[September 16 2016]
As the Blenheim Art Foundation unveiled its third contemporary show hosted in the historic palace – following Ai Weiwei in 2014, and Lawrence Weiner’s intervention last year – a weary visitor from Cultureland could be forgiven an eye roll for the obvious gags: ‘Here’s more Anti-Consumerism meets the Aristocracy, Arte Povera and l’Architettura per i Ricchi’.
However, this show – a major retrospective of the artist’s work, with over fifty pieces spanning his fifty-year career – is much more than a one-note joke on juxtaposition. For Michelangelo Pistoletto himself, it ranges from the personal to the political and back again. The 83-year-old artist explained how wartime broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Italy on Radio Londra kept his family going at the tail end of WW2, making the opportunity to show in the baroque splendors of the house where Churchill was born a sort of return to his own childhood.
And what a house it is. The palace, which earlier this year hosted the Dior Resort 2017 show, comes with hoards of visitors: a captive audience of daytrippers perhaps less attuned to the radical art movements of the 20th century than his regular punters. Pistoletto had spent hours prepping the house’s own tour guides – more used to explaining the hundreds of years of blue-blooded lineage captured in oil paintings and rococo interiors than conceptual art – on his installations. “My work today exists in collaboration with society” he explained, “I have to make people understand that art is in itself a transformation, in ideas and materials”.
Once the critics had done their rounds, and a wave of rambling retirees was unleashed, it was indeed fascinating to overhear the (entirely anecdotal, it must be noted) critiques. The Brexit brigade (the demographics show the vote was decided by the over-60s) was confronted with a reworking of Pistoletto’s original 1967 “Mappamondo” (a giant globe of rolled newspapers encaged in ironwork latitudes and longitudes) with 2016 EU referendum coverage; “The Trumpets of Judgement”, which reference both Italian historical painting and the blaring speeches of political demagogues; “Untitled”, a pile of rags split down the middle by a mirrored barrier, multicolored fabric on one side, all-white on the other; and “Love Difference – Mediterranean Sea”, a giant mirrored table in the shape of those currently troubled waters. The irony would be delicious, were it not so difficult to swallow.
In the age of the internet, Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, which have taken over the Long Library – under the Lawrence Weiner works on the ceilings – seem more relevant than ever. How to breach the divide between an interconnected selfie-generation and the Leave-voting baby-boomers? Pistoletto’s answer is the colossal “Third Paradise”, which hangs – bound in colored rags – in the Great Hall. Adding an extra twist to the mathematical infinity symbol, it seeks to unite the artificial and the natural in a balanced synthesis: “we have to connect what we think is good with what we think is bad, in order to create a third thought that didn’t exist before” the artist explained.
And all those selfies mean that there’s a generation able to understand its own role as artists, as a force for change: “a public now conscious of the power it has to transform society”. We just need to do something about it. At 83, Pistoletto has fired yet another shot.
On view until December 31st, 2016 at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
Photo and text Jethro Turner