PRINT December 1979

Mario Merz: The Artist as Nomad

He who practices art is a vagabond, a nomadic survivor who will never find a home among people who have become settled.
—Adorno and Horkheimer

MARIO MERZ’S “IGLOO” OF broken glass is an uncertain and unsheltering space. Its fluid irregularity upsets its tranquility as a secure object by transforming it into something referential, raising questions of what is reconcilable and definitive in art. The structural and the referential come together; the openings and the transparency of the glass allow osmotic exchanges to filter between the two contexts. Recalling the huts and domes of primitive builders, the igloo establishes a rapport between internal and external space. It represents the border zone between full and empty; a field of complementary tensions where forces of meeting and collision are engaged.

A shelter and a cathedral of survival, from the politics of art as much as from the winds, such buildings are also the image of the nomad or vagabond, who does not believe in the secure object, but in the dynamic contradiction of life itself. For nomads, the vagabond’s existence means drifting from one context to another, adapting to local foods and customs; their lifestyle never crystallizes into anything definitive or stable. Nor are their buildings permanent: they consist of an accumulation of elements necessary for survival, often serving as much to identify the inhabitant as to protect him from the weather. Merz is known as a builder of “igloos” (as he calls them, although he is most generally interested in the domical shape and nomadic implications of such structures). Hence he is similar to a nomad who chooses the location of his campsites in order to draw upon the territory for economic resources and cultural stimuli.

One needs to build in a manner antithetical to current models; to build according to processes of growth and seclusion, both following and overcoming one’s will, in a natural rhythm, day and night. Different materials are chosen each time, determined by chance, place and proximity of other elements, and dictated by the vegetation. The earth’s surface must be a body with which these elements can relate intimately. Nothing should be preordained, that is, capitalized. To build is the necessity—hour by hour and day by day—to weld the will onto that which is scattered in life.1

With such an attitude, building becomes the interpretation and humanization of a territory no longer perceived as a place to pass through or park, but a field where interactions between economic activity and natural and artistic construction can take place. Merz’s concept of “territory” embraces all contexts, including the artistic, from museums and galleries to magazines and books. The igloo’s construction can thus respond to social conditions while remaining open to symbolic and cosmic interpretations. Its existence, like that of art, is bound to history or science as much as to myth and legend. It is impossible to establish its reality and its absolute existence, because its dimension is mythical and flows in time. Thus its re-creation preserves the enigma of a life that is active and never exhausted.

Merz’s materials are as adaptable as the nomad’s. Thus the clamps and arches can sustain plates of glass or matting, hold skins and clumps of branches, accommodate large slabs of stone and car doors. Everything is reduced to enigma and to nomadic energy. Signs—bound in stucco or traced with thread and skin—create images formed of various materials; poor, but alive and immediate. This continuous transformation perpetuates a culture that is unorganized, hence variable; while Merz’s structure of casual, ephemeral materials harmonizes with his ideas of art, which have evolved according to contingency, surmounting obstacles as they arise. Merz’s process thus eliminates systems in favor of an encounter that produces a communicative “vertigo.”

Merz’s interest in this vertigo began around 1966, when he first produced “objects passed through by neon.” The neon is experienced as an energetic flux or spear of light that passes through the object, thus destroying the idea of the solidity of the object. Punctured by the neon, the object becomes annulled as an icon but it is redefined as material; the neon abandons its own physicality and becomes light. Works such as the bottle or the umbrella, penetrated by the neon, confound our perception of form and materials, since we can no longer consider the two elements as autonomous, but as assimilated with each other.

The idea is to create from illogical juxtapositions of objects a transformation which reflects the fluctuating sense of balance between the nomad and the territory in which he operates. This problem of things that pass through or lean on each other, not actually penetrating each other, but existing contiguously, has been an issue in all of Merz’s work since 1968. The effervescence of materials, resulting from the encounter of two energies, carries over into a work he made in 1968 titled Objêt cache toi, a hemispherical cabin made of earth whose title derives directly from graffiti written in Paris during the May revolution. Like Merz’s work Che fare? (from the title of Lenin’s book), the significance of Objêt cache toi is political and existential, because it reveals the urgency of using the object as an ideological tool. It is Merz’s first igloo.

I made the igloo for three interwoven reasons: to abandon the idea of the plane as a vertical or horizontal, hence the idea of creating a surface independent of conventional surfaces. My idea of the igloo is a space absolute in itself: it is a hemisphere leaning on the earth. My interest is that the hemisphere is not geometric; it is almost always created from a metal structure, covered with nets of casual materials like clay, earth, wax, and broken plates of glass.

