Prof. Thomas Wagner

Laudatio for Michelangelo Pistoletto at the presentation of the 2018 Roswitha Haftmann Prize, 2 October 2018 at the Kunsthaus Zürich.

Honoured guests, dear Michelangelo Pistoletto

‘If art is life’s mirror, then I am the mirror maker.’(1) Michelangelo Pistoletto said that in 1978. But surely a mirror maker is more of a craftsman? What does it really mean when an artist describes himself as a ‘mirror maker’?

Hear the name Michelangelo Pistoletto and you inevitably think of Arte Povera. Anyone familiar with recent art history can instantly reel off the titles of some of his best-known works – ‘Venus of the Rags’, his ‘Mirror Objects or ‘Minus Objects’ – to illustrate that this is art made from simple, ‘poor’ materials. Contrary to what one might assume, the name ‘Arte Povera’ does not denote a homogeneous group of artists. In fact it was the art critic Germano Celant who, in the late 1960s, identified common features in the works and approaches of artists who were operating independently of each other; it was Celant who coined the term and gave it a theoretical underpinning. When we read his 1967 article ‘Arte Povera. Notes for a Guerrilla War’, the direction these artists are going in soon becomes clearer. The text begins as follows: ‘First comes the human being and then the system, or that’s how it was in antiquity. Today, however, society presumes to make pre-packaged human beings, ready for consumption. Anyone can propose reform, criticize, violate, and demystify, but always with the obligation to remain within the system. It is forbidden to be free. Once you create an object, you always have to remain by its side. That’s what the system commands. This expectation is never to be frustrated, and once an individual has assumed a role, he has to continue to perform it until death.’(2)

What Celant described more than 50 years ago seems astonishingly relevant today, including the artist’s predicament: ‘Even though he rejects consumer society, he discovers himself one of its producers. Freedom is an empty word.’(3) The ‘system’, as it was called back then, operates better than ever today. Michelangelo Pistoletto refused to accept that freedom is just an empty word; he deplored the fact that to achieve success, artists must meet the expectations of the system – the audience, the markets, the museums – and turn their work into a brand. He repeatedly defied the expectations placed on him. Call it a yearning for freedom, perseverance, perhaps even obduracy – in any event, he preferred to dedicate himself and his art to the ‘free-self-projection of human activity’.(4)

Pistoletto makes a stand. He refuses to see things as we were brought up to see them. He refuses to oblige the hectic art world by pliantly serving up works that conflict with a life of freedom. Instead, he categorically insists that the task of art is to bring forth symbolic, form-giving acts of liberation. He counters the system that sets everything in concrete with ‘the irretrievability of every moment’: ‘Predetermined directions are contrary to man’s liberty. To predetermine something means to make a commitment for tomorrow; it means that tomorrow I will no longer be free. To adhere to a predetermined idea means to reflect oneself in the past and to deprive oneself of free will.’(5)

If anything is ‘poor’ about Pistoletto’s art, it is the poverty of illusions. The business-minded may consider it naive, but for him a work of art is more than a commodity: it can change perceptions; it enables us to look at supposedly immutable things differently, without fear; it takes us by surprise, offering up perspectives that had previously been hidden from us, and shows us that true experience can mean freeing yourself radically from your preconceived opinion.

In the mid-1950s he begins to question the autonomy of art. For him, ‘the problem of the canvas remained that of an insurmountable wall.’(6) But the move out of the picture has begun: Fontana punches holes in his canvas, cuts it up ‘in a dramatic attempt to gain a few extra inches of space.’(7) Pollock stretches the canvas out on the floor and walks on it ‘to obtain the momentary illusion of removing the frontal obstacle’.(8) Pistoletto acknowledges the impulse behind these attempts, but also sees that they are hidebound by tradition. Has art, he asks himself, reached such a point that all that is left is a surface or a wall on which the painter lays out their individual view of the world? Isn’t that stubbornly elusive reality waiting to be found closer to us, or further away? He realizes what he has to do: he renounces his allegiance to art’s autonomy, the prevailing idea of the first half of the 20th century, and sets about opening his art up to ‘a universal, plural perspective shared with all.’(9) Standing in front of Piero della Francesca’s ‘Flagellation of Christ’ – the quintessential early 15th-century demonstration of the then new technique of perspective based on scientific principles – he sees that we need to move beyond purely individual expression, that the world must be brought back into the picture and the sculpture.

