10.29.2014 / Elizabeth Mangini


Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 10 – 12pm
Boardroom, SF Campus

Elizabeth Mangini is an art historian who specializes in social histories of postwar and contemporary art, including photography and public art. Her current research focuses on the Italian Arte Povera movement, particularly activities in Turin c. 1968. She serves on the editorial board of Palinsesti, a journal of Italian Contemporary Art. Mangini teaches in Visual Studies, Graduate Fine Arts, and Visual & Critical Studies at CCA.

Student Review by Carolina Magis Weinberg

On Wednesday September 29th 2014, the VCS Forum had the honor to host Elizabeth Mangini, renowned art historian, professor, and key figure in the understating of Post-Wear European art. Professor Mangini presented a dissertation in which she discussed Gilberto Zorio’s work, an artist central to the Arte Povera movement. This presentation is a preview of what will be Mangini’s contribution to the College Art Association annual conference in New York in 2015.

The discussion pivoted around the notion that the type of readings the Arte Povera work has generated, paired with this period’s scant presence in critical writings in the English language, as well as an overly poeticized approach, has led to the misinterpretation of the production made during those years. Mangini situates herself in this puzzle, clarifying at first that the term Arte Povera itself as a movement is a construct, that in fact in was a term used by Germano Celant that lingered throughout the years.

Mangini focused her presentation on Gilberto Zorio, an artist who has worked in the industrial city of Turin, Italy, from the sixties until today. The artist’s work has always been read through the problematic concept of “alchemy”. This term itself is attached to the production of the artist as if it were clear, and many times only as an attention-grabber for exhibitions and papers. As Celant stated: “the artist alchemist organizes living and vegetable matter into magical things.” This label on Zorio’s work has become challenging, often triggering an array of problematic readings. The use of this term refers immediately to medieval alchemists and moves the discussion to the realm of magic, mystery, and charlatanry.  Alchemy could be understood as depicting Zorio’s resistance to the corruption of the art world by the stripping down of materiality, as well as a notion of mutability and state of change vis-à-vis the political situation of Italy at the time. Nevertheless, the term becomes a historical burden, burying the possible connotations. Thus, Mangini proposes the use of a different notion, that of “fluidity.” Fluidity is the state of undergoing formal changes through time. The work is in motion, full of radical, philosophical, and political potential. The term proposes multiple readings, extending the outcomes.

In 1967 Zorio presented his work Column in the Speroni Gallery. The piece answers to the atmosphere of the space, implicating the viewer while rendering the object as dynamic. A non-representational object, Column is present and its change of color happens in response to the presence of the audience in the gallery. The body’s potential to change the object, as well as the liquid contingency of matter are presented. The mutation of the object happens without direct artistic control, the materials have their own rhythm.

Mangini presented a wide variety of work by Zorio, in which she argues that fluidity becomes intelligible and present. Zorio’s projects are the products of interaction, focusing on the process while imagining future states. Shifting from the alchemical notion of mystery, the works are read as wondrous in the way the process is made visible in its entirety. Zorio’s work does not hide anything; it presents the ease of the transformation, the natural liquidity of the world. The reactions are visible, audible, and full of smell. From Voltaic Arch 1968, to his recent work with Tesla Transformers, electricity is understood as a fluid exchange of electrons, the form of freedom in a post industrial world. These shifts can be seen in the gallery space, the discharge happens, smells, frightens.

Zorio engages the audience in every case, the public no longer as passive consumer, but as activator of the work. Such is the case of his works around the purification of words. In this case the process of purification is made tangible when words are spoken and purified when travelling through a tube of alcohol. The words become liquid, incomprehensible sound that remerges as pure. Language too is proven to be liquid.

By referring to Merleau Ponty’s phenomenological approach, Mangini concluded with a final aspect of her argument in favor of fluidity. Art is more than magic performed by a shaman; art gives us a sense of lack of fixed perception, of the phenomenal world and how it presses upon us. The proper essence of the visible is to have a layer of invisibility. Zorio’s work exceeds the realm of the alchemical, invading reality and our possibility of interaction through presence and perception.

As a response to Mangini’s arguments, a series of points were discussed through questions of the attendants. Here are some of the issues and aspects that were pointed out during the conversation.

+ Zorio questions the materials while letting them question him back. Fluidity is key, but also surprise. The materials are interrogated in his work, and they reemerge as critical conditions, such as the understanding of paint as a material that covers up. For Mangini, Zorio’s use and access to materials can be directly related to Turin and the labor movements of the sixties. The use of metal, corrosives, and chemicals, responds to the accessibility that existed at the time. At the same time, the use of these materials in a political sense highlights the hazards the worker is exposed to: labor is about being vulnerable.

+ While painting is always presented as a whole, as a flat verticality on the wall, sculpture is a social being. Sculpture responds to the assembly of bodies in space, it is presence, and has immediate political implications in Zorio’s context. While through history sculpture has been expected to be mute, these works give it a presence in space as a means to depict social relations. In Zorio’s work negotiations have to be made, there is an aversion to be near, it could even be frightening to be next to the sculpture given the smell or the loud sound, and at the same time a profound visual attraction. Why should the gallery be a comfortable space when the world outside is not?

+ The concept of fluidity offers a sense of change in regard to the understanding of these works. Throughout history the alchemist has been understood as an already failed figure, always in the quest of the impossible. In this sense the complexity and prejudices of the alchemical term are positively subverted by the use of the concept of fluidity as it returns the agency to the artist.

+ Richard Serra’s work was contrasted to that of Zorio’s. Where the former leaves the viewer only with the trace of the fluidity of an action, the latter presents fluidity while it is happening. Zorio lets the audience see the trick, his work is rather presentation that documentation of an action. He works with different modes and rhythms of temporality: between the being in the exact moment when some event is taking place, and the constant observation of the future form that event will render.

At the last point of the conversation an important argument was stated. How does one avoid then the establishing of “fluidity” as a brand in the same way “alchemy” has operated? Even if we are talking about fluidity, does it not solidify? The discussion ended thus with a critical understanding of what an art historian practices entail as a whole. When one term is eradicated, a new one will appear, and it is then the moment for a critical mind to attempt to allow fluidity to be forever fluid.