Monday 11 January 2016

Mario Mertz: Numbers are Prehistoric


Mario Metz: Numbers are Prehistoric, at the Cycladic Museum of Art.

Mario Metz is one of the most significant artists to come out of the Arte Povera movement. His work explores the notion of nature as a powerful, generous and ever-expanding force that grows in the rational succession conceived by Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (1775-1240). Fibonacci introduced the decimal system in Europe. He also studied the patterns of growth in nature and solved a rabbit population growth problem with what has become known in the Western world as the Fibonacci sequence - 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144. 233 - in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Visually, it is best illustrated by the development of a spiral, a recurring image in Metz's work, often culled directly from nature in the form of a snail shell. 'Numbers are Prehistoric' means that numbers have existed since before history and have progressed infinitely along with the evolution of the earth and the universe.

Metz's vocabulary of forms range from the igloo, probably, the most elementary of dwellings, through to faggots, which is undoubtedly the most primitive of fuels and which alludes if not to poverty in its original absolute form, then at least to the basic simplicity of a world in which the idea of wealth has no significance whatsoever. This simple yet far from bucolic world is a world of things, things readily recognizable by virtually anyone. With the exception of the neon, all of the materials used by Metz refer to experiences of life which are shared by us all: dwelling, eating, keeping warm, reproducing, speaking, writing.

Igloo con Alberto (Igloo with Tree), 1969-2002, (metal structure, glass, putty, branch)


The igloo is a recurring theme in Metz's work, standing for his preoccupation with basic human needs: shelter, food, and the essential relationship with nature. Metz made his first igloo in 1967 and has continued making these structures in different materials and sizes:  glass, lead, soil, igloos with running water or built-in lighting, some nesting in others like matryoshka dolls, some very small, others gigantic. 'This small building, at once the master of space and the servant of space, supports itself in spaces and creates both its own interior space, being the anthropological measure of space  and its own exterior space itself'.
'I made the igloo for three intersecting reasons. First to abandon the projecting or mural plane, then to create a space free of the concept of hanging things on walls, or else removing them from the wall and laying them down on the table. So the igloo concept is a concept of absolute space in itself. It is not modelled, and it is a hemisphere resting on the ground'.

The igloo has no corners or protrusions, nor are there any straight lines. It is a home, but at the same time it is an almost magical place that conveys a sense of protection which evidently brings to mind religious sensations with the obvious church-like dome shape. The desire to enter an igloo is instinctive, perhaps also bringing to mind the hiding places we had as children: a den, a hiding place, a refuge. The certainty of being protected from whatever happens on the outside, and the possibilities for concentration and seated meditation that this structure gives us once inside are sensations that the igloo immediately conveys.


Untitled, (tempera, pencil, acrylic, pastel, ink on paper)

Foresta con Video sul Sentiero (Forest with Video on a Path), 1995, (metal structure, glass, branches, monitor video Lumaca, 1970)

Bundles, which bring to mind the idea of mountain and a means for keeping out the winter cold, have a double protective function for Metz. They are a physical protection from the cold outside because they are used as a natural barrier, and they are a protection because the bundle - being a union of different individual units with a common purpose - conveys a sense of cohesion; this cohesion is also a metaphor for the union of strength of individuals in fighting the common enemy to attain a common goal.

This installation is consequently a powerful reminder of how politics are interwoven into the very cycles of existence and nature. The video shows Metz drawing a spiral, alluding to the patient growth of this creature and suggesting a metaphor for growth in nature, mathematics and the social realm.

Untitled, (felt pen, ink, snail on paper)

Untitled, (felt pen, ink, snail on paper)

Untitled, (felt pen, ink, snail on paper)

Untitled, (felt pen, ink on paper)

Una Somma Reale e una Somma di Gente (A Real Sum is a Sum of People), 1972.
The neon above the photographs are the numbers 1 to 7. The photographs were taken in a factory canteen


in the first photograph the canteen is empty

one person is sitting in the second photograph

two people in the third photograph and so on until

the last photograph, where the canteen is full.
This work connects issues of survival (food), social considerations (the growth of the proletarian state) and the sequence of numbers that maps out organic growth in nature.

Untitled, 1973 (felt pen, ink, pencil on paper)

Leone Rosso (Red Lion), 1981 (mixed media on red canvas)

Pittore in Africa (Painter in Africa), 1983 (neon)

Untitled, 1990 (felt pen, pastel, leaves on paper)

Untitled, 1973 (felt pen, ink on paper)

Finally, an anecdote as relayed by the curator of the exhibition:

'About forty hears ago an art dealer from Torino told me that in the early 1950s he had invited a very young Metz, then in his twenties, to do an exhibition in his gallery. The artist responded positively but insisted that no one (including the dealer) could visit his studio in the months before the show. One week before the opening, Metz showed up in the gallery, with only one canvas, almost as large as the towering artist, with a thickly textured surface. When the dealer asked him why he only had one painting for the exhibition, Metz responded that in fact the canvas contained seven paintings, one over another. The exhibition never came to be: in fact the dealer still seemed irritated when he told me the story.

This brings to mind two thoughts: The first is that in the early 1950s Metz had embraced the notion of the generative power of art - a painting would beget the next, and the next, and so on; the second is that in his mind the growth of a work of art was already subconsciously in the Ribonacci sequence: 1+1+2+3=7'.

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