Towards Paradise – a conversation with Michelangelo Pistoletto

by Adi Hong-Tan

Under the chandeliers, the mirrored table glimmers with reflections. More than simple furniture, this is a thoughtful installation by the eminent Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. The piece takes the form of a gigantic, steel table that spreads out like the Indonesian archipelago, hence its name Il Grande Arcipelago [The Great Archipelago, 2018]. Around it are arranged different chairs and a straw rug, representing some of our country’s diverse ethnic communities. They all appear on the table’s luminous surface as if in congress, perhaps even in dialogue and exchange. Pistoletto’s work takes central stage at ‘We Move Amongst Ghosts’, an exhibition I helped organise in February 2020 at the Museum Seni Rupa [Museum of Fine Arts] of Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. 

Our mirror-images lure us into the table. Also reflected there are other art works in the show, punctuated at regular intervals by the museum’s enormous, colonial window shutters. They are dark green, but glow that evening with tropical midnight blue. Pistoletto’s work seems to capture what is preoccupying my mind: our exhibition, its success or failure, and the audience of my welcome speech. They materialise like cinematic vignettes. To my mind’s eye their reflections step in and out of the artist’s looking-glass.

As part of our show, Pistoletto further proposed that we host what he called an ‘Opera Demopratica’. But, the outbreak of Covid-19 forced us to terminate this aspect of our work together. The event would have been a forum to discuss and set concrete task plans aimed at implementing the UN’s sustainable development goals. What underlies this proposition is the artist’s quest for a better world through art. He dubs his project the Terzo Paradiso [Third Paradise]. Its name alone shows the scale of his ambition. But, with the world entering into lockdown, the artist’s search for utopia would remain something of an enigma to me for some time yet. 

Michelangelo Pistoletto and the author at Cittadellarte

Despite our collaboration, I only met him in person in July 2021, well into the second year of the pandemic. Born on June 23, 1933, Michelangelo Pistoletto has been a living national treasure in Italy for many decades. By the time we met, he had caught and fought off Covid successfully. All the while, I had found myself – quite by accident – transplanted and living very happily in Italy. 

Our meeting took place in Biella, the artist’s native town of 45,000 inhabitants. Located in the northern region of Piedmont, the city is one of the principal engines of Italy’s textile industry. In the 1990s, an economic crisis ravaged many of its textile mills. To survive, many had to refocus on luxury production in order to remain competitive in the fast-globalising market. The majority had to close down. Pistoletto acquired one such derelict mill in 1996. The vast, 20,000 square-metre compound now houses his foundation, Cittadellarte [City of Art]. In a corner is the private house of the artist himself and his wife, Maria, who serves us tea as we sit down for a chat. 

Mirror Paintings exhibited at “Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World”, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1966
Photo: courtesy Walker Art Center

Pistoletto focuses much of his time and energy today on the multi-faceted activities of Cittadellarte. These are guided by his vision of the Third Paradise, launched in 2003. For him, this utopia would be a fusion between the natural state, or ‘the [First Paradise]… in which humans were fully integrated into nature,’ and ‘the [Second Paradise]… developed by human intelligence… through science and technology.’ For him, this latter phase has now reached ‘a level of saturation that is causing a global crisis for human society.’ He entreats: ‘We must enter the Third Paradise, the dimension in which nature and artifice can successfully coexist.’

To this end, Pistoletto coordinates an in-gathering of artists, scientists, activists and others at Cittadellarte. A veritable city within a city, it is home to exhibition spaces, a theatre, a university, a preschool, a library, a restaurant, offices and guest lodgings. Around 200 Embassies have been established all around the globe to promote the artist’s vision and coordinate projects. Our abortive discussion forum in Jakarta would have been the beginnings of one such embassy. 

The interdisciplinary character and international spirit of Cittadellarte is evident. For the idea of the Third Paradise necessitates such an approach. Art, nonetheless, is to play a central role in this process ‘as the engine for global change.’ Pistoletto’s objective is ‘to take the idea of art into every area of civil society, in order to contribute to the profound, epoch-making changes that are happening now.’ Indeed, he points out that ‘the material for making art is not just canvas, wood or marble – but society itself.’ His efforts in collaborative social activism form part of his expanded conception of art. It is fully grounded in an unshakable belief in art’s transformative power. 

