Zero to Infinity (Arte Povera 1962-72)

By TIna Fiske, 10 September 2001

31 May – 19 August 2001, Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s recent exhibition assembled work by 14 key exponents of the Arte Povera movement (1962 – 72), known for its pioneering multimedia experimentation, eclectic and democratising spirit, and rudimentary interactive ethos. Grouping the works by individual artist or theme (‘Materials’, ‘Painting’…), the installation certainly emphasised their breadth: simple, elegant, intellectually rigorous, poetical, palpable, raw, transformative and vital. Yet, several works with performative or interactive elements struggled (or weren’t permitted) to reassert themselves. Gilberto Zorio’s Phosphorescent Fist (1971), a wax fist that absorbs light and radiates it out in darkness remains superb. Yet, his To Purify Words (1969), a large tube into one end of which the spectator speaks, looked disenfranchised. The same went for Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Structure for Talking While Standing (1965-6), a barrier originally designed for gallery-goers to lean on which, for reasons of preservation, was off-limits. On the whole, the role of performance received little attention and the visual documentation might have been more perspicaciously used: the performances in which Pistoletto’s Globe (1966-68) and Pino Pascali’s out-sized guns featured were only cursorily mentioned.

The claim for a fabric of urban cultural activity was largely evacuated from the main exhibition areas to a separate contextual display. Fantastic film footage, for example of Jannis Kounellis’ infamous 1969 Rome exhibition at Galleria L’Attico which incorporated 12 live horses, were played on ill-placed monitors near to photographs from the 1968 Amalfi three-day event. One of which was a particularly delightful image of children playing with Pascali’s Blue Widow. Integrating these might just have opened up the politics of the artists’ work or their collective identity, to which scant reference was made. Of the decade which, we’re told, opened with the ‘birth of an energetic scene’ and closed with the establishment of those artists as international players, you leave with but very little idea of the former and too strong a sense of the latter.

Tina Fiske <t.fiske AT> is currently completing an art history PhD.