Nomadologies: Itinerant Objects and the Italian 1960s

by Lisa Hayes Williams*

The model in question is one of becoming and heterogeneity, as opposed to the stable, the eternal, the identical, the constant.                 

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

From September 2011 to April 2012, eight institutions in seven Italian cities simultaneously participated in the “exhibition event,” Arte Povera 2011, curated by Germano Celant to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification.[1] Undertaking deliberately distinct exhibition strategies – including the monographic, the historically contextual, the locally situated, and the international in scope – participating institutions offered disparate (and implicitly fragmentary) perspectives on the 1960s movement and its legacy. Like many reprisals of historical installations and actions, aspects of Arte Povera 2011 proved decidedly more successful in evoking the vitality and precarity of some three hundred works and the time period of their making. Within this multiplicity of approaches, iterations conforming to conventions of the ‘white cube’ (Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome; the Triennale in Milan) failed to activate the works as vividly as unorthodox venues (the desanctified church of Santa Maria Donnaregina in Naples), and fittingly so. Coined by Celant in his 1967 text, “Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerilla War” and loosely translating as ‘impoverished art,’ Arte Povera emerged precisely out of an interest in artistic interventions in untraditional sites and materials.[2] Reflecting the charged political climate of the 60s, such interventions were analogized in Celant’s “Notes for a Guerilla War” as creative “attacks” that put dominant power structures, hierarchies and artistic models into question. While Arte Povera 2011’s diverse curatorial approaches endeavored to reinforce the anarchic heterogeneity of the works and installations on view, the disparity between the antagonistic spirit out of which they arose and their generally tidy institutional display remained plainly apparent.

Rather than pursue an extended analysis of Celant’s curatorial methodology or Arte Povera 2011 itself, I turn instead to one of the exhibition’s primary points of inquiry: how might we understand 1960s Italian art production with respect to the time of its making, particularly as it engaged gestures of political resistance, initiative or “attack,” and what might its legacy represent today, beyond its institutionalization? Relative to contemporary debates around the occupation of public and private space, I reflect foremost upon the de- and re-territorialization of space, both within and outside of the white cube, as strategic consciousness-raising and paradigm-shifting tactics. Amid widespread social unrest culminating from student and workers strikes, anti-war protests, and a skepticism towards mass culture and popular media, Arte Povera and much of 1960s art production favored nomadic, provisional and “impoverished” materials and gestures that were conceptualized to undermine cultural, political and artistic adversaries. Against altogether different terms of political, economic and social inequality and unrest, questions as to art’s agency in efforts of resistance are as relevant now as they were then. As manifest in Zuccotti Park and beyond, efforts to challenge political paradigms through the occupation and activation of space demands inventive means by which to do so, and in 1960s Italy, artists enlisted space and architecture with similarly interventionary goals in mind. Among numerous Italian artists who utilized such strategies, two figures in particular can be thought of as especially prescient in their politically-charged engagements of lived space: Mario Merz, whose “igloo” structures epitomize the material and spatial itinerancy of Arte Povera that for Merz stood in resistance to the colonization and privatization of space; and Carla Accardi, whose feminist-inspired “tent” installations preceded, and greatly influenced, the architectonic and spatial sensibilities pursued by Arte Povera’s central protagonists.[3] Addressing dichotomies of inside and outside, transparency and opacity, Merz and Accardi’s mobile and habitable works operate as means and sites of transformation, challenging an ”enemy” whom Merz identified not as an individual, but as a general “position” within a “dialectical situation.”[4]

Mario Merz, Le case girano intorno a noi o noi giriamo intorno alle case? “Arte Povera 2011,” Triennale, Milan

Deleuze and Guattari’s 1986 Nomadology: The War Machine presents a dichotomy between conditions of the “nomadic” and “diffuse” versus the “static” and  “monolithic” in much the same way that art practice in 1960’s Italy positioned its discourse according to “multiple viewpoints” and “incoherence” that opposed “univocal vision,” “modular and standardized ways of working”, “order”, and “homogenization.”[5] Notions of nomadic “becoming, heterogeneity and continuous variation” were advocated as much by Nomadology’s rhetoric as by Italian artistic discourse as means by which to effectively counter “civil, static and ordinal rules.”[6]  Invoking the attributes of a nomadic war machine twenty years prior to its articulation by Deleuze and Guattari, Celant characterized the Italian artist in 1967 as a “guerilla warrior” who engaged his or her adversaries by “contaminating them and ripping them open with soft and acid matter, with animals and fire, with primitive craft techniques like axe-blows, with rags and earth, stones and chemicals.”[7] The use of entropic or “live” materials – from industrially produced neon, copper sheets, or freezing devices, to organic substances including wax, coal, trees, and honey – were privileged by artists at that time for their unstable and metamorphic properties. Such qualities were felt to effectively counteract what was perceived as the (particularly American) embrace of mass media, technology and ‘luxury’ materials in Pop and Minimalist art. “The important thing,” Celant wrote, was for art “to corrode, cut open, and fragment – to decompose the imposed cultural regime.”[8] Moreover, these actions were deployed in “architectonic rituals” that in addition to artistic media, utilized space and architecture in order to enact physical and ideological transformations.[9]