In other words, Pistoletto sees the activities of Cittadellarte as an integral part of his artistic practice. It is obvious that his life and oeuvre provide the necessary context in which to understand the artist’s quest for the Third Paradise. For there are clear, conceptual commonalities that run all through his artistic career and present mission.

The artist’s early encounter with art owed much to his father, Ettore Pistoletto (1898 – 1981), who worked as a painter and art restorer. ‘I was born in Biella,’ recounts Michelangelo, ‘because my father was working here on a big fresco at the factory of Ermenegildo Zegna. He met my mother, Livia Fila (1896 – 1971), who was from Biella, because she wanted to have painting lessons. After my father finished his work, we returned to Turin, where he came from.’ 

Michelangelo Pistoletto
Walking Sculpture, 1967
Action with the Sphere of Newspaper (1966) in the streets of Turin
Frames from the film by Ugo Nespolo Buongiorno Michelangelo (1968)

It was at his mother’s prompting that Pistoletto, at the age of eighteen, decided to enrol at an advertising school. He came under the influence of his teacher, the iconic graphic designer Armando Testa (1917 – 1992). The latter told him that ‘to make good advertising, it was necessary to know modern art well… Modern art was the springboard for all generation of ideas.’ Pistoletto adds: ‘So, in six months, I became very familiar with modern art… In the mid-1950s, I started my artistic research on the possibilities of expression.’

In the course of this research, he experimented with different materials through self-portraiture. This related to his study of the artistic avant-garde of the 1950s, such as abstract expressionism and gestural painting. Practitioners of these movements highlighted art as materials and as an extension of the artist’s self-expression. Pistoletto echoed this approach with deep introspection: ‘I wanted to recognise and understand myself… Not only why I became a painter. I became a painter in order to become aware of my existence.’ 

The author with Michelangelo at his home in Cittadellarte (photo: Rosella Traverso)

His moment of insight arrived when he saw his reflection on the thickly varnished, almost lacquer-like, black background of one of his self-portraits. At that moment, to borrow the words of gallerist Dominique Levy, the viewer ‘[becomes] part of the work… pushed, physically and conceptually, over thresholds – thresholds that conjure the complex depths of life.’ By 1961, Pistoletto has begun applying photographic images unto a background of polished stainless steel. He elaborates: ‘It offer me the possibility to see myself, everybody and everything very clearly inside the mirror… It becomes an artwork that opens itself up to participation by other people… So, self-portrait and material together brought me to the Quadri specchianti [Mirror Paintings].’

While his journey towards the Mirror Paintings was an inward-looking process, the artist’s output could not be more outward-facing. This, as elucidated by art historian Anthony George White, is unlike ‘gestural abstract painting that treats art as an expression of the artist’s soul and disavows its immediate physical and historical surroundings.’ White emphasises that ‘[by] focusing attention on the world outside the picture plane… [the Mirror Paintings] refused a centuries-old form of aesthetic idealism that viewed art as separate from the temporal and spatial flow of everyday existence.’ Indeed, points out art critic Andrea Bellini, ‘[without] an audience, these works do not truly exist… they only come into being in relation to the people who are looking at them.’ 

‘The true protagonist,’ proposes Pistoletto, ‘was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own reflection, and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the future… [It] was the dimension of time itself.’ The artist’s Mirror Paintings, as such, reach out beyond the present and the constrictions of their format and society. We find the same participatory element animating the activities of Cittadellarte. Like his Mirror Paintings, Pistoletto’s quest for paradise is possible only through the involvement of others. He envisions a moment when, stepping over the thresholds of time and societal limitations, we enter unto the Third Paradise. 

The idealism and participatory nature of the Third Paradise also mirrors Pistoletto’s pioneering role in Arte Povera [Poor Art]. This artistic movement gripped the world’s imagination in the late 1960s and 1970s. The artist’s involvement followed the acclaim that greeted his Mirror Paintings. His success was propelled in part by his collaboration, starting in 1963, with the renowned New York gallerists, Ileana Sonnabend and her Italian-born husband Leo Castelli. Thanks to the couple’s links to the New York art scene, Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings came to be associated with Pop Art. 

