Saturday, 29 October 2016

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (14 September-31 December 2016)

Times (temples) Change (2009)

I am a huge admirer of installation art.  I am fascinated at how such work not only transforms the perception of a space, but also the passive act of looking into an immersive experience.  For me, the scale and spectacle of the best of such art - the interruption between what is expected and what is experienced – has the unique ability of focusing all my attention on just the work and temporarily shutting out all the white noise that usually reverberates around my head.  I find that interventions of contemporary art in historical architectural settings (for example Kate Mccgwire at Tatton Park and Sarah Lucas at Sir John Soane’s Museum), can offer a similar experience and I always look forward to visiting non-gallery spaces which showcase contemporary art.  I find such juxtapositions fascinating, so the prospect of seeing the master of Italian Arte Povera in the eighteenth century splendour of an English country house, was an appealing one.

The director of Blenheim Art Foundation, Michael Frahm, eloquently set out the reasons for inviting Pistoletto to Blenheim Palace (the artist’s most ambitious exhibition to date in the United Kingdom) and how his work both compliments and disrupts the Palace’s Baroque setting, in a very professionally produced booklet.  The little booklet was a helpful and welcome companion to my visit.  Strategically placed in a number of Blenheim’s ground floor rooms, the impact of Pistoletto’s work within the spaces varied greatly.  The monumental The Third Paradise (2003-16) in The Great Hall could not fail to impress – the artifice referred to in the theory behind the piece along with its materials of foam, rags and aluminium contrasting strikingly against the artifice of the ornate ceiling decoration.  The spectacle of that piece almost eclipsed some of the work around it (particularly Top Down, Bottom Up, Inside Out (1976) tucked into an alcove on the west side of the Great Hall.

The Third Paradise (2003-16)

Unfortunately, Contact (2007) had been removed due to damage which I found out after asking an attendant having tried in vain to find it in the north corridor, as indicated the gallery guide.

Beautiful pieces like Dog in the Mirror (1971), Mica Paintings (1976) and Painting of Electric Wires (1967) resonated quietly, while work such as Untitled (1976-2016) and Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016) disrupted the rooms with more confrontational intent.  When Pistoletto’s trademark rags were featured these could not fail to offer the greatest opportunities for aesthetic disruption – his iconic Venus of the Rags (1967-2013) placed in the Chapel, being the most deliberate curatorial transgression and one which must have been too tempting to resist.

Dog in the Mirror (1971)

Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016)

About a quarter into my visit, I got caught behind a regular guided tour of the Blenheim rooms and found it fascinating (and slightly amusing) that not once did the guide, or any members of the public on the tour, make any comment or reference to any of the artwork in the rooms.

The ‘best’ example of this was in the final room of the general tour, the Long Library.  After the guide had made his closing remarks and bade his audience a fond farewell, I watched every single person make a very speedy exit out of that room, not once looking at any of the wonderful pieces which made up the installation From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016), let alone interact with them in any way.  I spent so much time in that wonderful room with that wonderful work, it did make me chuckle and it was this piece, along with The Third Paradise, that successfully shut out my white noise.

The Trumpets of Judgment (1968)

Untitled (1976-2016)

Michelangelo Pistoletto is a key figure of post-second world war European art.  This exhibition offers an exciting glimpse into his remarkable fifty year and also demonstrates with more recent work, that the eighty-three year old artist seems as strident and confident as ever.

It is also only the third exhibition to be held at Blenheim Palace and given that art luminaries Lawrence Weiner and Ai Weiwei were the previous ones, I am sure that future solo exhibitions will be just as high-level.  I would love to see an explosion of Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots and pumpkins throughout the palatial rooms or Kate Mccqwire’s feathers cascading in the corridors.  Above both of those wonderful artists though, how incredible would it be to see Sarah Lucas’s bunnies, fags, nuds and muses invading the Spencer-Churchill interiors, squatting on their furniture and generally causing chaos.  I am not sure how the usual Blenheim Palace visitors would react through, but would love to see those two worlds collide.

Top and Bottom: From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016)

Venus of the Rags (1967-2013)