The metal network, in its flexibility and transparency, gives however, the sense of a pressure from within, a sort of traction toward the outside. The igloo is thus a point of escape, a place of defense and of rest: “Its essence is its existence both as a sculpture and as a habitable structure.”

The natural difficulties—as much as the artistic—are overcome by lightness and flexibility. Similar to the Navajo wigwam or the Mongol yurt the igloo is a cultural entity furnishing life-support, relating to the whole of society, artistic or not. The area which is covered and at the same time open is charged with functions and relations suggesting a linkage between social, artistic and spatial elements. Its capacity is huge, and the interrelation between the various factors determines what the igloo refers to—one can understand this if one reflects on the interior activities of the socio-cultural structure in which it acts, almost always the context of art. The igloo is both the umbrella and the field which, in spite of environmental limitations, shelters Merz and urges him to construct something deliberately impermanent. For him it is the act of building, not the finished structure, that is meaningful. Building is a journey through the territory he works in, so his process is determined by the conditions he finds, his materials—whether manmade or natural—depend upon what is locally available. His objects represent a fusion of memory and present experience, the organic and the theoretical. All this finds historical confirmation in the mathematical system of Fibonacci.

Merz began his works using the Fibonacci series in 1970, when he felt the need of a biologically possible system, mathematical and organic at the same time. This system, devised by the medieval mathematician Leonardo da Pisa, author of Liber Abaci (1202) and handed down in the 1228 edition under the name of Fibonacci, is, according to Merz, “biologically thinkable. It corresponds with the proliferation of natural and corporeal elements. For example, we have one nose, two eyes, five fingers, precisely according to the series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, easily recognizable. Thus I have made a series of works based upon the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233).”

The first work using the Fibonacci progression grew out of his neon-filled objects of 1966–67; then in 1970 he made a sequence of slabs of glass covered with neon numbers. Here the physical nature of the 1966–67 works was translated into a mental system, where the idea, taken from Fibonacci, predominates over the material. Because the idea is adaptable to any operation whatever, it is possible to apply it to every type of reality—private, social, spatial, objective, organic and biological. Thus since 1970 he has incorporated the Fibonacci series in his work in various forms—the igloo, the page of a book, the crocodile, the pine cone, a room, clumps of newspapers, tables.

Coming to grips with the concept of the igloo is essential for survival outside a technical-bourgeois society. The nomadic nature of the igloo indicates a “writing in the space” that defines its place and its people: “I claim that the igloo is inhabitable and that thus it is easy to arrive at the idea that the igloo has a close rapport with people. From my experience I have seen that people love it, because they understand immediately its real and cosmological vocation.”

The artist’s construction corresponds to the territory of art, of which the total image is often assimilated with that of society, therefore always reflecting the image of the environment and of its inhabitants. The structure of society and that of the igloo develop and change concurrently; what happens to one often depends upon the other, in the sense that the igloo cannot be understood except as a place that mediates between human rapports and as a center of political and cultural radiation. Here we find advanced and primitive typologies, “decorative” details typical of a particular social or cultural group. One has recourse to the “ruins,” the broken and malleable evidence of glass or stones. On this ground, Merz wants to measure the breakdown of the ordering function of art, understood in itself, outside of every context. The poverty of materials reveals a theoretical stance, as it sustains the image of the negative and the rejected, as opposed to the positive and utopian image of a rigid and monolithic, if not minimal, art. The poverty of language stays in the world of pessimism and disenchantment. Its survival perhaps depends upon its ability to recognize its powerlessness against the mystical, from the minimal to the conceptual, which tries to express and dominate all by means of opulent and logical forms. It upsets the mechanistic basis of a reductive and minimal position. In fact, conceptual research symbolizes the entire concept of “modern” art, and idealistic art, taken to its furthest extreme. Conceptual research establishes an order by which its progress is systematized. Merz’s proliferations of objects cannot be predestined; they are based on contingent and casual observation.

