Merz was an artist associated with Arte Povera, a group of Italian artists in the 1960s who turned away from artistic convention in favour of openess and materials that could undermine entrenched assumptions and actively engage with processes of the physical and social world. Neon, numbers, newsprint, brushwood and bags of clay are some of the materials Merz employed.
Mario Merz: What Is to Be Done? focuses on Merz's use of materials as protagonists - in particular his use of neon. Automobile trapassata dal neon (Automobile pierced by neon, 1969) consists of a Simca 1000 car pierced with neon tubes; Appogiata (Propped, 1970) is a series of glass planes leaning against the wall perforated by neon tubes; Objet Cache-Toi (1968) is an igloo built from linen bags filled with wood shavings and lit by neon letters. All anchor themselves to their site of exhibition, drawing the spaces of the Henry Moore Institute into the artwork itself.
The title of this exhibition, What Is to Be Done? - or in Italian, 'Che Fare?'- is a question Merz repeatedly poses. It was asked by Lenin in 1902 in a political pamphlet that took its name from an 1863 novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky considered one of the first socialist novels. Subtitled Burning Questions of Our Movement, Lenin's pamphlet has been much discussed and vastly misrepresented in subsequent polemics.
In Merz's hands it refers to the artist, to what an artist can possibly do in the face of a precarious future.In this exhibition the question is asked in two works titled Che Fare? - one from 1963 is written in neon on a wax bed; in another, made between 1966 and 1972, it gleams in blue neon on the wall.
Alongside a selection of sculptures made between 1963 and 1976, two film-portraits of Merz by Tacita Dean (*1970) and Gerry Schum (1968 - 1970) will be displayed.
Schum's film, Lumaca (Snail, 1970), shows Merz in nature, drawing a spiral directly on to the screen.
The Fibonacci sequence, a naturally occurring progression in nature that can be found in pinecones, snail shells and reproducing rabbits that spiral out into infinity, fascinated Merz. Each number in this series is made from the sum of the two previous ones - 0, 1, 2, 3, 8, 13 - Merz was interested in the ways in which numbers are an abstract invention that become concrete when they are used to count objects.
Dean's Mario Merz (2002) shows the aging Merz being observed by Dean in Tuscany sitting in silence with a large pinecone in his hand. It is ostensibly a portrait, but is also a study of light in space and form in nature - central concerns in Merz's sculptural investigations.
The exhibition will include works on generous loan from Fondazione Merz, Turin, Collection CAPC, Bordeaux, Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin and Collection FRAC Rhone Alpes, Lyon and Frith Street Gallery, London.
Supported by the Italian Cultural Institute, London.
Talks and Events
A two-day international conference in September explores the work and legacies of Mario Merz with contributions from people who had an intimate acquaintance with the artist and his work, current scholars of the period and thinkers considering his work in relation to present day culture and politics.
The 63rd essay in the Institute's Essay series, which launches in a newly designed format, accompanies this exhibition.