As I write, the colourful and exuberant Pop art Exhibition at Tate Modern in London, The EY Exhibition. The World Goes Pop, is thriving and embracing the eclectic artistic and cultural expressions of protest against the mass commodification of art that took place across the globe in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Within this buzzing landscape, Tate Modern also curated a wonderful program of Italian films which were screened from 23 to 25 October 2015. This brief season was entitled “If Arte Povera was Pop: Artists’ and Experimental Cinema in Italy 1960s-70s”, which I could not miss as Arte Povera and Italian experimental films form part of my ongoing research into artists’ cinema. More specifically, it was the “If” in the exhibition title that I found particularly intriguing, suggesting as it does the cross-fertilisation of two different artistic phenomena: Pop art, with its reliance on quotation, and Arte Povera, with its aesthetic of appropriation. One needed to think about both not as opposite binaries, but as two sides of the same coin: by “stretching” the boundaries of Pop art’s conflation of mass culture tropes on one side, one could meet Arte Povera’s historical materialism in consumer culture on the other.
While throughout the galleries the visual and thematic interconnections of Pop art are clear and strong, also at a transnational level, formally the Italian artists’ and experimental films showed a much slighter correlation to Pop art than to Arte Povera. Thematically, however, the Italian films shared with Pop art the purpose of attacking mass culture, often adopting the same media language as a means of protest. They both showed an interest in the dissection of the human body both figurally, as the result of a research into representations of physical and sexual emancipation, and culturally, as “products” of consumerism. The outcomes were installations, sculptures and mixed media artworks from across the globe, which inspired artists to either integrate these signs of mass culture or directly deconstruct the original meanings: from Brazil (Teresinha Soares, Die Wearing the Legitimate Espadrille, 1968) and the US (Judy Chicago, Birth Hood 1965, Martha Rosler, Pop Art, or Wallpaper, 1966), to Spain (Eulàlia Grau, Rich and Famous, 1972), Germany (Uwe Lausen, Geometer, 1965, Peter Roehr, Film-Montages I-III, 1965-8) and Belgium (Evelyne Axell, Valentine, 1966). Deconstruction in artists’ cinema also involved experimenting with film as medium, therefore bringing together two artistic sensibilities for both industrial and natural materials: film as celluloid, vinyl, dyes, neon, plastic, enamel, soil, water and fabrics. Taking its cue from the American avant-garde of the ‘40s, filmmaking experimentation in the ‘60s foregrounded the materiality and texture of film as apparatus and anticipated the expanded cinema strand of the ‘70s. While Arte Povera strongly resonates with these formal preoccupations, in the ‘60s these took on the role of criticising capitalism and the mass media.
The structure of the film program pivoted around the epicentres of the Italian Independent Cinema Cooperative, Turin – the Northern industrial town renowned for its FIAT factories, workers’ demonstrations and avant-garde events – and Rome, the centre of The Artists’ School of Piazza del Popolo. The first evening, entitled Good Morning, Michelangelo: Art, Artist and Film in Turin, focused on experimental filmmaker Ugo Nespolo’s Brakhage-inspired film trilogy – Buongiorno, Michelangelo (1968), Neonmerzare (1967) and Boettinbiancoenero (1968) – a tribute to Arte Povera artists Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz and Alighiero Boetti. The inclusion of performance art in these films revealed the influence of Italian Futurism, Dada and Happenings, while the camera eye’s keenness on primary and industrial materials – as well as multi-layered audio-visual collages and illustrations – demonstrated a strong affiliation to both Arte Povera and Pop art. As Nespolo stated, Buongiorno, Michelangelo traces an ideal journey in the history of Happenings, as the city of Turin assumes centre stage for an outlandish newspaper ball which, initially perched on Pistoletto’s open-roof car driving from his studio on the outskirts of Turin to the city centre, will also be spontaneously rolled through the streets by his wife Maria Pioppi and the surprised onlookers. The film is split into two parts, one shot in the daylight, the other at night, when the paper-ball becomes like a moon with which to create a magical game. The trilogy forms a valuable document of the avant-garde art exhibition “Con Temp l’azione” organised by art critics and curators Daniela Palazzoli and Germano Celant (the latter coined “Arte Povera” in 1967) in the Sperone and Stein Gallery. This key event married energy, dynamism and action (also known as “Azioni Povere”), bringing Arte Povera to an international audience. Together with Nespolo’s trilogy, the exhibitions forged new ideas about “the found, poor object” in the Italian neo-avant garde landscape of Turin, and long-term collaborations with art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and American Pop art.
