Mario Merz may frustrate art historians whose expertise is measured according to their ability to identify an artist’s art historical genealogy.
Mario Merz may frustrate art historians whose expertise is measured according to their ability to identify an artist’s art historical genealogy. On the one hand, significant aspects of Merz’s work are traceable to two movements that contributed to vanguard art in Europe in the first half of the 20th century: The material innovations he employed resemble Art Povera. The aesthetic configurations in his work refer to Futurism. However, Merz did not adopt the political and philosophical principles conveyed by these historic art movements.
a. The term Arte Povera (poor art) was coined in 1967 by Germano Celant to refer to an anti-elitist aesthetic that incorporated humble substances drawn from everyday life and the organic world. Art Povera artists such as Piero Manzoni, Jannis Kounellis, Giovanni Anselmo incorporated these unconventional mediums to protest the material preciousness of consumer capitalism and the dehumanizing nature of industrialization. Similarly, Merz’s installations incorporate glass, stone, fabric, twigs, wax, lead, soil, fruit, vegetables, newspapers, clay, wax, mud, burlap, and branches. However, Merz did not adopt Art Povera’s political/economic agenda. For him, combining eccentric materials unleashed a consciousness that was mystical, not political. Merz explains that he created “a utopia dreamed from the unwanted substance of the world.”22
The time may be ripe to extend the legacy of the material innovations introduced by Art Povera. This is because ecological science, environmental advocacy, and eco art all advocate scavenging humble materials. Three recent art examples include Bright Ugochukwu Eke (Shields) and Tue Greenfort (Pet Flasche) and Chu Yun (Who Has Stolen Our Bodies?). Compare the environmental messages Eke, Greenfort, Chu, and Merz convey by their material choices.
b. Merz adopted the visual vocabulary bequeathed to him by the Futurists. This influence is apparent in Merz’s neon wands that resemble the dynamic vectors and directional lines that characterize Futurist works of art. However, the Futurists’ ‘lines of force’ glorified the power of the machine, weaponry, aggression, and war, whereas Merz’s rays of light transcended earthly time and place. Along with spirals and Fibonacci sequences, Merz mastered the formal devices to propel viewers into mystical realms of the infinite, the eternal, and the universal.
The dynamism of Futurism may also be cited as a precursor to eco art. Merz utilized their formal innovations to manifest the flow of energies that produce perpetual flux and infinite expansion. These vibrant conditions were adopted by eco artists Nicole Fournier (Live Dining), Terike Haapoja (Community), and Eduardo Kac (Apsides) by creating art with living entities. Consider the conditions for flux, dynamism, and transformation established in one of these works, one work by Mario Merz, and one Futurist art work.
22 Mario Merz’s Future of an Illusion, Parkett, 1988, pp. 58-63 1 January 1988