Portraits of Artists 15

Conversation with Michelangelo Pistoletto

Denis Zacharopoulos: In 1967 you placed a milestone in a space and you engraved in the milestone: 1967. It means you transformed a sign for space into a sign for time.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: Yes.

DZ: Can you tell me a little bit about it?

MP: The milestone is a point of reference for me in time – it's a presence, like a body. The milestone was in the middle of the gallery during the whole exhibition, it was the only element. It was the way to point on time, because I had the feeling that it was a very important moment to make it evident: It was a moment that was between a past that for me was very important, and a future that was becoming very important for me too. So it was the consciousness of being in a precise moment. You know, my work is basically founded in time. The time is the real situation where my work is moving: It is the dimension of my work. It's not a work based on the three-dimensional. It's four-dimensional – but four-dimensional means everything and nothing. When I started my mirror paintings in 1961, I realized that I was looking for a new space to open around the figures that I was fixing on the surface of a painting. It was space, a new space for the person I was painting: it was myself – I was painting my self-portrait. Space where this man that was me was able in the future to move; space that was in a certain way paralysing the human being in the fifties, like a perspective that did not leave any space around. But when my image started to be painted on the mirroring surface – there was black colour as a background and the black colour was very polished because of varnish – I realized that it was time that started to exist in the painting more than space – looking for space, I found time. I started to move into the space that was time, and everything started to move and change into the painting, in the background of the image that was fixed on the surface. That image that was painted or fixed with a photographic system on the surface, started to move in the real space, because the painting was hanging on the wall but with the feet on the floor, and so it became like a door – I started to see myself in this movement, in the changeability of all the images, this infinity of possibilities that were projected in reality, from the mirror, as before the mirror was the projector of the reality.

DZ: Now, in between the first mirror paintings and the milestone, developing these infinite possibilities, this space of infinite possibilities, you extract a certain number of works: they are called "minus objects". Somehow, if I am not wrong, they are minus because they are not possibilities anymore, they are real, they are things that you take out of their being of possible things and they became real. And they are somehow so-called "minus objects". They go from 1965 to 1966 – that means two years before the milestone – and somehow enter an empty space, which is your studio, are somehow put there in different places till the day you declare them "minus objects" with a text. Then they go out from your studio to a gallery in Genova, transformed again through the inclusion of a mirror, and your studio is empty again, opening the space of possibilities for other works to come and for other artists and starting the whole notion of collaboration as you invite other people to come. Right at that moment you wrote also a text – that is closer to the milestone – which is the ultimate famous word where you very strangely put the accent on the notion of being: "l'essere", not only the human being, but the being, the existence, the presence. So somehow can you tell that in this process is a certain way of going exactly through the virtuality, through the scale, the range of possibilities to the range of realities where somehow – through the object, through the passage of time and space – you really come to the point where time, space and human being come together and become a strong presence.

MP: Yes, it's very important for me to consider the other: "l'altro". I did a work that was called: "In order to create you have to be two". Two is in the beginning for the mirror paintings the new perspective. It changes the direction of the perspective. You don't see anymore only one direction that is in front of you – like the private, individualistic point of view of the artist that is looking on the canvas and fixing his own direction, his own design, his own sensibility, his own emotion. But the mirror painting creates a bi-dimensionality. You see the mirror that is in front of you, but you also have the other direction that is all you have behind you. So I started with these two directions: The past and the future are two things that become one, joining together themselves on the surface of the mirror. The artist and the viewer went in the same place: Looking behind myself the painting was including the viewer, not only the artist. The individualistic story of the art that was existing until the point of the mirrors changed in the double rapport of adding negative and positive, front and back, deep and surface – there is a conjugation of the two sides, front and back. I decided at a certain moment, that was at the beginning of the seventies, to cut the mirror also into two parts, because I did not accept the idea that the mirror was alone. You'll say, okay, there are so many mirrors around . I say, no, there is one mirror, as there is one physical reality, there are not two physical realities, there is just one reflection of the physical reality in the mirror and the mirror is able to make everything double in reflection but is not able to make itself double, because it represents the unity and the aloneness. So, I divided the mirror in two parts and one part started to see the other part: I started to understand that all numbers possible were created by the division. So all the numbers were evident at a certain moment inside of the mirror itself until the infinity.

DZ: You put two mirrors in front of each other?

MP: Yes, that was the work that I did in 1966 with the "minus objects". It was the "metercube of infinity". The "metercube of infinity" is a limited space, but inside of that space, that you cannot see, there is the infinity – from the outside the metercube is like a body, is a physical thing: It's like we are, we are physical bodies, but we are all the system of mirrors inside of ourselves: because the eyes are mirrors, the mind is the mirror of the eyes and the action is the mirror of the mind.

DZ: And would you say that the way you yourself stand in front of the mirror is like if you yourself became a milestone, kind of a real sign that condensates time and space?

MP: You speak about myself or you speak about the viewer?

DZ: That's a good question!