In 1968, writer Tommaso Trini described Merz, Accardi and other artists of their generation in terms of their activity on the “fringe” as “a separate group which stands outside the system and which need not integrate itself.”[10] Like Trini’s reference to a societal “system” and its “fringe,” Nomadology posits a “dialectical situation” based on the relation and interaction of the State to its Outside. In Deleuze and Guattari’s text, this dichotomy is correlated to the logic of the games Chess or Go relatively. Viewed in this way, the tactical nature of Merz and Accardi’s works, as if architectonic game-pieces mobilized against an opponent,  is cast into clearer relief when considered relative to the social and political contexts in and against which they worked. Chess, analogous to structures of the State, is described by Deleuze and Guattari as “indeed a war,” but an “institutionalized, regulated, and coded war, with a front, a rear, [and] battles”; Go, on the other hand, is “war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy.”[11] Significantly, in each game, space is treated distinctly: whereas Chess endeavors to “occupy the maximum number of squares with the minimum number of pieces,” in Go:

it is a question of arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point: the movement is not from one point to another, but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, without departure or arrival. The “smooth” space of Go, as against the “striated” space of Chess…The difference is that Chess codes and decodes space, while Go proceeds altogether differently territorializing or deterritorializing it (make the outside a territory in space; consolidate that territory by the construction of a second, adjacent territory; deterritorialize the enemy by shattering his territory from within; deterritorialize oneself by renouncing, by going elsewhere). [12]

Against the regulated and fixed parameters of Chess, the works of Merz, Accardi and 1960s Italian artists align with the tactics of Go. Working against dominant ideological regimes, arraying in open space, and maintaining the possibility of springing up at any time, their works territorialize the “enemy’s” domain in an effort to shatter it from within.

In addition to Merz’s igloo forms and Accardi’s Tenda (Tents), exhibitions such as Galerie Sperone’s Arte abitabile (Habitable art), featured sculptural forms that recalled domestic elements, as did works such as Pier Paolo Calzolari’s Casa Ideal (Ideal home), 1969; Emilio Prini’s Camping (Amsterdam), 1969; Luciano Fabro’s Habitat works; and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Minus Objects, 1966. Motivated by the “conviction that architectural spaces and their contents could mediate relations between the individual and the world,” architectonic artworks proliferated in and out of studios, galleries and the street, dispatched into natural and urban environments and amidst the fringes between as vehicles for introspection, discourse, interrogation, heterogeneity, transformation, and individual and communal consciousness raising.[13] The works reflected a new attitude amidst the “fringe” that was “aimed at regaining possession of a ‘real’ control of being” and freedom; by choosing his or her “battlefield,” the artist could engage the advantage of mobility, to make surprise attacks, and to “shift his position continuously, to throw off the cliché that society has attached to him” through tactics of anarchy and behavioral nomadism. This, according to Celant, is how the artist “becomes a guerilla warrior.”[14]

In post war years, the shift from “commodifiable, autonomous object” to that of environments, installations, and works that could be spatially “inhabited,” territorialized and dispersed reflected greater social transformations occurring at the time.  The most present and visible manifestation of contemporaneous nomadism came as a result of cultural and economic upheaval that occurred in the decade following Italy’s 1950’s economic “Miracle” that brought remarkably rapid industrialization to postwar Italy, particularly within the ‘industrial triangle’ of Milan, Turin and Genoa. Concurrently, waves of Southern Italians migrated to Northern Italian cities to work, catalyzing a massive and even traumatic upheaval of social and cultural norms and traditions. Overpopulation led immigrant bodies to “self-construct” dwellings and communities like the provisional Coree villages on city outskirts, named as such because of their “similarity to images appearing at the time from the Korean War.”[15] Emerging in response to problems introduced by immigration and urbanization, Coree and other hybrid communities comprised of small self-made homes that were “fascinating parts of the cityscapes, rural and at the same time urban, homogeneous and yet visually distinct from each other.”[16]  This phenomenon did not go unobserved by the greater city populous; as the expanding population placed increasing pressure on city infrastructure, protests were staged by architecture students in Rome and Florence in 1963. In opposition to academic curriculum that ignored the “urgent problems” of population growth, students demanded that courses be offered on “affordable housing and urban planning.”[17]

