Less than a retrospective, which a show of this size and scale might intimate itself to be – taking up a large proportion of the Palace’s state rooms and sections of the Capability Brown-designed grounds – it instead feels more like a ‘greatest hits’ endeavour: the money-spinner of desiccating rock and rollers. It could well be the promotional photographs of the artist, now in his eighties, in his trademark black fedora and large mirrored sunglasses, a pair that Bono might equally fancy. And it might be the gold-plated car, ‘Miraggio’ (2016), submerged in the estate’s ‘upper water terraces’ like the remnant of a decadent night of unimaginative debauchery. Impressions lead to asking the perennial question – as when The Rolling Stones limber up to play a rendition of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ for the 48th year in a row – why now? Have the works remained relevant across a gulf in time and seemingly opposing contexts of production and display?
Michelangelo Pistoletto occupies a central position within the teleology of contemporary Italian art, beginning with the mid-century ‘arte povera’ movement. Among huge social and political upheavals that ultimately fiercely blossomed into the radical movements of ‘68 across Europe, the main protagonists – as the story goes: Pistoletto, Pascali, Merz, Kounellis et al. – sought to tamper with the binaries of high and low, art and life, by using the down-at-hand to sculpt with. Cloth not copper; newspaper not stone.
Many works from this formative period are re-staged here. In the Palace’s comparatively modest chapel ‘Venere degli stracci/Venus of the Rags’ (1967-2013), a monstrous magnification of a marble of Venus, now cast in plaster, contemplates total ensconcement within a hillock of torn rags. This, along with other works of the period, as opposed to functioning by way of acerbic conjunction of binary distinctions to produce some kind of tension, are found remarkably comfortable within the Italianate architecture of the Palace with its Corinthian columns and Venus-like caryatids. ‘Il fascio della tela/The bundle of canvas’ (1980), is a work, however, that exceeds its own limits and spills over with significance. Within the ‘Flag Room’ is a towering bundle of raw, primed and coloured canvas strapped tightly with rope that stands in the centre of a room bedecked in allegorical tapestries. The bundle’s silence in relation to the surrounding opulence is tender, especially when noted that such a bundle made of sticks was an emblem for Mussolini: all tied together.
Unlike that of Laurence Weiner, last year’s icon in Blenheim’s annual show, the work feels contrived when updated to respond to current events, such as in ‘Mappamondo/Globe’ (1966-2016), where a large sphere covered in newspaper has been repasted with Brexit headlines. Where ‘Il fascio della tela’ succeeds due to a certain independence, a strength in form, Pistoletto’s modus operandi latterly appears to have turned inward. The show’s signature work, ‘Terzo Paradiso/The Third Paradise’ (2003-16), a large cloth sculpture that hangs in the reception chamber, framing friezes in the vaulted ceiling above, is impregnable for its significance in Pistoletto’s own closed-off system of theorisation (concretised with its own manifesto). The suspended loops above – a third loop inserted within the mathematical symbol for infinity – are to symbolise a new space of possibility between ‘nature’ and ‘artifice’. This may be akin to the concept album in the back catalogue; awkward for its meandering cerebralism and for its detachment from the energy that once inspired a direct response in the first place.