“You and I Equal to Three”: The Artistic Creations of the Arte Povera Pioneer Michelangelo Pistoletto

TEXT:Sue Wang    DATE: 2018.7.6

At 3pm on June 24th, 2018, the lecture “You and I Equal to Three”, which is held collectively by the CAFA Art Museum, the Cultural Center of the Embassy of Italy, and Galleria Continua, took place in the Auditorium Room of CAFA Art Museum. As an internationally acknowledged artist, the forefather of the Arte Povera movement, and also the only living Arte Povera artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto delivered the keynote speech and his solo show Oltre Lo Specchio was opened at the Galleria Continua the day before the lecture. He recalled his early artistic creations and stressed the concepts and theories that pertain to the “Third Heaven.” Prof. Lyu Pinjing, Vice Dean of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and Lorenzo Fiaschi, founder of the Galleria Continua, respectively addressed to the lecture. Mr. Franco Amadei, cultural attaché of the Italian Embassy, CAFA Prof. Zhan Wang and others also attended the lecture and Cai Meng, Associate Director of the CAFAM Academic Department, was the host.

At the beginning of this lecture, Pro. Lyu Pinjing introduced Arte Povera to the audiences. It was a conceptual artistic genre that was prevalent in the 1960s in Italy. Using discarded products and quotidian materials as representative media, it aimed to get rid of the restrictions of traditional high art and to reconstruct the language and concept of art. Michelangelo Pistoletto is one of the main representatives of Arte Povera and a prestigious artist in the contemporary international domain of art. His works focus on a combination of art and life in the synthetic arts. In addition to his own artistic creations, Pistoletto has actively connected to art through various fields in society with a “public art project”, hoping to evoke and produce “accountable social changes.”

From Self-Portrait to “Mirror Painting”

The lecture reviewed a series of Pistoletto’s works through slides. In retrospect, the artist first talked about the beginning of his artistic exploration, a period that can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s, during which he dedicated himself to finding his artistic position and identity. He tried a number of self-portraits, wanting to figure out “who am I?”, “what to do?”, “where to go in the future?”, and more pivotally, “what can I contribute to society?” Finally, using a mirror helped him to identify himself. Unlike the conventional artistic techniques, Pistoletto intentionally mixed the use of a mirror and canvas. In his earliest works, he chose to dye his canvas black to achieve a light-reflecting effect. In this way, he found a new image. While gazing at it, the mirrored painting was not only his own portrait, but also the portraiture of any and every spectator gathered in front of it. In the end, Pistoletto’s self-portrait transformed from simply “personal” to “global”.

The original black canvas was replaced by mirrored stainless steel, which became the most basic component of his later creations. The mirror-audience relationship, or in other words, the mirror-people relationship, was further honed in his recent “Third Heaven” icons, evolving into a connection between every individual and the entire world. In the course of creating mirror paintings, he understood that art could also become science. In his eyes, mirror painting has four dimensions, which means it contains the element of time. What showcased in the mirror are fleeting images that always belong to the present and are constantly changing. Nevertheless, pictures that are stuck on to the mirror belong to the past and this sort of reminiscence will be brought to the future by peoples’ memories. In the meantime, mirror painting also includes the three nodes of time—past, present, and future. Owing to this, what it embodies is not the thinking and emotions of the artist himself but the assemblage of the audiences’ feelings and experiences instead. All the audiences are involved in this sort of existentialist phenomenology. In this process, they participate and empathize the existence of the world. Thus, the whole set of experiences generated by the mirror painting possesses strong dualism— “I”, “you”, and “we” formed by the discrepancy between the former two. Taking a group of mirror paintings shot in Beijing last year as an instance, they not merely exemplify his experience in China but also illustrate the existence of China in his works. These are not just his personal works, they link together “we.”