The intensity of protests by students and workers was fueled by a broader climate of agitation and violence emerging from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Furthermore, postwar years harbored lingering, traumatic memories of Fascism’s oppressive regime and, from an even earlier point in Italian history, the state-sponsored nationalistic program of linguistic and cultural homogenization that followed Italy’s unification in 1861.  A desire to “defend the streets” against the incursion of rising population, economic downturn, increased industrialization, cultural homogenization, mass-production and consumerism led to the cultivation of militaristic rhetoric against the threat of such transformations, as if the “guerilla war” had expanded beyond sites of direct conflict abroad into Italy’s cities and neighborhoods. To a large extent, these phenomena represented Italy’s adversaries, the very symbols of authoritarianism and repression against which artists sought to wage material and ideological battle.

Mario Merz, Che fare? (What is to be done?), 1969

In his 1969 exhibition at Galleria L’Attico in Rome, Merz exhibited two works that together exemplify the paradigms of 1960’s Italian art practice. A construction of tree branches, glass and steel is set in relief by the textual intervention, “Che fare?”,  emblazoned on the gallery wall in a combination of earth and soil. It is as if the response to the question he poses, “What is to be done?”, might be found, or staked, in the claim for space, however primitively or provisionally.[18] The impetus of his semantic and material ideation is elaborated in the brief but pointed text written by Merz a year later:

Genesis 
primordial space was not economically saturated 
abstract space was not economically saturated 
the space in which we live is economically saturated.

Utopia
to save the space in which we live from economic saturation
to discuss the space and the quality of the space of the future [19]

If the proverbial “writing on the wall” is instigated, as Merz intimates, by the commodification of everyday life and space, what must be done is precisely a reclamation and recuperation of that space that in a Janus-faced maneuver must return to the primordial in its march towards future utopia.

A major protagonist of postwar Italian art, Merz’s hemispherical hut structure epitomized the notion of art as a vehicle for artistic and behavioral nomadism. Conceived in 1968, Merz continued the series until his death in 2003, retaining the same archetypal form of primitive dwelling or fort while constantly reconfiguring its material components; around its steel framework, Merz arranged layered combinations of glass, stone plates, wax, fabric, sheets of lead and neon.  “My intention,” he stated, “is to create an architecture that begins from within and expands outwards. The igloo is the ideal organic form…it is always a construction to provide refuge…it is a complex image that I carry with me,” a physical and mental environment whose structure germinates in the mind and once materialized, can be erected in the spaces of the gallery, the city and in nature, and can be dismantled just as easily and mobilized elsewhere.[20] Simultaneously, a mobile bunker for guerilla tactics, a provisional self-constructed dwelling like those of the Coree, and an archive of an itinerant, nomadic journey, Merz’s structures figure forth from materials that “are chosen from one time to the next, dictated by fate, by the location, by the adjacency of other elements, by the plants…Constructing is an hour-by-hour and day-by-day need to fuse your will with everything that is dispersive in life.”[21]

While “Che Fare?” exemplifies the predicament of postwar Italian art, additional works further elaborate Merz’s chosen strategy of action, that is, the articulation of an inside/outside dialectic that incorporates transparency in order to effectively dissolve disparate zones into shared collective space.  Both within and outside of his artistic practice, Merz engaged in political discourse that sought to dismantle symbols of authority and repression. In 1943, Merz was arrested for distributing anti-Fascism pamphlets, and it was during his incarceration in Turin’s Carceri Nuove that he began to make drawings, the first manifestation of an artistic practice that would evolve into increasingly abstracted forms of protest and resistance against structures of power.  Merz’s igloos can be viewed as perfect iterations of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic war machine, the object and action as played in Go.

