This is the first solo exhibition by artist Mario Merz in the UK for nearly thirty years. It is also the first major show curated at the Henry Moore Institute
by Lisa Le Feuvre, its new Head of Sculpture Studies.
Mario Merz (1925 - 2003) was a leading figure of Arte Povera, a term referring to a loose grouping of Italian artists who turned their attention to their surrounding environment in the immediate post-war period. Merz rethought the possibilities of sculpture by observing the world around him. The title of this exhibition is a question central to Merz's approach to art making. His work was driven by asking: what can an artist do in the face of a precarious future?
Along with other Arte Povera artists, Merz turned away from representing modernity for its own sake, instead seeking to explore the role of art in day-to-day human experience, turning to materials that were ready at hand. In Merz's case, these include glass, metal tubing, blankets, bottles, wood shavings and neon, the focus of the selection of works in this exhibition. His sculptures also respond to systems that form our natural surroundings, such as the mathematical Fibonacci sequence.
The exhibition presents twelve works made between 1966 and 1977; many have been rarely exhibited in the last four decades. 'Automobile pierced by neon' (1969-82) is a Simca 1000 car impaled with arrows of light from a neon tube; 'What is to be done?' (1968-73) poses the question of this exhibition's title in neon on a bed of wax; and 'Object hide yourself'(1968) is one of Merz's distinctive igloos, built from bags filled with wood shavings circled by his own neon-lit handwriting.*
Merz began using neon in 1966, seeking to find a contrast between natural phenomena and the logical that would complicate and energise his chosen materials. The neon passes through different forms - here at the Henry Moore Institute these include a car, bottle, blankets, glass and wax. Merz described his use of neon operating as 'a kind of thunderbolt that would enter objects'.
Alongside the selected works, two film portraits of the artist will be displayed, one by Gerry Schum ('Lumaca', 1970 from the Identifications series) and the other by Tacita Dean ('Mario Merz', 2002), who has recently been commissioned by Tate Modern to create the next installation in the Turbine Hall. Schum's film shows Merz in a natural setting, drawing a snail spiral following the Fibonacci sequence directly on to the screen. Dean's 'Mario Merz' shows the aging Merz in Tuscany, sitting in silence with a large pinecone in his hand. Both films are a study of light in space and form in nature - core ideas in Merz's sculptural work.
To complement the main gallery show, on Thursday 27th October, there will be a one-day Mario Merz conference, The Politics of Protagonism, which looks at the social and political ambitions of Merz's 1960s and 1970s work. Speakers include Lisa Le Feuvre, Nicholas Cullinan and Martin Holman. Additionally, there will also be a series of talks and an essay in the Institute's Essays on Sculpture series.
Mario Merz lived in Turin, growing up under Mussolini's regime. He was imprisoned for a year in 1942 for his antifascist views as a member of Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty) group. He began drawing in 1945 whilst incarcerated, drawing portraits without lifting the pencil from the page. He progressed from painting into sculpture in the early 1960s.
He was a key figure in Arte Povera, a term that literally translates as 'poor art'. It refers to the use of non-precious materials not usually associated with art. Arte Povera encouraged a step back from the principles of popular culture and industrialisation, drawing attention to the natural world and objects within people's day-to-day life. Importantly, Arte Povera artists saw art as being a part of life as it is experienced.
Developing in a period of economic and political instability in post-war Italy, artists associated with Arte Povera looked around them for materials that were used by people in their everyday life - from wicker to iron tubing, sheets of glass, neon, wax, wood shavings and bottles. All of these materials are found in this exhibition.
Merz's last solo exhibition in the UK was in 1983 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He also featured in a group show: Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 in 2001, at Tate Modern, and had a Guggenheim retrospective in 1989.
The exhibition's curator, Lisa Le Feuvre, joined the Henry Moore Institute in November 2010 as Head of Sculpture Studies, taking over from Penelope Curtis, the new Director of Tate Britain. The Institute is known worldwide for its rigorous and important programme of sculpture exhibitions, publications and study resources and is part of The Henry Moore Foundation, set up by the artist in 1977.
Lisa is co-curator, with Tom Morton, of British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet which opened in Nottingham, touring to the Hayward Gallery, London and is currently on show across venues in Glasgow to 21 August. Between 2004 and 2010 she taught on the postgraduate Curatorial Programme in the Department of Art at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Mario Merz: What Is to Be Done? includes works on generous loan from Collection Fundação de Serralves - Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto; Sammlung Goetz, Munich; Tate; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Marzona; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; CAPC Musée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux; Fondazione Merz, Turin; Collection de l'Institut d'art contemporain, Rhône-Alpes ; Frith Street Gallery, London.
Tacita Dean's film will be screened in Gallery 4 from Wednesday 7th September.