MP: It's the same probably. I think that the other is myself and myself is the other. There is in the mirror painting a sense of concentration of past and future. There is also this possibility of taking distance from the surface so as you can take distance from the milestone and go in another time – but the milestone is always there bringing you back to unity. There is also this multiplication of the possibility of the being, but also the possibility to a reunification in a central concept – it's the central concept that is not static anymore, it's always moving in time, offering the possibility of all the existence and all the objects exist and all the being exists. The milestone is a being also, the moment in time is a being also.

DZ: And now we can hardly go to another dimension of reality, which is if the mirror is one continuous mirror reflecting reality and each individual mirror is only a part or a fragment of "the mirror". Is it your way of seeing the "stracci"? How do you call them?

MP: The rags.

DZ: The rags, yes, as parts of a continuum, a physical state of reality that is used, and somehow continuous to exist although it is used – and you put them together.

MP: Yes, the rags are the opposite of the civilization of consuming, because they are consumed objects. So they arrive at an end and from that point they renew always. The rag is a passage. It's a passage like the mirror. So I used the rags for theatre for example, I use rags for sculptures or something that is between sculptures and painting and theatre, creating colours and movements. It's something that can. It doesn't need to be part of an economy that is different from the art economy because art has its own economy inside, that is not just for food or for power: I think there is between food and power a big distance possible – even if the people don't see it – and art, I think, should have this capacity of occupying all that space between food and power. It is also why I did a work that is called "art assumes religion". Art for me assumes little by little everything. It should assume, absorb everything in itself. Probably assume in English is not the right way to say.

DZ: "Takes on".

MP: It's possible to say in English probably "takes on". In Italian "to assume" means "to take on", takes in itself, in himself also as an artist the situation that objectively exists around the art itself. Taking a critical position, a critical point of reference of everything in the art is the objectivity that art wanted to reach from the beginning of the century. But in the beginning of the century the independence, the concentration of the point of view in the art was just individualistic – with action painting, with the monochrome as a very personal perspective. Finally the mirror became the objective point of reference of a function of everything, of the function of the things. So I went to the depth of all possibilities in an objective way, in order to really give autonomy to art.

DZ: And exactly at that moment where everything seems sticking together, you include the demand of other people in the work creating a "zoo": that means a group of people. You meet together, you start living together, working together and doing performances, actions, whatever you call them. And these people are all kinds of different people, artists or not, viewers also. I mean it's a permanent switching of position and a permanent recycling of things.

MP: I was aware that I should go in the crowd, I should project myself in the crowd, in the middle of people, after the crowd was inside of my whole painting – I had to go into the mirror going out of it, I mean in the space and time where everybody exists. But taking away – not always and not for ever – the object as a point of communication, as the point of monodirectional creativity. I was looking for a bidirectional creativity: One coming from myself to the others, and the other coming from themselves to me – and the crossing point between me and the others was the point of creativity to renew every moment that capacity of invention and verification. So that was possible because of the decision of creating this place for the encounter and that was the creative collaboration. But it was not a limited situation, like being in a specific group: "the zoo" was open for myself to go away and for the others to come and meet each other and so we went to work in the street and in different places. But the word "zoo", I think, was also important to show that from another point of view, from the point of view of the terrible possibility of using art, there is also a terrible possibility of using human beings: that is to exclude what seems not to be important for power on one side and food, bread, on the other side. That was the exclusion of all works that get important vibrations of the culture that is everywhere, for everybody – it is what I call today "the zoo of the cultures", because there is an elimination of the nature, there is an elimination of animals and there is also an elimination of cultures by power, powerful cultures in the world. So that was also indicating the word "zoo", that situation, that we were on one side and on the other side of the prison.

DZ: Would you say, or would it be exaggerated from my side if I say that when you started for instance the first collaboration with artist friends in Torino in the context of so-called "arte povera" and then you made the "zoo", is it possible to think that at the beginning you start collaborating with people who are absolutely conscious of who they are: They are artists, they have decided already. There is a certain degree of collaboration with people who are artists – they decided to be artists, and they decided to act according to this decision. Then you have people like the "zoo", who have not decided yet what they are or who they are – but they decided to be together. How do you see if a kind of sketch for an interpretation is there, your relation to art students today, like the ones you have in Vienna. Are they kind of a third state of relations, where people will have to decide and would be including in the collaboration a very important decision, which is not to decide to be an artist but to have to decide?

MP: Yes, you are right, I think it's a way between – the Academy. I am seeing the Academy as a possible space that I can offer – probably a new condition that is not the condition of the museum and gallery and not the situation of the street, in the sense of living without art: There is no real speculation in the work of the Academy. There may be a speculation, but for me that space is possibly free from the speculation of the individual point of view of the professors or the other side of a kind of instruction. It is possible to create a free land where you are inside the world of your business that will arrive for you tomorrow, and at the same time to be out, so to be protected in a way: This double direction again is very important for me and it is a double possibility that opens a rapport with the younger generation as human material, that will not be used by myself but has to be stimulated in order to decide themselves what to do with the future.

(Vienna, May 1993)