'UAE is an example of coexistence between various nationalities and religions': 90-year-old artist reflects on the country's multiculturalism

Italian painter, action and object artist, and art theorist Michelangelo Pistoletto on how he uses the medium of reflection to create art that symbolises infinity and humanity

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 1:53 PM

Michelangelo Pistoletto, at 90, is one of Italy’s most famous contemporary living artists. Painter, sculptor and art theorist, he gained early fame in Pop Art and became a star of the Arte Povera conceptual art movement against a culture of 'mass consumption'. His solo exhibition, ‘Judgement Time’, organised by Galleria Continua is presently on display at the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah, Dubai.

The exhibition, which will run through January 7, is the concluding chapter of a project spanning major national capitals, honouring Pistoletto's long life and artistic career. The highlight of the presentation is that some of his mirror works, which are on display, are completed with the viewers' interaction. With “all spectators becoming participants” in what Pistoletto describes as “a sort of continuous selfie in which you are present with the others,” it is a virtual treat to art connoisseurs who will get to see reflective “mirror works that can contain the world, the finite and the infinite”.

The son of a painter, Pistoletto started helping his dad at 14. Then, he studied advertising and discovered modern art, and it was these two things — classical and modern art – that formed the basis of his work. In 1958, he debuted in a Turin show that led to Paris and New York exhibitions and international recognition. His recent exhibition at the Abu Dhabi Louvre lasted more than one year to celebrate the museum’s 5th anniversary. In a recent interview with wknd., Pistoletto talked about his love for the Louvre, how it is a mirror to humanity and a multi-cultural meeting place, the symbolism in his mirror painting and his profound inspirations. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Maestro Pistoletto, ‘Judgement Time’ (ll tempo del giudizio) is the title of one of your works. What is the time of judgment for you?

Of course, it has to do with Judgment Day. But I call it the Judgment Time because I believe it is always the time of judgment, not just one day. We don’t have to think about or wait for the end of our life. Any moment of our existence can be a time of self-judgment. It is like reflecting a form of self in the mirror of consciousness.

A partial view of the installation work ‘Judgement Time’.Photo: Musthafa Aboobaker/Galleria Continua
A partial view of the installation work ‘Judgement Time’.Photo: Musthafa Aboobaker/Galleria Continua

Your masterstroke ‘ll tempo del giudizio’ (Judgment Time) is an installation that employs mirrors as a recurring motif, forming a temple where the four great monotheistic religions, Islam. Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism converge. Why did you decide to host this specific work in the Dubai show?

I chose to take this work of mine, dated 2000, to the Dubai show because of the cultural landmark of the UAE capital. I am referring to the One World Religion Headquarters in Abu Dhabi, a symbol of interfaith harmony with its three buildings, which include a church, a mosque and a synagogue. My work ‘ll tempo del giudizio’ contains the idea of specular reflection. Religions are placed in front of a mirror to look within themselves with responsibility.

Do you invite religions to question themselves about tolerance and ecumenism?

Yes, I do. Promoting tolerance is a significant fact in Abu Dhabi—the idea of peace. In Abu Dhabi, three temples of the three monotheistic religions seek communication and highlight it. In the UAE, there is an openness towards the world. They want to be an example of coexistence between various nationalities and religions.

‘People and Things’ at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Musthafa Aboobaker/Galleria Continua
‘People and Things’ at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Musthafa Aboobaker/Galleria Continua

You began your art engagement with self-portraiture soon to research mirror paintings in 1961. Did you want to understand who you are?

Yes. The mirror belongs to my identity and the discovery of the world through the mirror. My mirror works caught the attention of art critics and brought me into pop art, which tends to be objective and reflect reality. It is the reality of the universe glanced in the mirror. It is the reality of humanity and the humane. In 1961, I started creating the first mirrors of black paint, and then they became stainless sheets. But the mirror is not art. The object is an object. But when I place my fixed image as if in a self-portrait, it becomes a moment of memory that continues in all the moments that will come and will always carry with them the memory of a moment.

Did you then comprehend your identity so far?

My identity is “us” when I see myself inside the reflecting work with all the people, the spectators with the whole of humanity reflected. They all can live in the work as much as I do.

Can the mirror work encompass the whole of reality and beyond physics, that is, metaphysics?

Yes, everything is mirrored. I wanted to convey the symbolic meaning of the mirror paintings. So, I used the mathematical symbol of infinity, which is perfect. I wanted to obtain the finite within the infinite because we live in a small, limited temporal space day by day. Therefore, I crossed the line of the mathematical symbol of infinity twice, and the third circle was born between the two circles. The third circle symbolises the finite: It is the continuous formation of all that exists through contrary and different elements within the two lateral circles. My revisited symbol of infinity contains all the elements of the universe, the minimal elements of micro-reality and all that it is in our existence. The formula for creation now exists.

You say this is possible thanks to the mirror because it is the neutral element par excellence.

The mirror has no image in itself. It’s zero image, without image per se. So it can contain the entire reality. I can have all that exists within this smooth, shiny material precisely because it is zero. The mirror work is the infinite, where there is nothing that ends. It continues in time and space.

Have your mirror paintings somehow anticipated the selfies that connote the triumph of a narcissistic society?

The selfie expresses people's need to recognise themselves. It happens through a technological tool. Narcissism is in the air and is a real danger that remains. Narcissus fell in love with his image and didn't understand it was virtual. He became so enamoured of his reflection while drinking on a hunt that he eventually died as he gazed into the water. Technology is terrific, but if we fall in love with it, we drown.

You refused an invitation to move to the United States after the New York show in 1963 when the gallerist Leo Castelli displayed your works with the masters of American Pop Art. The exhibition was a success. But you wanted to stay in Italy and create what is considered the incubator of Arte Povera.

Yes, they invited me to move to the States and be part of their art family, but I did not accept. I understood that my idea of universality differed from that of American artists. It was not a universality conceived as consumerism. I didn’t want the artist Pistoletto to be the expression of the consumerism brand like many American pop art artists.

You are the father figure of Arte Povera. Do you still consider yourself an exponent of Arte Povera?

Absolutely yes. But I am also an exponent of pop art and representative of all the artistic actions born with street theatre. My book that just came out, The Formula of Creation, comprises 31 steps. My life is like a long walk. And with every step, something happens that goes beyond.

Symbols permeate your art. Do they have a transforming power?

No doubt about that. The words we use are symbols. Hours are symbols and kilometres are symbols. Everything around us is symbolic. Symbols become flags. They can be the flags of political parties and states. Then there are the great flags of religions. We live in symbols.

There are some utopian elements in your art.

Utopia is a necessary step. There are three phases: the critical phase, the utopian phase and the planning phase, which becomes the fourth phase, that of implementation. Without criticism, there is no utopia because utopia lies in the fact that we try to solve something that we are neither happy nor content with. We think, imagine, and assume the possibility of taking further steps. Except that utopia remains an end in itself. It is not in reality, as utopia literally means ‘no place’.

How do you read the vandalism that led to the destruction of the Venus of Rags in Naples a few months ago?

My first reaction was a firm control of emotions because reason must always win. But reason and emotion exist. It's a duality that must find harmony. My Venus of Rags represents this duality: Venus, for endless beauty and Rags, for continuous degradation — these contrasting elements that meet to regenerate society.

We are working on a new Venus of Rags that will be installed at the original site on January 22, 2024.


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