Arte Povera, the Italian alternative art movement from the 1960s is quietly establishing itself in the art pantheon. It is a sort of missing link between Duchamp and Dada on the one hand and contemporary conceptual art on the other. There seems to be a lightness and a humour to it that seems more in keeping with today’s art (and with Duchamp) than the high seriousness of American conceptualism from the late 1960s which is often cited as its precursor.
In London at the moment I have seen two noteworthy shows by the elder statesmen of this movement. Gilberto Zorio has a show at Blain|Southern in Hanover Square and Giuseppe Penone’s installation for the Bloomberg Commission at the Whitechapel Gallery has been running since last year.
I am not sure whether the adjective povera has the same double meaning in Italian as poor does in English. Perhaps impoverished art would be a more accurate, if pedantic, translation. Humble materials characterise arte povera – a conscious rejection of belle arti. But now it seems that position must have softened somewhat,
Zorio’s show is one where the lights go out and noisy things happen. There are microphones that you can interact with, although being England people just diffidently stroll up to them and say ‘hello?’ quietly. It’s not so easy to capture the reactions of an audience in London. There are also battery like sculptures involving copper oxidising and kinetic sculptures that spray luminous paint. And a strange motif of a canoe, that apparently means a lot to him but meant rather less to me. It was diverting an energetic but ultimately left me with little.
Penone’s show on the other hand is spectacular and uses that most traditional of sculptural materials: bronze. Bronze painted gold and on a fairly epic scale too. A cast of a tree in sections is laid out horizontally through a gallery that is just large enough to house it. The cast is hollow and the inside is painted, or coated I’m not sure, with gold. The effect is miraculous and strange. To begin with it seems like a giant fantasy creature, but then you see it as a tree again and the gold somehow kicks in as a vision of the divine energy of plant – paganizing centuries of divine art, especially of course the Italian kind. But it seems a lot more subtle than the original use of bronze in arte povera, Luciano Fabro’s gilded Italy – a bronze map of Italy suspended upside down.
The carvings of stone to match water worn rocks found by the artist are also fascinating. They suggest the effort that we must make to actively appreciate the beauty of natural form, rather than passively consuming it as we so often lazily do.
Avant garde art seems shaped by the traditions that it is kicking against. This is pretty self-evident when you stop to think about it, but sometimes we are so engrossed in our own cultural bubble that we miss it. Some artists, like Penone, grow and transcend the restrictions of their initial impetus; they can communicate with a wider audience with their work. Others like Zorio and fellow povera artist Mario Merz seem doomed to endlessly repeat the tropes that made their name that while distinctive are vitiated of meaning when viewed by an audience who do not share the background.