Michelangelo Pistoletto (born in Biella, Italy 1933) is one of the world’s most influential modern artists, who started his career in the art world with his father (an art restorer) at the beginning of the 1960s. He is most well-known for his “mirror paintings”, where he invites the viewer to become an active part of the completed work. Pistoletto’s works are found across the world, within its most important institutions and commercial galleries. He is one of the last living pioneers of Arte Povera, a movement founded by Genoese art critic Germano Celant (1940-2020), who died in Milan earlier this year due to complications from COVID-19.
Arte Povera is based on the relationship between man and nature, as opposed to the pointedly consumerist and ‘perfect’ art that was prevalent at the end of the 1960s. Thirteen artists created work made exclusively from ‘poor’ materials such as rags, iron, wood and plastic. It was from this methodology that Pistoletto created Venere degli Stracci (1967), a clear reference to that period. In the 1970s, he devoted himself to mostly marble-based sculpture, looking for new, expressive forms and complex ideas to be realized. One of his constant goals has been to bring art to the people. So, in 1998 in a former textile factory close to his birthplace, he founded Cittadellarte, a large creative laboratory. The name includes two meanings: citadel or “cittadella”, a place of protection and defense, and city or “città”, corresponding to the idea of confrontation, openness, and connection to the rest of the world. In 2003, Pistoletto started a new phase of his practice with the Terzo Paradiso project. That year, he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award at the Venice Biennale (2003).
In this exclusive interview, Pistoletto tells FRONTRUNNER about one of his latest projects in progress, the Messanudo exhibition at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, and how he endured while hospitalized due to the coronavirus, contracted at the age of 86.
Your early works refer to portraits and self-portraits on canvas, and then the mirror paintings arrived. Why the mirror? What does this element, fundamental to your artistic practice, mean to you?
You used two important terms: canvas and mirror. The canvas is the ideal and conceptual support of pictorial expression, of representation, and was used in many ways in the twentieth century up to abstract painting. It represented, exclusively, the sign of the individual artist: the artist’s self-referential painting. In this way, the artist has acquired total autonomy, total freedom not only to represent reality, but also religious and political stories.
On the basis of the canvas, I resorted to a thought, the primary one, that of the icon: the Byzantine icon. It is made up of a central image around which there is gold as a concept of transcendence, of the divine, of identity that surrounds the human figure. So, starting from the icon, I thought about my identity and identified with the figure of the Byzantine icon used in Italy in the 1200s and 1300s. [With] the human figure, my face as an icon, I created Autoritratto Oro, (Self-Portrait in Gold, 1960).
Then also working with silver, copper and black backgrounds, I noticed that it became reflective. From that moment, the mirror took the place of the canvas. It was unified with the canvas as were the gold backgrounds in ancient icons. It is not a pigment, but a metal. I used a metal with a stainless capacity like gold which is not only the refraction of light, but also of the actual image of everything in front of it in terms of time and space in all dimensions. In the self-portrait, I found not only my reproduced image, but all of humanity, because I was no longer alone. From the plant world to the animal world, my self-portrait then became the self-portrait of the world, of everything in front of the mirror. I no longer think of my isolated identity, but connected with the world and the world connected with my identity. So, the mirror is all that’s in front of you.
How did Cittadellarte Pistoletto Foundation begin?
Cittadellarte was founded in Biella, with the initiative of the university of ideas: Unidee. The basic concept is to stimulate and produce a change in society with the goddesses that lead to a new responsibility, so the freedom of art becomes a common responsibility. It’s an idea that I established with the Progetto Arte Manifesto (1994). The time has come for the artist to connect all sectors of social life, from politics to economics, from religion to science. So art becomes a connective element of the whole social system. The university has become the Academy of Ideas, conceived as an academy of professions to identify a new profession, ideally and functionally projected towards the future. We need to have the ability to use creativity in an economic, political, design, fashion, everything. The Academy of Professions is where art creates a new dynamic to create new and innovative professions.
How much spirituality is there in your artistic production?