Happening-inspired performance art also ran through the rest of the evening’s film program, as well as the accompanying season. In Pistoletto & Sotheby’s (1968), Pia Epremian, the only female member of the Italian Independent Cinema Cooperative, explored artistic freedom and identity through theatrical performances by Pistoletto, as well as his wife and children, performances that ranged from being contrived and self-conscious to joyful and spontaneous (hence casting a critical eye over the commodification of the art world). If with La Vestizione (1968) Tonino De Bernardi recalled the homoeroticism of both Derek Jarman and Kenneth Anger, the individual as artist and performer of life, often seen through “dramatic” camera angles, in Maria Fotografata (1968) Plinio Martelli, through the performance of Pistoletto’s wife Maria, explored the photographic properties of the camera in conjunction with physical movement. The juxtaposition of the negative and positive still image suggests an evocative study of the still and moving image of the human body. Performance art and the foregrounding of the medium as apparatus became a means of subversion and aggression of filmmaking as a commercial practice, and of artists as commodities, thus foregrounding the ‘60s climate of social unrest and protest.
The second day in the film retrospective was dedicated to the artists of The Rome School of Piazza del Popolo. It kicked off with the “phantom drive” sensation of Mario Masini’s Immagine del Tempo (Image of Time, 1964) as a car driving at changing speed through the city streets conveyed a subjective experience of time and space, a maddening rush through the Italian capital during the economic “boom”. Umberto Bignardi’s Motion Vision (1967) strengthens the connection between human body, movement and the camera through Pop art-influenced illustrations, hence renovating Edweard Muybridge’s pre-cinematic dissection of gestures and motion. A visual reminder of the comic-strip motif is Adamo Vergine’s Ciao Ciao (1967), which also traces the connection between the camera, techniques of repetition and stoppage, and the human body, as the friendly “ciao” gesture draws attention to the mediation, and re-interpretation, of an instance of social communication and behaviour. Rosa Foschi’s hymn to cinema in Amour du Cinema (1968) is infused with Pop art inspired collages of photographic portraits of female stars. Existing at a crossroads of Pop art and Dada, its textual cut-outs bear witness to Foschi’s homage to Picabia and Clair. Claudio Cintoli’s Mezzo Sogno e Mezzo (Half Dream and a Half, 1965), on the other hand, turns collage and the comic strip motif into a Surrealist subversive device, clearly breaking with figurative representations by de-constructing and subverting the apparently coherent meanings of the “real”. Archive photographs of tribal rituals open up and unsettle fixed binary meanings between civilisation and primitive societies, hence letting the illusion and reality of wellbeing in contemporary consumer society collide. The ‘60s anti-imperialist discourse is particularly present in Guido Lombardi and Anna Lojolo’s A Corpo (1968), where archival footage of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, and a sequence about the American flag being burned on the street, represent the artists’ criticism of the ubiquity of violence as mediated by televised reports of war. Furthermore, the medium is not only closely related to the human body as the recipient of “abuses” (as an electronically generated distorted image of politician Aldo Moro testifies), but also a source of alienation for the individual in seeking authentic communication. Gianfranco Baruchello’s Costretto a scomparire (Forced to Disappear, 1968) also supports anti-imperialist views through a performative action turned parody about human rituals of violence. As in a typical television commercial presentation, a frozen American turkey – icon of mass production, and symbol of capitalism – is laid out under the meticulous scrutiny of the camera. Semi-naked, although always partially disclosed, Baruchello stages a primitive scenario in which the turkey is cut-up, wrapped in paper and inserted into a can ready to be marketed. In an essayistic style instead, Errore di gruppo N. 2 (Group Error N. 2, 1972), made by the Karma Film production, provides a stark criticism of the effects of capitalism on civilised societies and the falsity of religious beliefs as the avant-garde poet Patrizia Vicinelli wanders along the streets of Lourdes in France while holding a pistol, mirroring the anxiety and fear of violence of the time.
