one wall of the room is one of Boetti's final pieces associated with the Arte Povera movement, which he left in the early 1970s – 'Twelve Shapes from 10th June 1967' (1967-71). This work consists of twelve etched copper plates, each bearing the shape of a country at
war on that date, and illustrates the movement away from the ethos of Arte Povera that Boetti's art was taking. ROOM 5 One of the most interesting rooms of the exhibition, this room focuses on the various materials used by the artists of Arte Povera. Piero Gilardi is represented by four sculptures of seemingly natural scenes, of the bed of a river or the ground in a mountainous area, each of which has been meticulously carved from polystyrene and painted. Mario Merz is represented by 'Iguana' (1971), with an iguana attached to the wall atop a series of blue neon Fibonacci numbers. However, the main artist featured in the fifth room is Jannis Kounellis. Kounellis is best known for his incorporation of raw materials into his art – from iron and cotton, to plants and live animals, often chosen for their smell or historical association with the location where the work was to be shown. The three part work 'Untitled' (1967) consists of a series of iron troughs filled with cacti arranged in neat rows, alongside a perch occupied by a live parrot (but not in the Tate Modern exhibition) and an iron structure stuffed with cotton wool. A series of burlap sacks filled with foodstuffs (lentils, corn, rice, peas, coffee, beans and potatoes) lie on the ground along one side constituting 'Untitled' (1969). In one corner can be found another 1969 untitled piece, consisting of a series of twelve weighing boats hanging in a line, each filled with a heap of coffee grounds, producing a pervasive smell – which the museum's attendants seem keen to stand near! ROOM 6 In this room there are a series of large photographs seemingly taken during the establishment of an art installation. The pictures are assigned to Emilio Prini, and are labelled 'Details from 'Paperweight'' (1968), though little more information is provided. ROOM 7 This room also contains some of the exhib
ition's most interesting pieces, and focuses on four artists. The first part of the room deals with the art of Marisa Merz, and upon entering the room, you immediately notice her 'Untitled (Living Sculpture)' (1966) pieces that hang from the ceiling – a series of organic, shell-like aluminium structures. Probably the most interesting of her pieces is 'Fibonacci Naples (Factory Canteen at San Giovani a Teduccio)' (1970). This consists of a series of ten pictures, each showing the canteen with a number of people in it taken from the Fibonacci series, with the number denoted by blue neon figures near the photograph. The next section of the room collects examples of the work of Giovanni Anselmo, which are in my opinion the most intriguing in the exhibition. Anselmo explores the principles of physics in his works, and would often include "projected word pieces" in his exhibitions, in which the actual meaning of the art only becomes apparent when the visitor to the exhibition stands in front of the projector. In 'Invisible' (1971), for example, a slide projector projects the word 'VISIBILE' ('visible' in Italian). In Anselmo's 'Untitled (Eating Structure)' (1968), a lettuce is sandwiched between two blocks of granite, held together by a piece of copper wire, such that one piece of granite will inevitably fall to the floor once the lettuce has rotted sufficiently. In 'Torsion' (1968), a sheet of leather has been set in a concrete block, and twisted until it is under tension using a wooden rod, then positioned against a wall, such that the tension cannot be released. Gilberto Zonio is the third artist featured in the room, represented by five pieces, possibly the most interesting of which is entitled 'To Purify Words' (1969), and consisting of a loop of rubber tubing covered in canvas, with a thin layer of alcohol at the bottom of it. Visitors speak into one en
d of the tubing, at head height, and their words pass over the alcohol, for purification, before passing out of the other end of the tube. The final artist in this room is Giuseppe Penone, represented by several of his works, including three "tree sculptures", neatly carved from real trees, chopping away the outer layers to reveal the younger tree within. These typify Penone's interest in reversal and revealing the inner nature of things, as does his well-known photograph, 'To turn one's eyes inside out' (1970), shown on the posters and programmes for this exhibition. The photograph shows the artist himself wearing mirrored contact lenses, so that looking into the artist's eyes allow us to see what he sees. ROOM 8 This room contains three pieces by Pier Paolo Calzolari, the most interesting of which is probably 'Without other troubles than my own other rumblings than mine' (1970), in which the words of the title are spelt out in blue neon across a frost-covered mattress, which is kept cold by freezer bars. ROOM 9 After exiting Room 8, the visitor passes through a couple of rooms detailing the history of the Arte Povera movement, and looking at the other events in the art world at the time, before returning to the exhibition on the other side of the building, passing between the two illuminated panels of Boetti's 'Ping Pong' (1966). This room collects together some of Pistoletto's "minus objects", a series of objects intended to make the viewer think, with titles that provide very little information about their nature or purpose. ROOM 10 On one wall of this room is a small black and white photograph of a young man. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the photograph, however, it is the title that artist Giulio Paolini has given it which provides the concept behind the art – 'Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto'
(1967). The young man is the subject of a painting by Lorenzo Lotto, which has been photographed by Paolini, and hung in a gallery. Although the young man appears to be looking at the visitor to the gallery, the title reminds us that the young man himself actually looked at Lotto, not at Paolini, nor at us. In the middle of the room two concrete panels contain a series of lights, pointed toward the centre of the room, with power cables hanging down on either side, Zorio's 'Lights' (1968). ROOM 11 Visitors pass between the lights to see the annex room containing Paolini's 'The Apotheosis of Homer' (1970-71), within which a number of music stands are arranged, each bearing a photograph of an actor playing a historical figure. Italian stage directions continually play, providing a soundtrack. ROOM 12 The pieces in this room are connected by the theme of 'Politics, Action and Engagement'. Boetti is represented here by two of his political maps of the world, with each country coloured by its national flag, one is embroidered, the other is a printed political map coloured in using marker pens. Pino Pascali is represented by a woven steel wool 'Bridge' (1968) and a gilt bronze sculpture of Italy hung upside down from a steel cable – 'Golden Italy' (1971). ROOM 13 This room is filled with a series of Luciano Fabro's huge "feet" sculptures. Eight feet (all entitled 'Foot' (1968)) are arranged in two rows of four, each made of different materials – marble, bronze, porphyry, murano glass – and each extends to the ceiling by a silk "leg". Around the outside of the room a green silk thread zigzags from floor to ceiling, affixed to wall with needles. This is Fabro's 'Penelope' (1972), which remembers the Greek myth of Penelope, Odysseus's wife, who wove and unravelled a shroud while awaiting her husband
39;s return. ROOM 14 In one corner of Room 13 is a small doorway leading into the final room of the exhibition, containing Zorio's 'Phosphorescent Fist' (1971). This operates on a continual cycle, and consists of a fist made of phosphorescent wax, illuminated by brilliant headlamps positioned in front and behind it. Periodically, the headlamps blink off, and the only object visible in the room is the eerily glowing green wax fist floating in space. It's a particularly surreal, striking image - made all the more forceful by the aggressive fist outstretched towards the observer. CONCLUSIONS The Arte Povera exhibition has a lot to offer – there are some fascinating pieces included in the exhibition, and it gives a good introduction to the inventiveness and diversity of the artists involved in the movement. The pieces in the exhibition are, as ever at Tate Modern, very well displayed – there is plenty of space between the exhibits, and the rooms are very well lit. Admission is not cheap at £6.50, but a leisurely tour of the exhibition will probably take a couple of hours, and is very enjoyable, supposing that you like modern art.