Gilberto Zorio, Piombi II (Lead II), 1968, lead sheets, copper sulfate, hydrochloric acid, fluorescein, copper braid, rope. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Antonio Maniscalco.

Gilberto Zorio, Piombi II (Lead II), 1968, lead sheets, copper sulfate, hydrochloric acid, fluorescein, copper braid, rope. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Antonio Maniscalco.

Gilberto Zorio

Castelo di Rivoli

Gilberto Zorio, Piombi II (Lead II), 1968, lead sheets, copper sulfate, hydrochloric acid, fluorescein, copper braid, rope. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Antonio Maniscalco.

NEITHER AN ARTWORK nor the career of an artist is a fixed entity. This is the ultimate takeaway from the retrospective at Turin, Italy’s Castello di Rivoli of sculptor Gilberto Zorio’s work, which consists of energetic ideas and objects that have shifted, grown, and intertwined over his five-decade career. The Italian artist is something of a hometown hero, having resided in the neighboring metropolis of Turin since graduating from its Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti in the 1960s. This local renown, however, belies his importance to international artistic discourse. From his early days (when he was part of the stable of young artists who showed with Gian Enzo Sperone and whose work was christened Arte Povera by Germano Celant), Zorio has continued to invent works that transform the very concept of sculpture from something heavy, stable, and still to something light, unpredictable, and fluid. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the show interweaves the tactics and concepts pursued by the artist on his path to liberate sculpture and its materiality from the dead and dusty language of objecthood.

Gilberto Zorio, Rosa-blu-rosa (Pink-Blue-Pink), 1967, fiber-cement tube, cobalt chloride, 5 7/8 × 112 1/4 × 11 3/4".

For this exhibition, Zorio collaborated with curator Marcella Beccaria to devise a richly recursive, circular structure for the approximately fifty works included. Starting from a central stairwell, over which is suspended the rubber-and-rope Macchia III (Stain III), 1968, visitors can enter the show through one of two unmarked passageways. One leads to a dark room; the other to a room bathed in light. This initial counterpoint between darkness and light introduces the artist’s fundamental focus on energy and its transmission. It also opens the floor to his ludic undermining of human perception and language (work titles such as Stain III can be understood in either literal or moral terms). This sets up further dialectics proposed by works in subsequent galleries: not only light/dark but fixed/fluid, finite/infinite, inert/reactive, and visible/invisible.

Zorio cannily interrupts the fixity of the show’s themes, among which are power, travel, chemical transformation, and linguistic tautology. For instance, Zorio has installed spread out across the rooms of the museum Microfoni (Microphones), 1968–2017, which was first exhibited at Sperone’s Turin gallery in 1969 and memorably reprised at the Dia Foundation in Chelsea in 2001. Here cinder blocks provide subtle platforms, inviting audience members to step up and speak into microphones dangling overhead. The feedback isn’t immediate; instead, contributed speech or song is significantly delayed as it is mixed with sounds picked up by microphones in other rooms. The combined noises are then redistributed through speakers sprinkled throughout the show. Accompanying such sculptures as Barca nuragica (Nuragic Boat),2000, that whirr, buzz, and hiss, this mediated sonic experience destabilizes the viewer.

View of “Gilberto Zorio,” 2017–18. From left: Confine incandescente (Incandescent Border), 1970; Pelli con resistenza (Cowhides with Resistance), 1968; Stella incandescente (Incandescent Star), 1972. Photo: Antonio Maniscalco.

Along with aural disruptions, stars are a prominent motif. Variously made of aluminum, crystal, leather, wood, copper, aerated concrete, and bare electrified wire, these symbolic forms evince Zorio’s interest in energy. The five-pointed star he first developed for Autoritratto (Self-Portrait), 1972—a splayed cowhide from which a mold of the artist’s (literally) starry-eyed face emerges—is a graphic notation of empyreal energy: a fixed, visible sign of the constant expansion and evolution of the physical world, which humans are still only beginning to understand. (A second self-portrait with electrified red stars for eyes, Autoritratto, 1978, is also featured in the show—only this one is made of terra-cotta instead of cowhide.) The star’s ubiquitous presence in diverse cultural mythologies and divergent political entities attests to its iconographic fluidity. In the exhibition, the rhythmic repetition of stars provides a cadence for the visitor’s experience, while also challenging spatial synchronization. This is because the eighteenth-century castle’s rooms are simultaneously interrupted and interconnected by the angled Aircrete walls of Torri stella (Star Towers), 1976–2017. Some are detached closed towers that can only be circumnavigated by visitors, while others function as partitions dividing the palatial galleries. These rough, industrial materials thus furnish an organizing principle for the space, the comprehensive form of which would only be seen from an impossible bird’s-eye view.

Zorio invents works that transform the very concept of sculpture from something heavy, stable, and still to something light, unpredictable, and fluid.