The “Third Heaven”

Next, Pistoletto expounded on the “Third Heaven.” This piece is associated with the “broken mirror”: single-sided mirror signifies “zero” or emptiness. Though it lacks its own existence, it is still capable of reflecting its surroundings. When cut in half, it gives rise to two “ones”. With the gradually diminished aspect that includes an angle between each of them, the reflected image gets bigger, and eventually will yield an infinite chain image as the two close together. This virtual mirror exploration could also be found within human society as well as the presence of lives. As we can see, Pistoletto’s creations underwent bio-phenomenology that ranges from self-portrait to mirrored self-portrait, from the artist himself to the entire world, and ultimately to the continuous reproduction and evolution of diverse elements. This notion perfectly echoes the topic of this lecture “You and I Equal to Three.” Interestingly, the artist himself is also assimilated into a demonstration of the world and then the “Third Heaven” reproduces this experience in the form of an icon.

This icon is the extension of the mathematical infinite symbol ∞, and the central ring is formed by the two external rings being pierced and linked together. Pistoletto elucidated the concept of “Third Heaven.” It is a combination of the “First Heaven” and “Second Heaven.” The former one is a utopia, in which humans and nature are completely merged together. However, what we are now living in is an artificial paradise—human wisdom makes it grow into a globalized scale through scientific and technological means. This paradise is comprised of artificial needs, artificial products, artificial comfortable conditions, artificial entertainment, and other types of artificial things. In the era where technology and art are advancing irresistibly, the exponential speed as well as the correlated interest have led to the irreversible decline and exhaustion. The “Third Heaven”, on the other hand, is the third stage of human development, usually attained through the equilibrium state between the artificial world and nature. To underpin this point, Pistoletto displayed several “Third Heaven” pieces executed in different forms from different parts of the world.

He then took a step further to explicate that his action in breaking the mirror with a mallet at the opening ceremony has the exact same meaning as the sculpture which split the single-sided mirror into two parts. The fracturing of a mirror symbolizes the individuals and groups that make up  society and the reflections between these pieces signify the relationship between people and communities. So, a single-sided mirror itself implies nothing. Yet the interaction between the separated two parts indicates the modified and evolutionary behaviors of society, including political activities. Its significance lies in the construction of the “Third Heaven,” balancing nature and the artificial and thereby triggering society to produce a new political structure. Under such circumstances, art is no longer confined to minority groups or the elite , it gets popular and becomes nationalized. In Pistoletto’s eyes, democracy is an intermediate state between authoritarianism and anarchy. Although judging from a superficial level, both capitalist and communist governments are seeking democracy, they never fully work out in any aspects. The “Third Heaven” attempts to find a real democratic state through art. The word “democracy” stems from “populace” and “power”, but these two are mutually contradictory. Hence, Pistoletto rediscovered a Greek word that comes from “populace” and “practice,” and subsequently “the power of the masses” transforms into “the participation of the masses.” The new practical manner does not bestow power on a single individual, nevertheless, it gathers people from different social domains and confers a corresponding power on them. The theory still derives from “One Plus One Produces the Third Element.” To be more specific, communication comes from various social domains that can generate new energies, analogous to the condition when broken mirrors falling on the ground produces new “realms” (a homophone for “mirror” in Chinese). Pistoletto’s project in Cuba and the United Nations is a derivative of this concept. Established in his hometown Biella, the project “Artistic City” pursues the goal of the “Third Heaven,” trying to detach from the existing political ideologies and creating a new world through practice and effort from universities and research institutes, including art academies.

Pistoletto started this lecture with his earliest artistic explorations, presenting his artistic ideas and the development of practice in clear, articulated words. Just as he said, “the different stages of artists’ personal lives are able to build intimate connections with different periods of the world.” Later in the Q & A session, he discussed about yin-yang changes in Tai Chi, the future of painting, art education, multi-dimensional space and so on. Perhaps the speech offered by such an experienced artist who has superb artistic visions and critical thinking skills could bring some new understandings and insights to audiences and the public.

Text by Wu Huixia, translated by Paris Yang and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo by CAFA Art Museum