On the brink of stardom, the artist was, nonetheless, troubled: ‘Despite… the sense of participation I felt towards Pop Art… they identified with the American consumerist system, which had taken hold of art… [That] system… considered [my work]… as a brand… destined for consumption.’ After the Venice Biennale of 1964, a fateful exchange took place that led Pistoletto to consider a decisive break. He recalls: ‘At that moment, Leo Castelli – and we were talking in Italian – told me, “Michelangelo… you have to move to New York. You have to forget that you are European. If you don’t do that, it will be the end of your career.” This was the power of empire!’

Pistoletto decided instead to return to Turin. He reasons: ‘In order to have distance, I had to destroy my personal label. I did a series of works for many months that were different from each other. I call them Oggetti in meno [Minus Objects, 1965 – 1966]. Being different from each other, they destroyed my signature style. Sonnabend and Castelli asked me, “you want to kill yourself professionally?” This is exactly what I want: I want to kill my brand, I want to be independent. Freedom, autonomy, responsibility, l’arte personale!’

Unveiled at his studio in 1966, Pistoletto’s Minus Objects are an idiosyncratic ensemble of around thirty works. The seminal art critic Germano Celant personally participated in their production. He offers a survey of the assemblage: ‘a Christmas manger, a cardboard well with torn canvas at its center, a showcase for clothing, a structure for conversing standing up and a structure for conversing sitting down, a table made of picture frames and paintings….’ Their diversity of form, appearance and material led many to mistake these works for a group show. 

The Minus Objects were fundamental to the birth of Arte Povera. As expounded by gallerist Lisa Varghese, they ‘radically upended the prevailing art trends of the time.’ Celant gave this incipient movement its name. He describes Pistoletto – through his new works – as speaking ‘a freedom language no longer connected to the system or to any kind of visual consistency; he’s concerned, instead, with ‘interior’ consistency…[This] presupposes the rejection of any and all systems and of all codified expectations.’ 

Some of the Minus Objects are further activated through group action. This presages the participatory nature of Pistoletto’s Third Paradise. It also reflects the communal revival and counter-cultural activism of the 1960s. Indeed, the art critic Tommaso Trini calls the Minus Objects ‘accumulations of energy’, set in motion via creative and narrative processes. An example in point is the Sfera di giornali [Newspaper Sphere, 1966]. A one-metre ball, it is covered in Italian newspapers that reported the social unrest of that period. In 1967, the artist took the ball out of his studio and rolled it out into the streets of Turin. Aided by friends, art colleagues and passers-by, this performance stresses the interconnectivities between the news cycle and group action, between the community at large and the practice of art. 

Spontaneity, participation and experimentation, then, characterise Arte Povera. Those aligned with it seek a liberated and radical art, free from institutional strictures and market demands. They seek a return to simple, everyday meanings and materials. In his Arte Povera manifesto of November 1967, Appunti per una guerriglia [Notes on A Guerrilla War], Celant sketches out the two options open to artists: ‘either a kleptomaniac reliance on the system and the use of codified and artificial languages in comfortable dialogue with existing structures’ or ‘entirely at the other extreme, an option for free and individual self-development… Over there a complex art, over here a poor art, committed to contingency, to events, to the non-historical, to the present… to the hope… of being able to shake entirely free of every visual discourse that presents itself univocal and consistent.’ 

Here, in the single-minded idealism towards a vision, in the unwillingness to be pigeon-holed and in the eagerness to transgress conceptual boundaries, we see a common thread connecting Pistoletto’s pioneering role in Arte Povera to the Third Paradise. Admittedly, the oracular-sounding assertions emanating from Cittadellarte have occasioned some bewilderment. For instance, the board of our Jakarta museum foundation struggled to grasp the relevance of the Third Paradise to our museum exhibition in 2020. A similar incident happened on my way to Biella in 2021, when I met one of Pistoletto’s gallerists. Upon being queried about the Third Paradise, he just laughed and exclaimed: ‘It’s all crazy. Michelangelo has gone mad!’ 