The perceptual precariousness of Zorio’s sonic and spatial interjections is reinforced throughout the galleries by individual artworks that undergo visible material transformation, sometimes in response to the viewer’s presence. These include Rosa-blu-rosa (Pink-Blue-Pink), 1967, an object imbued with cobalt chloride, which changes color in response to shifts in atmospheric humidity, and Untitled, 1968, a large bowl of powdered sulfur and iron filings through which the curious can drag a magnetic handle to separate the two substances. The most visually striking of these early works in its demonstration of transmutation is Piombi II (Lead II), 1968, in which adjacent lead pools containing hydrochloric acid and copper sulfate are connected by a braided copper rope. Trails of crystals forming on either end of the rope warn the viewer of the threat of chemical reaction should these two volatile liquids breach the inert containers that keep them apart for now. Piombi II captured the interest of Robert Morris, who included a version of it in the generation-defining warehouse exhibition “9 at Leo Castelli” in New York in December 1968. In this show, for which Richard Serra first splashed molten lead, Eva Hesse created a carpet of canvas and poured resin, and Bill Bollinger twisted a cyclone fence through the warehouse’s interior, Zorio’s work did more than evidence the process of its own facture. Nearly fifty years later, this sculpture—which Zorio claims constitutes a battery that could light a microbulb—remains unpredictable, dangerous even, long after the artist has removed his hand.

The continuous transformation of materials and, in the case of many of the works on view, the attendant transfer of energy are themes explored most clearly in the two central galleries. These rooms—both the literal and figurative hinges of the exhibition—are visually dominated by three installations involving canoes hung from the ceiling. Two of them—Barca nuragica and Canoa aggettante (Jutting Canoe), 2016—are powered by rumbling electric motors that cause the vessels to gyrate intermittently. Another, Senza titolo (Canoa per Rivoli—Ottocon) (Untitled [Canoe for Rivoli—Coxed Eight]), 2017, merely hisses. This might have resulted in an overall static effect had the artist not set up a surprise: At distant yet regular intervals all the lights in the exhibition are extinguished. Plunged into darkness, viewers lose their bearings, and each gallery reveals previously hidden secrets. The walls around the Untitled canoe, for example, glow with spatters of phosphorescent wax, evoking a starry sky under which the vessel now seems to glide over a murky sea. The wax, invisible under the galleries’ fluorescent lights, now lays bare the energy it has absorbed. In the adjacent room, the star-shaped eyes of the two self-portraits glow red with renewed vigor. When the lights switch back on, these and other illusions evaporate, yet the memory persists.

Gilberto Zorio, Progetto per piazza di cielo morbido e tattile (Project for Soft and Touchable Square of Sky), ca. 1970, felt-tip pen and acrylic tempera on paper, 19 3/4 × 27 1/2".

Two of the boats occupy the same gallery as a large collection of early preparatory drawings. These rarely exhibited works on paper (which mostly come from private collections) offer further insight into Zorio’s artistic journey. Some of the works they prefigure appear in altered form in the exhibition itself, such as a 1969 plan for a concrete-brick wall that foreshadows the more recent Torri stella. Other drawings stand alone, plans for works that were never realized, such as Progetto per piazza di cielo morbido e tattile (Project for Soft and Touchable Square of Sky), ca. 1970, and Progetto per le idee vincono (Project for Winning Ideas),1970. In the latter, a discarded plan for an exhibition at Sperone’s gallery, Zorio has drawn a sinuous silver line on black paper. The line’s meandering route resembles an electrical circuit; this similitude is reinforced by its ending at a small luminescent ball of modeling dough labeled faro(beacon). This collage, and the other early drawings, demonstrates that “winning ideas” are like energy itself: They are in constant motion.

Energy is the explicit subject of numerous other works in the show, including Giunchi con arco voltaico (Reeds with Voltaic Arc), 1969, which was first shown in Harald Szeemann’s landmark “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, in 1969, and Stella con scintilla (Star with Spark), 2014. These objects actively flicker and burn, rendering conduction visible. The most elegant are fashioned of luminous nickel-chromium wire and occupy the darkened bookend gallery: Stella incandescente (Incandescent Star), 1972; Confine incandescente (Incandescent Border), 1970, a long, suspended wire twisted into the word confine (limit); and Pelli con resistenza (Cowhides with Resistance), 1968, in which cow skins provide a backdrop for a span of nickel-chromium wire. Each installation burns red with raw heat and palpable danger. Less refined than these, but equally imperative, are the myriad things that channel the harnessed energy, making it incidentally visible in Zorio’s works: objects that move, compressors that make noise, and thick bundles of wires that supply electricity to functioning motors and lights. These conspicuous cords and loud motors stand in for the apparatus of such energy exchange, remaining visible and audible not out of necessity but as discernible notations of the ways humans try to contain and instrumentalize unpredictable power. They reach beyond their own objecthood toward the power supply of the museum, the municipality, and the state. Consequently, these wires become vehicles through which Zorio’s works connect to the organic past of the planet, the geopolitics of the present, and perhaps even the stardust of the future.

Gilberto Zorio, Autoritratto (Self-Portrait), 1972, cowhide, lighting, timer, 86 5/8 × 76 × 5 7/8".

Of all the dialectics presented by the works in the show, the most compelling is that of past and future, which finds its temporary resolution only in the ongoing and unfixable present. Surely the enterprise of a retrospective is just this: for past forms and future potential to converge in an extended moment. Resources are gathered in one place only to be dispersed again and subsequently seen from different perspectives and in varying contexts. For those unfamiliar with Zorio’s practice, this exhibition demonstrates his vital role in upending the mute materiality of modernist endgames. The artist’s pursuit of physical and conceptual volatility indicates the ways in which the fluid temporality of art extends beyond the narrow confines of the discipline toward a much-needed understanding of the interconnectedness of being in the world.

“Gilberto Zorio” is on view through March 6.

Elizabeth Mangini is an art historian and the chair of visual studies at California college of the arts, San Francisco.