Published in Whitehot Magazine, September 2011. Original article here.
Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment
Serpentine Gallery, London.
Michelangelo Pistoletto has got us all working for him. The artwork displayed at the Serpentine is only part of the equation; the rest is up to us visitors, moving slowly through the maze of swirling cardboard. The corrugated paper winds itself around the entire gallery, leading us on, every now and again depositing us in front of a massive mirror. There is no escaping Pistoletto’s mirrors; it is just you there, surrounded by white walls and cardboard, with no choice other than to look. Your eyes scan over your fellow audience, the walls and the ceiling, until like it or not, they come to rest on your own reflection.
Pistoletto, the Italian artist of worldwide renown, is no stranger to the themes of reflection and participation. It can seem as if there is a social experiment at work here, starting when visitors enter the gallery and search for instructions whether to go left or right. But there is no set order to the art, which is constantly changing anyway; it is all down to us. Standing in front of the big mirrors, several of the visitors seem uncomfortable having to look at themselves so blatantly, resorting to a quick adjustment of hair or clothing before scuffling on. We are used to being provided with direction when looking at art, but Pistoletto does not seem to be all that interested in telling us what to think. Instead he sends us on our merry way through the labyrinth, possibly a metaphor for life, where around each corner we encounter a new version of ourselves.
Having said that, with an exhibition named The Mirror of Judgment it is clear Pistoletto is not devoid of motives. The four largest mirrors are adorned with iconography from one of four religions: a Buddha, an Islamic prayer mat, a Christian altar and the Jewish tablets. Pistoletto uses the word “judgment”, but there is something unifying about the way the cardboard maze ties it all together, creating a feeling it may in fact be about the opposite. Whether you stand by the prayer mat or the Buddha, the experience is the same: you, and your thoughts.
As the labyrinth leads us into the centre room of the Serpentine, we encounter Pistoletto’s mirror obelisk. Suspended from the ceiling are three large ovals, forming a symbol of infinity. The angles of the sculpture mean you get a different view each time you move, of the ovals, the obelisk and of the perpetually mirrored visitors. Then suddenly, only for a minute, I find myself alone in the room, with no reflection other than my own. With only white wall and brown paper behind me, I watch myself walk, conscious of the vanity but reluctant to look away. Pistoletto offers us no paintings to admire, no sculptures to study; just the maze, the mirrors and what we see when we look into them. I am not entirely sure what it means, but I believe the answer lies in the experience.