Mario Merz

Museo Comunale d'Arte Moderna

Some months ago I accompanied Mario Merz to see an exhibition of the work of Savoldo, a 16th-century painter of the Scuola Veneta. Upon our return, while we were discussing the paintings, Merz spoke to me about the “mysterious simplification” of contemporary art: “We don’t know why we have ended up with this simplification, but we do know that it isn’t tied to the story of society. It is a mystery. The paintings of Dürer, of Titian are rich in narrative content and this is one reason they are well received.”

In Merz’s works, this mysterious simplification doesn’t lie in the telling, but in the way he makes it possible for one to perceive a form’s growth in space. It is a space that contains history, but that is not separate from the everyday flow of life; Merz indicates a form in order to interfere with society, not to describe it.

The exhibition can be understood as the third stage of a broader discourse initiated by Merz last summer, with his installations in the Castello di Rivoli, Terra elevata o la storia del disegno (Raised earth or the history of drawing), and at the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato, entitled Lo spazio a curvo o diritto (Space is curved or straight). In all three locations Merz filled the entire museum, and, indeed, set up a space that accommodates the growth of the form. In this way, as Harald Szeemann writes in the catalogue, he has made visible “the courage to once again cast light on the unfinished, the shadow, the other face of reason and logos.”

The spiral and the bundles of sticks constitute the common thread that connects these three examples of Merz’s work. In Rivoli he elaborated a single theme, the table, which often assumes the form of the spiral and just as often supports bundles of sticks on its surface. In Prato, an imposing spiral of bundled sticks rose up from the exterior courtyard of the museum to the upper floors, where it expanded into all the rooms, thereby suggesting an organism originating within the earth. In the Prato catalogue, Merz writes: “The spiral is slow and full of humors like a fruit, expressing the rising of matter over itself . . . the cochlea expresses the primordial form, the comma is the breath that says we must breathe to write, we must breathe to draw.” The puff of breath, the growth of the material, the articulation of the design, and the attention to the place and the architecture—these are fundamental to the installation in Ascona.

The ancient building is organized around an interior covered courtyard, surrounded by three tiers of granite balconies on each of three sides. This is where Merz’s construction originates. On the ground floor, and then on the balconies above, bundles of sticks were packed together. The atrium reveals the pulsing heart of the installation. A tall cone of wicker rises like an ancient medieval tower, while to the left, a crocodile climbs the wall, leaving behind a shining trail of neon Fibonacci numbers (from 1 to 987).

One enters the floors from an interior stairway. At the end of the first flight one is welcomed by a drawing of a light spiral with a shell resting in the middle. The many small rooms that open off the balconies contain numerous drawings from the artist’s collection dating from 1979–83. Bundles of sticks piled up against the walls of the entry areas opposite the atrium assume the function of imaginary buttresses. Their airy compactness gives a sort of fluidity to the building’s structure. On the first and second floors, the entry areas also contain two igloos that mimic the cellular form of the building. Made of slabs of granite from an old house in a nearby village, they tell us something about the relationship between nature and nature—between that which takes on life through Merz’s own hand and that which lives on site. The 202 bundles of sticks were also gathered on the site, in the beech woods of Mount Tanaro overlooking Ascona.

They are signs of empathy between the place of art and that of life, between the public space where Merz exhibits his art and the private space where he conceives it. But here, in Ascona, the emphasis on the site also has another utopian resonance. In fact, Monte Verità lies a few kilometers from the museum, and, at the beginning of the century, this was the hill where the spokesmen of the great utopias of the novecento lived, loved, thought, and built. Theosophers, anarchists, vegetarians, poets, and artists all came here. Baron von Haydt, the last owner of the Monte, left the hill to the canton of Ticino, with the request that it be kept open for art. Szeemann, who organized a large show on this theme in 1978, states that the magnetic hill of Verità remains a utopia, reopening its paths to today’s artists.

Francesca Pasini

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.