Pistoletto is, certainly, not the first artist to be thus accused. What underlies this supposed “madness”, however, is a certain ‘interior consistency’. The artist’s Third Paradise forms part of an oeuvre defined by openness to the outside world. It builds on a practice committed to freedom from institutional bounds; a practice that continues to expand the idea and boundaries of art.

Michelangelo Pistoletto sitting in front of one of his first Mirror Paintings, “Seated Man” (1962), in Torino in 1962. Photo Paolo Bressano.

The Third Paradise sits in with what art academic B. Stephen Carpenter II has identified as ‘a movement away from the more modernist notion of art as material-based to art as… engagement with the world.’ This repositioning lends itself to disruptive practice and transformation. Echoing Pistoletto’s long-held beliefs, Carpenter argues that ‘the world becomes an art-making medium… not only reflected and depicted…; Art practice can have some sort of an engaged and intentional effect within that [context].’ 

Pistoletto likens the participatory element in the Third Paradise to ‘the rapport between two people.’ His template is that of ‘a continuous performance open to anyone who wants to participate in the meaning of the Third Paradise, whether in big ways or small.’ For this reason, he further emphasises the role of Embassies in his project. He argues that each Embassy’s role ‘is… to develop local experience… You cannot start from the top. You start [by identifying]… a real, basic need locally… You discuss and find solutions with other people… We have needs here [in Biella], but similar needs exist in other places, like energy, transportation and food.’

Although my involvement with the Third Paradise in Jakarta ended prematurely due to Covid, I witnessed its earlier iteration on the Indonesian island of Bali. This Embassy centred on a forum that took place in 2018 in the Balinese town of Ubud. Its principal host was Kayu, an art platform founded by Bali-based Italian artist Marco Cassani, as part of Lucie Fontaine, an international art collective. ‘I founded Kayu,’ he explains, ‘as an extension of my… practice to create social sculptures in the form of exhibitions and performances,… providing my artworks the… opportunity to interface with those of… fellow artists from across the world.’ In Pistoletto’s Third Paradise, Cassani sees an affinity with his practice, especially in ‘the interest in interacting with society… in the social aspects that embrace the economy and work.’ 

One need identified by the Ubud forum was to help engender a deeper engagement in Indonesia with ‘[the] international discourse on contemporary art… through experimental and conceptual projects.’ This must be conveyed in local terms. Cassani elaborates: ‘I tried to adapt the… format of Cittadellarte to the Balinese context… Bali is an example of how art, through religious practice, is integrated into all aspects of social life… [The] relationship between tradition and contemporaneity, a concept dear to Michelangelo Pistoletto, is… the basis of… [our work] in Bali.’ The Bali Embassy resulted in a now-defunct art space, Batu; and in an ongoing search for a replacement, where this dialogue could continue. It also led to a collaboration between Kayu and Yayasan Mitra Museum Jakarta [Friends of Jakarta Museums] in the Indonesian capital, where we organised our museum exhibition in 2020.

Michelangelo Pistoletto
Minus Objects, 1965-1966
Pistoletto’s Studio, Torino 1966
Photo: Paolo Bressano

Earlier in Biella in 2014, another initiative of the Third Paradise was instigated by identifying local needs: Let Eat Bi. This unfolds within the larger context of Slow Food, a global movement that began in the Piedmont region as a reaction against global fast-food chains. Their credo is to valorise traditions of local food and cooking. Let Eat Bi brings different stakeholders in Biella to the table. It maintains a register, inaugurated in 2017, listing uncultivated land in the locality on one hand, and people wishing to farm on the other. Farmers and would-be farmers receive their training at the Green Academy, an educational and research arm of the initiative. Local produce, meanwhile, is brought to the community at a weekly farmer’s market on the grounds of Cittadellarte. 

