Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment

Whitehot Magazine, 2011. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 12.08.11Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment

The 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.

Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

Apollo Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

There’s something timeless about geometric art, with its clean lines and basic patterns appealing to an instinctive desire for order. All the works included in the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) show ‘Radical Geometry’ all date from the mid 20th century, but they still feel modern. The artists, from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela, turned to this visual language, fresh and subversive at the time, to express optimism for the future. This fruitful 50-year period coincided with a turbulent and often repressive political climate, with a solid streak of radicalism running through everything. The future was close, and change felt possible.

The the overarching mood of radical optimism colours the experience of the RA show. The Uruguayan and Argentine sections starts us off with block colours, subdued towards a spectrum of dusty purple and muddy yellow, as the artists searched for an universal visual language. The boldness comes in the Brazilian section, where the colour choices turn to unapologetic black, white and red, in shapes that fit together in neatly ordered ways.

Lygia Pape is only represented with a couple of wood cuts, but her work was essential to the Brazilian artistic identity, championing art as a merging of aesthetic, ethical and the political. “Magnetised Space”, the 2012 Pape retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, included an installation where Pape had strung gold threads from floor to ceiling; sometimes the threads seemed to disappear into nothing, but two steps to the side and they looked like rays of light. Closer inspection showed it is all perfectly logical in neat geometry, but the effect is magical.

In “Radical Geometry”, the works of artist Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) provide a similar experience. Using wire and found objects, Gego joined her Venezuelan contemporaries in creating optical illusions, meaning the art changes depending on the viewer. “Sphere” seems to be floating in air, impossibly connected at each joint, so simple and yet so pleasing to look at. On the floor, the shadow is its own experience, unrecognisable yet inseparable from the original.

The sense of order and possibility in geometrical art comes in part from the mathematics at the core: the angles, the slots that fit. We are attracted to these shapes because they are natural to us: “Magnetised Space” showed how we have an instinct towards geometry through a still from Pape’s film, where a street performer dances in the middle of a crowd which has formed in a perfect circle around him. It is like the dancer is magnetic, attracting the crowd and repelling it at the same time, with geometry as a human impulse.

The link between radicalism and geometry was thoroughly examined in the “The Utopian Impulse”, the elegantly titled Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2012. The futuristic designer called himself a radical idealist, dreaming up fantastic solutions to humanity’s problems. Prone to geometric designs, Fuller patented his solutions for energy-efficient housing and uniquely fuel-efficient cars, even lunar colonies, in his kooky style that left you feeling like anything was possible.

“The Utopian Impulse” included the 1969 “Earth Flag”, made by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell; it’s a grey and white planet on a blue background. Few artists today would present the idea of world unity in such a simple way as it feels distinctly nostalgic, like a throwback to simpler times. But considering how geometry, a fundamentally appealing visual language, keeps emerging in the artistic landscape, we still cannot help our impulse towards some kind of utopia. Looking at Gego’s hovering spheres, or Pape’s floating threads, we are swooning over the chance to create order in what we see.