“Enter the artwork”: this is what the exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne dedicated to arte povera suggests we do. A title that highlights the desire to showcase certain little-known aspects of the movement: theatricality, the collective process, and interactivity. In this respect, the work of the curator Alexandre Quoi echoes the liminal exhibition Arte Povera + Azioni Povere [Poor Art + Poor Actions] organised in 1968 by art critic Germano Celant, the movement’s first theorist. This return to the origins actually turns out to be a rather original proposal, given the extent to which the work of the headliners associated with arte povera (Jannis Kounellis, Giuseppe Penone, Mario Merz, among others) refers, in the public’s mind, to an aesthetic of raw, inanimate material, rather than to “embodied” artworks in motion. Here, it is indeed the performative and collaborative aspect that is given pride of place.
From this point of view, the exhibition is a success: from the first room, the arrangements are surprising – associating photographic documents with playful or even mischievous pieces. As a kind of preamble to the suggested visit, there are fourteen photographic portraits, corresponding to the artists exhibited (including just one woman, Marisa Merz). These highly theatrical self-reflexive stagings demonstrate that this movement, which has sometimes been summarised rather hastily by a certain number of principles (nature, abstraction) shared a great deal with the performing arts, or even, in a more unexpected way, with graphic design. Attesting to this is the room devoted to the Piper Pluriclub, a Turin-based disco that hosted numerous performances, an exuberant venue, far removed from the sparse and modest spaces associated with the movement in the collective imagination: here, we find photographs, posters, and even costumes. Among the artworks representative of the exhibition, we will note, among others, Vers à soie [Silkworms] (1968) by Pino Pascali, in which multi-coloured plastic brushes form a giant worm – an uplifting and almost pop piece – or Mettre au monde le monde [Bringing the World into the World] (1973), two large drawings by Alighiero Boetti, which present themselves as a secret code to be deciphered with the aid of an alphabet, while the solution is in fact already provided by the title. There too, the dispositifs are open-ended, encouraging us to play along, and we find ourselves far from the idea of destitution emanating from the adjective “poor”.
Overall, the artworks here are well selected and displayed. When possible, at least: two works by Jannis Kounellis – photographs that document an installation calling on live horses (Dodici cavalli vivi, 1969) and a painting that must be activated by a musician and a dancer (Da inventare sul posto, 1972) – reveal a context, but cannot be truly apprehended here as experiences. This is the exhibition’s modus operandi, which makes the choice, in its first half, to zoom in on the historic moment and its inevitably disparate, unclear, and – very often – surprising character. Documents, carefully selected and presented in glass display cases, thus come into their own here. However, we are more doubtful about the second part of the visit, comprising two sections entitled “Actions” and “Entering the Artwork”. Here, all of the documentary apparatus disappears to make way for artworks that the public can activate: Luciano Fabro’s canvas cubes, that we can slip underneath; Gilberto Zorio’s hanging microphones that we can sing in chorus with, etc. While the first half of the exhibition revealed the complex world of the Italian art of the sixties and seventies – a milieu bursting with ideas and fond of experimentation of all kinds – the second returns paradoxically to an over-traditional scenography that is possibly a bit austere. Several artworks by “foreign” (non-Italian) artists also form an annex that is poorly linked to the rest and hence dispensable.
To its credit, this hiatus is acknowledged, but it strikes me as being in contradiction with the exhibition’s original and audacious gamble, which was to align itself with complexity and contextualisation. However, we will retain the generosity and historical precision that characterises an ensemble partly developed based on an original curatorship by Christiane Meyer-Stoll, for the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein. Since it is faithful to its chosen direction, which is to update the interpretation of a movement whose canonisation is nevertheless already complete, we can only recommend Entrare nell’opera – Entering the Artwork. Just as we will recommend the catalogue published for the occasion: an absolute goldmine of information with nearly six hundred pages, which extends the exhibition and that will surely prove an indispensable tool for researchers.