In Hitchcock’s film Spellbound, the Gregory Peck character suffering from amnesia says, “When I look in a mirror, all I see is a mirror.” Michelangelo Pistoletto seems to be offering something akin to this type of experience with work currently being shown at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery - Viceversa (1971) and Color and Light (2016-2017). The arresting and objectifying influence of the mirror serves as an analog to processes within our inner reality that reveal and allow us to work with our motives, emotions, desires and cognition. Pistoletto’s work with damaged mirrors thus offers a liberating hope from obscure and illusory subjective processes that inhibit humane development. On the second and third floors of Lévy Gorvy, we see that Pistoletto also deals with one of his chief concerns - freedom with responsibility – through physical structures that create the desire for liberation and fulfilment through concepts of accessibility. This is an exciting, major, museum-quality show by one of the world’s most thoughtful, creative and compassionate living artists.
It would be a mistake to interpret Pistoletto’s mirrors too literally. A mirror has the effect of catching and holding your attention as it reflects light to present reality divorced from reality. It is reality divorced from reality (in the form of symbols and images) that we often work with in our inner lives. So the mirror can represent this capacity we have to create and use a reality divorced from reality and the problems this may result in as we might recede farther and farther away from ourselves in reflection of and expectations for ourselves. As Jacques Lacan pointed out, the mirror also validates your external presence in the world, falsely saying you are a whole being and not a hodgepodge of inner processes. You get a grand vision of yourself minus your essential viscera. When a mirror is destroyed or removed, as in many of the pieces in this show, there is no longer an arresting influence, no need for objectification, no predisposition to create a maze-like subjectivity based on bits of information gleaned through insight. One gets a feeling of liberating amnesia, a freedom which Pistoletto has always valued. We see the mirror, as well as what the mirror does, giving us license to move beyond what mirrors mean.
For example, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor has written about the 90-second rule. “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.” What is it about our inner reality that allows this loop to occur? Mirrors are the perfect symbol for what can prolong such a process as they catch and hold allowing for flawed or limited analysis and an endless presence of the emotionally harmful. Indeed, we do not even need interactions with our environment to initiate such cycles. The process of personal liberation seems to involve a breaking of these inner mirrors. If one recognizes some problematic response he/she wishes to change, one can catch, hold and reflect on this, analyze this, judge this, or let this go. The mirror as symbol cannot be separated from the flawed human will, which always seems to botch things up. Smashing mirrors means forgoing the will and finding the space to truly explore, discover and be open to personal change.
Pistoletto became famous for his paintings on mirrors and superimposed images on mirrors, which he has been doing since the 1960s. There are no examples of this in this show and, frankly, I think that is good because those works do not seem to fit the theme of this current show. When we look in a mirror with someone else superimposed on it, we are challenged to put the same amount of work into interpreting ourselves as we are willing to do for other images. Pistoletto invites us to spend the time on ourselves we might spend interpreting any work of art. We become the art, and we must now dig into ourselves. These mirror paintings also lend a humorous, trickster capability to our own image. In a Beijing show at Galleria Continua there was a traffic cop facing me in a mirror with his hand outstretched for me to stop, but I could also see myself behind him, looking at him at the same time. Pistoletto plays with perspective here not only in regard to space but also to time. In a real situation the traffic cop would ultimately put his hand down and let me pass once a street crossing became safe. Also, with these mirrors, you become an instant companion to the superimposed image and can imitate any number of relationships to the stranger.
On the second floor of the gallery is Pistoletto’s The Free Space/Spazio Libero (1976 – 2020). This is, essentially, a prison-like enclosure with steel bars which stops the observer from entering, instead of keeping anything perceptible protected or imprisoned. In the 1970s Pistoletto originally conceived of this piece as a prison within a prison with the help of prisoners from Milan’s San Vittore prison. It seemed to represent the space that exists free of coercion where thoughts and plans can be developed and, potentially, stored until they can be implemented. Here we might think of this structure as a prison within a gallery. In the gallery, however, this enclosure does not hold or protect anything of value, it just divides space and prohibits entry. In the story of the Garden, after Adam and Eve are expelled, sacred space must be protected from corruption by a flaming sword, cherubim and a guard. But there is no apparent scared space here in this gallery, or is it all potentially sacred space? The implication is that in the process of creating an enclosure we create the sacred as well. We seem predisposed to create the enclosures first and then conceive of free space as the sacred.
On the 3rd floor is Pistoletto’s Porte Uffizi (1994 – 2020), various wooden structures creating subdivided chambers labeled with academic subjects and filled with various sculptural works. These open structures tie in with Pistoletto’s belief in the practice of Demopraxy (action through democratic learning and consensus) and that the accessibility from one structure to the other and the freedom of movement and space represents not an accumulation and burden of knowledge for its own sake but knowledge for freedom, knowledge to be in the service of what he calls The Third Paradise: the fusion of first and second human paradises. The first paradise was when humans were embedded in nature in such a way as not to cause harm to the planet and the second is currently artificial, dominated by the mind of humankind to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of people for profit and is dominated by science and technology.
The Third Paradise is the myth of creating a synthesis of the natural and artificial in a sustainable way. The key is Demopraxy, each individual learning, developing and taking personal responsibility toward a global vision. The symbol for the Third Paradise is a reworked infinity sign. Also inherent in all of this is Pistoletto’s belief that art can never be a good academic discipline, because true art and the process of creation and interpretation does not have to be and should not be separated from one’s very life.
As Abstract Expressionism was nearing its end, many art critics believed that art would continue to move in a more humane or humanist direction. Instead, Leo Castelli and the pop artists of America and the UK seemingly hijacked art and tangled it with consumerism. In Italy however, art did move more in that humane direction through the Arte Povera movement, of which Pistoletto is a stellar example. Pop Art seems to have exhausted itself. The innovations, hope and humanity found in Arte Povera have kept art alive and meaningful and will continue to be a basis for the evolution of art as a means to engage others toward that Third Paradise.