So these are the thought processes that lead him to the mirror painting. The principle behind it is strikingly simple: all is laid out before the artist’s eyes save the artist themselves. It is only through the self-portrait that an artist can obtain an image of their own self. But without a mirror, that image cannot be created. Of course, when artists observe themselves in the mirror, they are confronted with an objective image; they are at once in front of and in the picture. An alternative way to see and depict yourself would be through photography. But the photographic image captures only one in an infinite number of states, whereas the mirror image is constantly in motion. It keeps the image open to changes taking place outside itself. In the mirror, everything literally remains in flux – including everything surrounding the self-contemplating observer. Through its presence, the world inexorably invades the field of view – and, temporary and mutable as it may seem, it is shared out like a hundredfold supply.
To allow the front and rear view, proximity and distance, dynamism and stasis, unity and diversity, presence and absence, surface and depth to be experienced, Pistoletto’s mirror paintings consist of two parts: the mirror that reflects the images in their incessant movement, and a photograph of the eternally motionless figure pressed against the mirror’s surface. In this way, two opposing realities come together in one place.(10) The reflected image compels us to look at the space and time behind us and around us. Pistoletto puts it as follows: ‘When we see ourselves in the mirror, each of us can see every other in the same space and at the same time. I, the artist, have transformed the canvas of the painting into a mirror. As I do so, I have replaced the loneliness of the artist with a self-portrait in which those self-reflecting spectators join me in the mirror.’(11)

It is this threshold phenomenon that Pistoletto now explores – as metaphor, instrument and medium of an immediate experience. The door stands ajar. Art has opened itself up to life. It no longer celebrates a system designed to stabilize art’s identity. From which it follows that anyone who enters the changing image is no longer alone. They recognize that they are sharing space and time with others. One has become many. Reproduction and sharing lead to the very heart of what society means – to questions of community, the other person and how to work with them. Pistoletto’s art remains in motion too: the mirror pieces live on in the form of numerous actions. And in the ‘Oggetti in meno’, the ‘Minus Objects’, he continues to advance the process of fragmenting identity and realizing that we are always others.

But the mirror does not simply open itself up to the world and multiply its image: in it, the world also becomes light, remains capable of change. Through it and in it an antidote emerges to counter, both really and symbolically, the power that seeks to petrify the living. To put it in the language of myth – and Pistoletto would hardly be Italian if he had not repeatedly referred to myth – in his battle against everything that hardens, fixes, renders inert and dependent, the artist is like a modern-day Perseus. Perseus, the hero of Antiquity who, alone, is capable of defeating the Medusa. Who, in order to cut off the Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, stares not at the face of the Gorgon herself but only at her reflection in a bronze shield. The destructive gaze of the petrifying power is broken in the mirror image. The indirect view defeats it, dissipates its power through deflection.

As for the severed head, Perseus does not simply leave it lying there: he carries it around with him, hidden in a sack. When enemies threaten to overwhelm him, he has only to pull it out by its serpent’s hair and show it to them; and the bloody trophy becomes an invincible weapon against any who deserve the punishment of transformation into a statue of themselves. So Perseus can control that terrible visage by keeping it hidden, just as he defeated it by looking at it in a mirror. Always he draws his strength from a rejection of the direct gaze. Pistoletto employs a comparable strategy. He too is fully aware of the reality of the monster world – the many-headed system – that he, like us, is fated to live with. But he astutely holds up a deflecting mirror that robs it of its power. What the myth of Perseus and the Medusa expresses becomes, in Pistoletto’s work, a countervailing power of art, the power of the indirect, symbolic gaze. One thing is clear: Pistoletto is more than the mirror maker he purports to be. He is an activist of the future, who uses art to progress beyond art, towards a vision of a new social order.

Can an artist make the world a better place? Perhaps; many may think so. The fact is that in 1993 with ‘Progetto Arte’ and 1998 with the creation of the ‘Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto’ in Biella he, the artist, takes responsibility for linking together every aspect of human activity – religion, science, politics, economics and education. In 2010, as if wishing to sum up his art and his deliberations, he gathers his thoughts together and proposes a new order, which he calls the Third Paradise.

‘I realized’, he writes, ‘that for all my artistic, intellectual and practical activity in the service of responsible change in society, I had to make a further, more resolute and effective step to contribute to the change that this silent, desperate humanity sought to invoke. Thus the symbol of the Third Paradise came about.’(12) It is a reconfiguration of the mathematical infinity sign: ‘From the central circle, as if from a womb that the two earlier paradises, the natural and the artificial, have fertilized, the new humanity will emerge.’(13)

Planet Earth is thus posited as a garden that, Pistoletto writes, ‘surrounds the atmosphere like a fine, easily torn veil, an enclosure shielding the planet against space’, in which every human being must become aware of ‘their responsibility as a gardener, as creator of their environment’.(14) Can it really work? Let us recall the words of Germano Celant: ‘First comes the human being and then the system, or that’s how it was in antiquity.’
Could it be like that again tomorrow? Does the mirror maker’s mirror show us the way? The indirect gaze of art can nullify the power of petrification – and in the work of Michelangelo Pistoletto we get to experience it.
Thank you for listening. Congratulations, Michelangelo Pistoletto, on receiving the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2018.


(1) Michelangelo Pistoletto, Division and multiplication of the mirror, 1978:
(2) Germano Celant, Arte Povera. Notes for a Guerrilla War, 1967:
(3) ibid.
(4) Own translation.
(5) Michelangelo Pistoletto, Famous Last Words, 1967:
(6)Michelangelo Pistoletto, Full-scale Last Judgement, 1980:
(7) ibid.
(8) ibid.
(9) Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Third Paradise, 2003. Own translation.
(10) cf. ibid.
(11) ibid. Own translation.
(12) ibid. Own translation.
(13) ibid. Own translation.
(14) ibid. Own translation.