In Merz’s work considerable importance is attached to the spiral, which develops structurally from the center. As Merz has said, “From the center one is heard by all.” The person in the center speaks for the group. The igloo lies within the spiral because it is open to the questioners; it is both public and private. Merz sits within the igloo: “If I am in the igloo as an actor, I am in possession of myself: if I am not in the igloo, I have no audience; I never leave the igloo alone and I don’t go away; I enter the igloo not as an actor but as an artist who desires the igloo:
I bring into the igloo my own conformity
I bring into the igloo my lack of musical awareness
I bring into the igloo elementary forms of life
I bring into the igloo other people
I bring myself into the igloo, thus in the igloo I am both
a private and public person.”

The igloo contains within it both the cosmic and the personal; for this reason it is always concentric. One might also think of it as an overturned hole, a sacred place that symbolizes the emptiness/fullness of the earth. An absolute sphere of the material and the immaterial, it is the axis of encounter for all circles, of individuals and groups. Sometimes, as at the Art Institute of Chicago (“European Art of the Seventies,” 1977) an igloo is constructed for a particular exhibition; the igloo is the myth of “something together with nothing,” triggering the phenomenon of reminiscence, a link with the past that because of its energy (in the artistic sense) continues to be identified with the present.

I use a more subtle and hidden art, the art of observation. Observation without restraint and without giving in to the passiveness of mere observation. In Japan there exists the art of observing stones combined with the art of putting these stones in sand gardens. Or the art of observing plants, as related to the sculptural presentation of the ikebana.

The observer is the new model for the intellectual or the artist, who can no longer be a prophet who speaks through oracles, but the scientist who observes the world to discover that its antitheses are not necessarily as he would wish. He does not want to find a quick or absolute solution, but to understand the perplexity inherent in any solution.

In 1967 I used a thought from Giap to create an art of observation. Giap observed that the “enemy” can be represented by a number of men in a place; if the men join together they leave the space free for other forces, but if they break apart they lose their impact. When I used Giap’s idea to make an art of observation I thought it was more observing of reality than saying, “Long live the people of Vietnam; out with the French and American invaders!” Giap’s idea corresponds to a reality that can be explained with physical and persuasive laws.

There is born the concept of a critical solution which is by nature continually subject to adaptations and revisions. This solution does not exclude partitioning and restructuring and recomposition; in fact, it nourishes them. A logical form is not reconcilable with this proposition; the igloo in its formation continually resolves itself on the plane of experience and observation.

In discussing the art of observation, one must consider realism, which is rooted in the art of Caravaggio. His art proposes the simultaneous moral and political commitments of the artist, as well as his polemical and critical character as set against formalist and classical art. Merz, as a good observer of the “real,” believes only in the history of the given, whatever it might be, so much so that in some works, on the walls or on the floor, he includes the internal process, from life to death, of the real and of the natural. In none of his materials—the igloo, newspapers, spiral tables, fresh fruit and vegetables—does one find abstraction or rules, only the experience of nature and sculpture. Like a body, the sculpture is not an object or a given substance, but a continuous organic development. It manifests itself as a system of energy that renounces every boundary and every intimacy. Each element consumes the next; combined they extend in a continuous chain.

In Merz’s installation in the Museo Pignatelli in Naples, from 1976, a spiral-shaped table coils around an igloo, bundles of sticks, stones and vegetables, to go beyond all space and all time. Its formation also engulfs information (newspapers), thus following a natural process of proliferation, of an image capable of wavering between present and past. By referring to and including elements from his work since 1967, and also by the presence of fruit and vegetables, which decompose and must be replaced, he tries to connect the interpretations of past facts with present ones, in fact reduces them to zero and to the most infinite.

Fibonacci, besides being a mathematician, was a wandering cleric, therefore a nomad. The progression of elements, as well as the progression of numbers, is part of the observer’s voyage.

I thought of superimposing the art of observation on the art of numbers. Numbers not as numbers, but as objects. Just as words or colors or photographs can relate to each other, so the numbers are related in a series. The art of numbers is superimposed on an art of observation. The art of observation is so subtle and uncommunicative, so profound and hidden, that it needs the art of numbers to reveal it. The Fibonacci numbers are in a diverging series that accelerates; it is from this that I have treated the idea that it was possible to represent, with new means, all the examples one meets of materials in an intense expansion, as if alive—live materials, then, that are in rapid and controllable expansion.

The Fibonacci numbers, like Giap’s phrase and the reference to the “truth” of Caravaggio, are linked to “realism.” Their osmosis affirms the historical existence of an experience that believes in reality as a given. For Caravaggio, Merz, Giap and Fibonacci, verisimilitude does not exist; all is real, therefore without distinctions or hierarchies of value.