My whole activity is based on spirituality. Not religious spirituality, but art which consists of the path that art has created from the beginning until today: the first work of art was the imprint of a hand on the wall of a cave. This imprint is not the hand, but the idea of the hand. The ‘virtual hand’ that the person compares: his with the one he left on the wall. It is between these two hands that the doors of the unknown have opened, where everything becomes possible. Thus was born the spiritual arc between two hands which, over time, has been prolonged until today. An arc that crosses the unknown, the identity of the human being starting from religion, but having no certain answers. It has given imaginary answers that an unknown universe produces. Science wants to have concrete confirmation of what it has found, it must be verifiable. But all of this [is] in the long spiritual arc of art, in which today the hand is not just a support on the cave but the mirror of the universe. It is a dynamic formula of transformation in which the spirituality of art is found in the Terzo Paradiso (Third Paradise), the third stage that we must create.
Rebirth-day is celebrated on 21 December. There are about 200 versions, worldwide. Tell us about the Terzo Paradiso – Rebirth project.
Exactly. In the world, there are about 200 and each embassy is inspired by a concept of regeneration and each has its own autonomy, with the aim of creating a network of regenerations of society. This symbol represents the third phase of humanity. In the first phase, we were immersed in nature. In the second, the artificial world dictated by technology, and the third phase consists of putting the connection between nature, the individual and technology in perfect balance to find a new approach to coexistence. A new balance between the parties without ever going back to the first phase. There is a lot to do to achieve this balance.
How was the Trinamic symbol conceived?
The symbol comes from the mathematical sign of infinity, and then I inserted the third circle of life between the before and the after. So among all the opposing elements (such as positive and negative, masculine and feminine, oxygen and hydrogen, for example), they have to find a connection to get the central circle: a creation that occurs for different connections. I defined this symbol as the Trinamic Theorem, the dynamics of the number 3, so this symbol is also the formula of creation. On one side, we have the number 1, the opposite side is the number 2, which together create the number 3 at the center . So you and I make three, and this formula must be used for finding the balance of humanity. It is the new direction that we must take and develop in all activities, be they political, economic and social. 1 + 1 = 3, you and I make a ‘we’. It is the symbol of creation.
You contracted the coronavirus. How did you deal with the hospitalization period?
For me, I was lucky to have met the right staff at the Biella hospital. For a month they looked after me well, and I never had any fear of being abandoned. A month of isolation, but it was not difficult because I did not go through a period ‘due to the disease’, [I was] aware that the whole world was in isolation. For me it was a period in which I reflected on my projects started before the pandemic and above all thought of Cittadellarte and the Academy of Biella as important realities even after the lockdown that created a new condition for art and culture.
Tell us about the Messanudo exhibition created last year in collaboration with GALLERIA CONTINUA in San Gimignano.
The exhibition takes place in Piazza della Cisterna, in the central square of San Gimignano, where CONTINUA recently opened a new exhibition space. This is a special place, because people from all over the world come to this square. It’s a real international tourist center! The project was conceived before the coronavirus health emergency, and the basic idea is to show international societies [to the fact] that we are different but equal people, men and women of different ages, embracing each other. Staying together, without any barrier. It is humanity laid bare that embraces itself, far from any conditioning. This work is linked to Love Difference – Artistic Movement for an InterMediterranean Politics, created in 2002 for the Venice Biennale. The motto was precisely ‘To love differences’, distances, and the exhibition, after so many years, takes up this theme. Nudity is very important: the uniform unites every human being, but it is our skin, which is made of different colors, cultures, and traditions that must be loved.
In your opinion, who is an artist today and what is missing in art?
The artist, especially those attending [an] academy, must study and develop their imagination; their ideas in music, sound, words, literature. All arts are a dynamic of thinking that is not static, so it needs to move. It needs to create continuously, because everything is constantly recreating itself. There is always a chemistry, a physics that transforms everything. A thought must be transformative to run together with nature and human intelligence.
Nature is made up of immense relationships, and immensity is given by our creation. We must understand that our ability to live is part of time. We are part of time and artists don’t have to create, individually. Social dynamics is also important because art must be an opportunity for everyone. If we want to change society, we must give the means to change it, so there is a need to create and find the ability to reformulate all the professions that allow us to work together.
One last question: what do you recommend to young artists?
I advise young artists to develop individual skills and autonomy to the maximum, but above all to think that this acquired freedom must be used to invent in society. It is no longer enough to create a work of art, but to ensure that it is done in such a way as to prompt and bring about a change that is not only aesthetic, but also, and above all, ethical.