The activities of Let Eat Bi have a particular resonance for Shayma Hamad, a Palestinian artist-in-residence at Cittadellarte. The objective of her artistic practice is to bring ‘together audiences to experience and index knowledge through food.’ It was while on a farm visit under the aegis of Let Eat Bi that she rediscovered the Jerusalem artichoke. Despite its name, the plant is not native to Palestine. Hamad explains: ‘I started doing some research on this plant as I had never heard of it in Palestine under… [that name]… In an almost magical way, this plant took me to faraway and very different places around the world. The origin of this plant can be found in Latin America; passing through France, Italy, Palestine and finally arriving in England, the Jerusalem artichoke brings together a stratification of stories that relate to history itself: colonisation, identity  and my own direct personal experience.’ 

This plant became the inspiration and basis of Hamad’s Bread Without Borders, unveiled at Cittadellarte in 2023. Through her work, she raises questions on notions of indigeneity, identity and belonging. She does so by presenting her historical reconstruction of the origin of the Jerusalem artichoke, then by conducting an art performance involving a new dish. She created a tramezzino, a Piedmontese bread-based recipe, but using Palestinian ingredients that incorporated the Jerusalem artichoke. ‘When you prepare food,’ explains Hamad, ‘you often combine several traditions, creating new flavours that can change what you felt and knew until a moment before.’ Her work focuses on ‘the [constructed] symbolism of the religious city of Jerusalem and its impact on the traditional knowledge of indigenous people.’ For me, Hamad’s work calls for a more nuanced understanding of the situation in the Holy Land – surely a necessary, if wistful, precondition of the Third Paradise. 

Michelangelo Pistoletto
Minus Objects, 1965-1966
Documenta Kassel, 1997
Photo: Monika Nikolic

Amidst world conflicts and environmental crises, Pistoletto’s Third Paradise sounds a note of hope and defiance. He observes: ‘We have a multiplication of good and bad because modernity brought incredible benefits… but at the same time with extremely high costs… The more creative you are, the more you are responsible for finding solutions. The solutions have to be an act of creation. Art is creation…. As an artist I have to take responsibility for creating a possibility of looking farther than the present.’ He adds: ‘Disaster brings with it a possible renewal.’ 

Recently, the urgency of the situation was brought home to Pistoletto in a dramatic fashion. In July 2023, his latest installation of Venere degli stracci [Venus of the Rags, first iterated in 1967] in Naples was assailed and torched. The arson attack occurred amidst societal malaise during one of the hottest summers on record. It was ironic that the ruined piece juxtaposed Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, against the ragged detritus of today’s consumer goods. Undaunted, Pistoletto reflects: ‘It is a work that calls for regeneration, on the necessity to find a balance and harmony between two minds that are represented on the one hand by beauty, and on the other by consummate consumerism.’ 

The Third Paradise is an inseparable part of Pistoletto’s practice. From his Mirror Paintings to his pioneering role in Arte Povera, his life embodies a clear ‘interior consistency’. With an openness to the world, even in old age, he continues to challenge the constraints of time and society. Some, such as Cassani, go as far as to pronounce the Third Paradise the artist’s masterpiece as ‘a self-generating artwork that has a life of its own.’ Pistoletto himself, however, observes that the Third Paradise is ‘a paradise we enter collectively through individual engagement.’ As such, the success or otherwise of his vision depends ultimately on the engagement of others.   

The artist’s quest for the Third Paradise is like that of a missionary’s labour of faith. Weeks after Pistoletto’s Venus was set on fire, I walked past its charred remnants. In my mind, I see the act of arson itself like a macabre art performance. I recall visions of the burning of heretics, of people who believed differently. Imagine the conflagration in the scorching heat: flames consume beauty and detritus alike; all the fruits of human civilisation; both good and evil. It is once said that as gold is purified by fire, so is faith. With the furnace lit, the world ablaze and ‘darkness visible’, do we see a burning bush? In chaos and in war; in this bonfire of the vanities; and in the flames that will consume us; answer me this: do you believe in the paradise to come? In the dead of night, before we turn into ashes – answer me this.

Michelangelo Pistoletto Venus of Rags, 1967-2024 Piazza del Municipio, Naples Photo: Pierluigi Di Pietro

Pistoletto’s burnt Venus of the Rags was replaced on March 6, 2024. The new artwork incorporates surviving elements of its earlier iteration. 

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