“What is to be done?” A dramatic question, because it defines the nonexistence of solutions. To be content with an answer would mean reentering the affirmative, efficient and productive process of an art that takes shelter behind myths and capitalism. Ending contradictions and resolving ideas results in stable property, the death of nomadism. The nomad exists only by keeping alive the fusion between property and work: the nomad comprehends, because he takes his experience along with him. Even if confined, he continues to function in his own way. Without presuming to combat civilization by himself, he works in order to keep alive a symbolic good: art. Even in a situation forbidden any liberty, the nomad sees in the individual and the ephemeral a political and cultural strategy, the coexistence of the public and self-expression: “In 1942 I was in prison in Italy for a year as a persecuted political criminal. I could think at length without being manipulated by the idea of a career. The thought occurs to everyone: to defend oneself from the cataclysm of the irrational while keeping the problem open: is the rational the invention of irrational reality? Is art a solitary solution? Is art a public solution? Does art truly succeed in compromising two such diverse modes of action?”

This request can be satisfied only by a willingness to lose oneself in the lives of others. The act of grouping together is a response to a personal condition; however, art can not overcome its solitary character unless it mirrors the group, which accepts a collective art. The tables, which he has made since 1972, represent research in dialogue and in common culture: the exchange of words and of food. As the igloo represents Merz’s idea of territory and materials, the table comes to stand for the social interaction of the local community. Thus the table, through the rites of reunion and eating, transcends the boundaries between people and objects. Merz is no longer in the center, but seated next to the others. Everyone in the ceremony has a sense of rapport with the others, a defined place in the entire space. A group or an individual can draw back into a private zone or can reunite with the others under the roof of branches or panes of broken glass. In this moment, the nomad, in the center of a system of relations, becomes sedentary. He begins to occupy precise confines, placing himself near the other nomads and living with them, organizing the space according to the presence of the others. In this way tables are formed for one person, for two, for three, for five, for eight, for 13, for 21, for 34, for 55, for 89. As they proliferate they arrange themselves in spirals, in relation to the increase in people.

Man is “grafted” to life, knowing only the physical and mortal weight of the cycle. No one is free of the cycle; it is both generative and mortal. Everyone, no matter how uninformed or insensitive, is aware of the cycle’s regeneration and mortality. Theoretical ignorance of the cycle’s abstract laws does not preclude knowledge of the cycle’s fundamental laws and thus the adherence to its development.

Merz explains the cycle’s function not only in relation to things, but to people as well. His tables represent a stage in the development from the individual to the collective, serving to group people together. In a sequence of photographs in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Merz shows various accumulations of people at tables—proliferations created by gathering for dinner or lunch, in a pub or at a restaurant. Here not only the space fluctuates, but the gestures, words, food, smiles, and bodily movements. An encounter at a table represents the gathering of different entities. Just as numbers or vegetables can unite, so can people. In a group of people the individual develops as a social being. At the table, existence is collective, based on the equal division of space, food and wine, as of labor.

Merz initiated another “proliferation” in a factory cafeteria. The tables are host to every worker in the factory; they are not concerned with including or excluding; they signify the end of cultural elitism and the construction of a transcendent and separate reality. Thus Merz satisfies his need to act on a level which is no longer elitist but of the masses, according to the anarchic principle of self-organization. More than the igloo, the tables operate on the level of common language and action. They are complementary; their development can lead to a total integration of their needs from negative to positive. One calls such an object a house. Merz’s Fibonacci House is still only in the planning stage, but it is a certainty:

To build a house is to abandon the disproportionate idealism of thought, to accept the proportions of reality. Reality contains all in itself, the will to survive, the consciousness of negation, the consciousness of the positive and of the unknown which comes along with it as a product of contemporary life. To build is to know the ratio between man and the materials man wastes. It is to use the energy of the sun. Building is first of all a watchful recognition of daily life. It defends art from hedonistic material. In building it is often necessary to change materials. The house becomes large. To make the house is to take into consideration the proportions of growth inherent in biological life. The Fibonacci House is constructed freely according to a numerical series of the same name.

The Fibonacci House transcends the igloo’s broken panes not only to collect around its table people and their food, but also to wall them in. When the construction is finished, change and exchange will be complete. The journey will be over. Thus the nomad will finally have a resting place.

Germano Celant is an Italian art critic. This article is a translation from the original Italian.



1. All quotations are taken either from the artist’s unedited writings or conversations with the author.