Paradise at the centre. A conversation with Michelangelo Pistoletto

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STORY Luisa Bocchietto
PHOTO Piero Martinello

L.B.
Who is Michelangelo Pistoletto and where has he come from?

M.P.
I was born to an artist father and a mother who wanted to learn art with him. My father worked on a series of works for Zegna in Biella, from 1930 to 1933, the year I was born, then the family moved to Turin in 1934. I then lived in Turin until 1993, when I returned to Biella because I found this space (which has now become the Cittadellarte), which was right for the project I had in mind. I did not want a personal studio or a museum, but an active place, a laboratory where art could meet society. I always breathed in art in my father’s workshop who as well as painting, devoted himself to the restoration of antique works. From him I learned to develop research into the past. My mother pushed in the opposite direction and was convinced that the future was to be found in advertising, and in fact I began to attend the teaching and lessons of Armando Testa, who had opened a school in Turin in Piazza Vittorio. I discovered contemporary art through advertising and the avant-garde styles. When his request to become part of his studio arrived in a more professional way, I had already started my own communication business. We maintained a deep friendship: he told me that he had always wanted to be an artist. He considered advertising a minor art, but I thought that he was in all respects a true artist. My concept of the artist is not that of an isolated individual, but rather one immersed operationally in reality and what he has done expresses this. I have always thought that art should not be solely self-referential, but be closely linked to real life. In my work, this has found a precise basis in the mirror paintings and as a result I have not been content to stand by and watch things, I have devoted myself to involving humanity.

L.B.
By now the mirror is pretty much the Michelangelo Pistoletto trade mark, how did this expressive process come about?

M.P.
At first it was a search for personal identity: the reflection was that in which the artist could duplicate everything he saw, except himself. It was 1960, I was working on the theme of the self, in a dialectical process of research between figure and background. The background was monochrome, then of different colours, then I came to create a gloss black surface, I experimented with silver, gold and metal surfaces and finally mirror polished stainless steel. The result was a new phenomenological dimension: in the image I was no longer alone, the reality was mirrored and in this way the spectator entered into the work. The mirror reflects the truth of things, it cannot lie and it becomes a means of communication.

L.B.
So advertising was therefore important in introducing this propensity for communication.

M.P.
As important as the discovery of the past. In the mirror you communicate with these elements of space and time: you look behind you, you see what has been, and you see in front of you the time to come. You are in the middle. You are in the present.

L.B.
Recognizing the other in the mirror, there came the desire to involve it…
M.P.
My identity revealed itself in comparison with humanity and it pushed me to get out from the mirror to meet the practical reality.

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L.B.
As an artist you seem to be atypical, less self-centred, more focused on others!
M.P.
This approach has been there since the opening of the studio in 1967; I published a manifesto with which I opened my studio to the creative participation of artists. Poets, musicians, actors and filmmakers all arrived – with the theatre then, we went out onto the street. This created an interactive workshop involving different disciplines and a coagulation of forms of expression: light, sound, images. Not unlike what happens today in Cittadellarte where we want the artistic language to interact with different sectors of the social fabric: politics, education, production and the economy.

L.B.
In actual fact Cittadellarte is a very lively place where new projects are starting all the time, like Unidee, Love Difference, Leat Eat.Bi, the recently promoted Terme Culturali. Among others there is one with the name ‘VISIBLE’ which makes me curious, given the theme of this month’s magazine. What’s it about?
M.P.
VISIBLE intends to make visible what is not. In art systems you can see the works on display in the galleries, on display as objects. We are working on a concept of art that eschews these market values, which penetrates a grey area. The project includes an award and is being created by Cittadellarte with the Fondazione Zegna. We want to enlarge the cone of light to include what’s around the outside of art system to discover new artists who are beyond traditional areas.

L.B.
Cittadellarte is expanding and recently a big empty new space was opened, dedicated to the ‘Third Paradise’: what’s the meaning behind it?
M.P.
You have to specify the choice of terms. The word Paradise comes from the ancient Persian language to indicate a walled garden, a safe place where the combination of ‘nature’ and ‘artifice’ reigns. It indicates the ability to grow vegetation in an arid, inhospitable location through the desire to create well-being for human beings. In the fantasy, the idea of wellbeing is pushed beyond life itself, in an ultra terrestrial infinity. The link between the two worlds, natural and artificial, is a crucial point, identified as an image, from the bite of the apple. There is a great capacity for creative transformation in the world and at the same time a responsibility towards the ecological system. The Third Paradise draws our attention to the ability to know how to use science and technology for the survival of the planet.

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L.B.
For some people the ‘original sin’ lies in the desire for knowledge that takes us out of a condition of ignorance and towards the challenge of flying, or in our turn, creating.
M.P.
The apple is pure nature. Our intervention changes nature and must be responsible. The heart of the Third Paradise at Biella is an empty space dedicated to reflection. The mark made on the floor refers to the infinite, it consists of a continuous line that intersects itself, drawing two circles. However I have introduced circle to the centre, a parenthesis, which represents the DURATION. In the brackets there is us and our lives, the centre of infinity. The empty space is dedicated to meditation to the possibility of concentrating on the thought of our condition of responsible autonomy.

L.B.
A space for suspension of time?
M.P.
There has always been the need for spiritual spaces; temples have performed this task. People need space for meditation, even if not religious. This role of space for internalization is important in architecture.

L.B.
The ‘Novacivitas’ project looks at architecture, linking it in particular with the themes of sustainability…
M.P.
All aspects of life are integrated, art takes on the value of sustainability and responsibility. Since 2000 we have been producing initiatives that, according to our programme, place ‘art at the centre of a responsible transformation of society.’ Art is not alien to practical everyday life. Then architecture is one of the primary components of the social phenomenon: it protects, connects and organizes.

L.B.
Michelangelo, are you happy that people call you ‘Master’?
M.P.
I don’t mind it. A commitment to society and young people is what we need, so it therefore justifies a role, and it includes a great responsibility to teach people to be free.

L.B.
Does the artist then take on a social image, I would say political?
M.P.
I see the artist’s work as the highest expression of freedom. A job that today is no more individualistic, but open to society. The sign of the Third Paradise is that it is open, trinamic. The two elements at the extremes may be antithetic, but a vital third element results from their combination that was not there before. It happens like this in chemistry between hydrogen and oxygen to make water, from a male and female to create a third being, democracy was born between political opposites, dictatorship and anarchy, from yellow and blue to get green. The third element is the result of creation and born from this duality. I cannot think of being alone, but of there being at least two of you, and here I find society. The Third Paradise is that which does not exist yet, it depends on us to create it.