Mario Merz, Igloo di Giap, 1968

Giap Igloo (Igloo di Giap), 1968, is amongst Merz’ most iconic and seminal early works. The igloo’s hemispherical shape, in this case, is articulated not with glass and wood but with wrapped packages that resemble sandbags piled to hold back floodwaters, or in battle, to create a protective bunker-like barrier behind which a sniper might hide from oncoming gunfire.  Around the igloo Merz installed the phrase in neon lettering: Se il nemico si concentra perde terreno se si disperde perde forza (If the Enemy Masses His Forces, He Loses Ground; If He Scatters, He Loses Strength). The phrase originated not with regard to art or architecture, however, but to warfare tactics as spoken by Vo Ngyen Giap, a General in the Vietnam War after whom the work is named.  For both artist and General, the words reveal strategies of action that aim at “mounting an attack on all the structures of political or visual oppression, not simply in terms of violence, but in terms of force in a dialectical relationship with the enemy and the context.” [22]

Objet cache-toi (Object hide thyself), also from 1968, presents a rejoinder to Giap Igloo, a solution towards erasing the inside/outside dialectical split in the service of a more social and unified body. Again appropriating a politically charged phrase, the words “Objet cache-toi” had appeared earlier the same year, graffitied throughout Paris during student uprisings. In addition to the text, Merz explained that he “added nothing at all to the glass igloo…the inside and outside are the same thing”; the artwork “was utterly clear, a simple problem of transparency: the fact that the inside and the outside are one and the same.”[23]  The phrase demonstrates the priority for Merz of idea and strategy over object to the extent that the object should somehow hide its very self within its idea, a base material tool by which to effect higher ideological and political transformations. The potent efficacy of transparency was integral not only within Merz’s work, but within the social realm of the urban sphere. Describing the population explosion in and around Italian cities during the 1950’s and 60’s and the subsequently fraught relationship between the public and its shared space, Robert Lumley notes that the “defensive understanding of space involves an attempt to control space, to turn it into what is called ‘transparent space’.”[24]  Transparent space, Lumley states, “assumes that the world can be seen as it really is, and that there can be unmediated access to the truth of the object it sees; it is a space of mimetic representation.”[25] In art and in the urban sphere, transparent space is seen to effect the erasure of artificial constructs, stratospheres and hierarchies, to lay bare the truth of life where no inside or outside remains. Merz, however, never completely erases the igloo; even shrouded in clear glass it remains just barely visible enough to persist as an active, present force that can effectively “take part in a participatory process in regard to the city, culture and the art system.”[26] In resisting complete disappearance, the igloo remains “inhabitable and thus sustains its close rapport with people” as an instrument and site for social and political action.[27]

Carla Accardi, Tenda, 1965-66

Preceding Merz’s igloo constructions by three years, Carla Accardi‘s Tenda (Tent) series similarly adopts the form of provisional habitat or nomadic dwelling that, like Merz’s igloos, oscillates between transparent and visible presence. Using “plastic as light, mixture, and fluidity with the surrounding environment,” Accardi was “interested in transparency,” and yet, as in Merz’s work, “you could always see the framework.”[28] Having dedicated her practice to painting for many years, Accardi described the Tenda as having emerged in the 1960’s in response to a desire to “create a space to eliminate the dichotomy that existed, after the war, between architects and painters.”[29] Apt constructions for their political and urban contexts, Accardi’s tents were “habitable structures, light, transparent, resistant and transformable at will.”[30]

Much like Merz’s igloos, the Tenda represent a form and site of tactical and ideological resistance against social and political paradigms. While embracing new materials, particularly the industrially produced, clear plastic sicofoil sheets on which she painted, the “blueprints” of Accardi’s tents could be traced to archaic and militaristic sources.  Influence was derived from a variety of sources, including ancient temple forms, the Byzantine Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, and, most significantly, medieval Turkish military tents. “I was fascinated,” Accardi recalled, “by the notion that Turks brought these tents, such beautiful ones, with them on their journeys, during battles, so that they could pitch them when necessary in times that I imagined to be very hard. It seemed like a purely aesthetic act to me.”[31] Even militaristic action could be aestheticized by the beauty of its instruments and apparatuses.

Ottoman military tents depicted in Franz Geffels, Battle of Vienna, 1683

Whereas Merz’s work materialized protests against authoritarian government, Fascism, and industrial and capitalist commodification of everyday life, Accardi’s “enemy” was more specific as her work directly targeted the “ghettoization of women in patriarchal culture.”[32] The domestic landscape in the 1960s had become an “all-pervading framework of man’s thought and imagery” within which the Tenda represented an “organic, uncorrupted way of life removed from the alienating experience of industrial” and patriarchal civilization.[33] While Accardi’s 1965-66 red and green Tenda resembles a basic A-line house frame scaled to comfortably accommodate two people reclining or standing, subsequent works from the series, including Triplice Tenda, 1969-71, abandon domestic framework for one that connotes the military tent, now expanded to accommodate a larger group of people. Significantly, Accardi’s provisional symbol of the home transforms into the militarized form of the bunker or army base.

A protagonist of the Italian Feminist movement, Accardi produced the Tenda during a period of increased involvement in the Feminist project, precisely in resistance to the social marginality experienced by women at the time. Offering means by which to mobilize around and beyond the peripherality that was perceived and experienced, the Tenda signified a politicized recuperation of space. As Leslie Cozzi describes, “both Accardi’s environments and the institutions of Italian feminism were predicated on the notion that a new consciousness could be facilitated if a separate institutional structure were provided to nurture it. The need for a separatist space as the first step in collective social transformation would become one of the most powerful tenants of Italian feminist thought.”[34] Architectonic forms intended literally to ‘house’ ideas of protection, shelter, defense, mobility and utopic, aesthetic worlds, the Tenda represented propositions for discourse and introspection, activities whose influence could then transform and transcend beyond the parameters of Accardi’s structures into the broader fabric of social discourse.

Carla Accardi. Triplici Tenda, 1969-71

Go

I say that modern phenomena such as cosmopolitan nomadism, the democratic spirit, and the decline of religions have reduced to uselessness the great, decorative, imperishable buildings that once expressed kingly authority, theocracy, and mysticism.[35]

                                                                                                – F.T. Marinetti

In some sense, the impulse towards materializing architectonic systems, particularly those whose nomadic tactics maneuvered against authority, found new expression in postwar art. Merz asked in 1945: “Is art a solitary solution? Is art a public solution? Did art manage to unite two highly diverse ways of acting and achieve a compromise?”[36] In his work, as well as that of Accardi and other artists of the 60’s generation, the conflation of painting and sculpture into architecture allowed artists to achieve the compromise between highly individualistic and social structures in which transformations might be enacted in and out of the mainstream and along the fringe, spaces throughout which their journeys play out as if a game of Go. While the context of institutional exhibition risks constraining and diminishing the vitality of such works to sculptural or formal artifacts, as evident throughout much of Arte Povera 2011, the anarchic and interventionary spirit engaged by the artists remains alive and well in our very cities and streets.


[1] Participating institutions included the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Rivoli (Turin); Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome, GAMeC Galleria di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo; MADRE Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina in Naples; MAMbo Museo d’Arte Moderna in Bologna; MAXXI Museo Nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo in Rome; the Triennale di Milano; and the Teatro Margherita in Bari. The exhibition website can be accessed at http://www.artepovera2011.org/

[2] “Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerilla War” was originally published as “Arte Povera, Appunti per una guerriglia,” Flash Art 5 (November/December 1967), 3. The text was republished in English in Germano Celant, Arte Povera Art Povera (Milan: Electa, 1985), 35-37.

[3] The primary artists associated with Arte Povera include Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier-Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Piero Gilardi, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio. While not directly associated with the movement, Carla Accardi was only one year older than Merz, and is frequently cited as having been particularly influential to Merz and his colleagues.

[4] Germano Celant, Mario Merz (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Milan: Electa, 1989),106.

[5] Germano Celant, Arte Povera: History and Stories (Milan: Electa, 2011), 110.

[6] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine, trans. Brian Massumi (New York: Semiotext(e), 1986), 21.

[7] Celant, Arte Povera, 25.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera: Themes and Movements (London: Phaidon, 1999), 210.

[11] Deleuze and Guattari, Nomadology, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Leslie Cozzi, “Spaces of Self-Consciousness: Carla Accardi’s Environments and the Rise of Italian Feminism,” Women and Performance 21 (March 2011): 75.

[14] Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera, 194

[15] Robert Lumley and John Foot. Italian Cityscapes: Culture and Urban Change in Contemporary Italy (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2004), 26.

[16] Ibid., 59.

[17] Ibid., 78.

[18] Merz’s question, “What is to be done?” appropriates the words of an eponymous political pamphlet written by Vladimir Lenin in 1901 and published in 1902.

[19] Pier Giovanni Castagnoli, Mario Merz (Torino: Fondazione Merz, 2006), 88.

[20] Celant, Arte Povera, 98.

[21] Germano Celant, Mario Merz (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Milan: Electa, 1989), 26.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Celant, Arte Povera, 98.

[24] Lumley and Foot, Italian Cityscapes, 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Celant, Mario Merz, 33.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Luca Massimo Barbero, Carla Accardi; Segno e Trasparenza (Milan: Silvana Editoriale Spa, 2011), 33.

[29] Cozzi, “Spaces of Self-Consciousness,” 76.

[30] Ibid., 53.

[31] Barbero, Carla Accardi, 43.

[32] Cozzi, “Spaces of Self-Consciousness,” 70.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 76.

[35] F.T. Marinetti, “Electrical War,” in Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), 116.

[36] Celant, Mario Merz,15.

*Lisa Hayes Williams is a 2012 graduate of the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.