Continuing the theme of the bond between the medium and the human body, the second part of The Rome School program emphasised Arte Povera’s expressive materialities that created subjectively symbolic and conceptual worlds through liberating, yet hysterical, performances. This section also included films reminiscent of the modernist aesthetics of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttmann’s 1932 city symphony Acciaio, works that situated the human body as an alienated and mechanical entity within the urban landscape. For instance Voy-age (Giorgio Turi and Roberto Capanna, 1964), which on the one hand forges a strong link between bold filmmaking, with sharp camera angles and montage, and the human body in motion, on the other uses frequent close-ups of factories’ metals and steel, as well as people’s faces and body parts, to emphasise the ‘60s’ criticism of aggressive processes of industrialisation. The notion of film as medium, and filmmaking materials and techniques that foreground cinema as illusion and construction of experiences, are also central to Paolo Gioli’s Commutazioni con mutazione (Commutations with Mutations, 1969), clearly influenced by the sensibilities of structural film developed in America during the mid-‘60s.
The primary materials of the photographic film medium – prone to degradation, obsolescence and decay every time it is subjected to projection – takes on a surreal tone in Piero Bargellini’s Trasferimento di Modulazione (Transfer of Modulation, 1969) as the animated image lingers on between life and death. The world premiere of the new 35mm print of Alberto Grifi’s Orgonauti, evviva! (1968-70), influenced by Austrian psychoanalyst William Reich’s themes of “orgone energy”, also echoed ontological questions about human identity, alienation and rebirth as these are pitted against garish, psychedelic, dystopic visions of Earth. Also screening this day, Carmelo Bene’s Hermitage (1967) is a colourful, baroque parody of an alienated, deranged individual as, through operatic gestures, the male protagonist performs daily rituals in a room of the Hotel Hermitage.
Pop Art and the historical materialism of Arte Povera are combined by internationally renowned artist and filmmaker Mario Schifano, who made a couple of Pop art-infused film portraits, Souvenir (1967) and Anna (1967-70) and an anti-imperialist film with found footage, Vietnam (1967). The former reflexively creates an explicit reference to commodities and stars, as one of Warhol’s Factory models, Gerard Malanga, wanders around St. Peter’s cathedral, turning the film into a meditative piece on obsolescence versus timelessness in art. Anna also emulates Warhol’s films of Factory stars and fashion portraits as his camera closely follows Schifano’s modelling partner Anna Carini. Schifano also shot a much more critical and austere film on the commodification of violence with Vietnam as images from the War are filmed off the television monitor. It works as a reminder of the intrusion and illusion of “real” life as portrayed by the mass media. This materialist work with media technologies anticipated British video artist David Hall’s TV Interruption series, made in 1971 (and currently on show at Tate Britain). The “illusion versus reality” binary continues in Franco Angeli’s work with television monitors entitled Schermi (Screens, 1968) which, by manifesting processes of multiplication and repetition, references Pop art’s attack on mass reproduction. Continuing the trend of the film portrait with his Double Portrait: Schifano Angeli (1967-70), his Pascali in mostra (Pascali on Display, 1969) also received its archival premiere outside Italy. Alongside his mediums, Pino Pascali, one of the central figures of the Arte Povera movement, is shown through an accelerated assemblage of images and sounds that culminate in his 1969 performance art piece Bachi da Seta (Silkworms), summarising Arte Povera’s exploration of alternative spaces made habitable through recycled materials. Luca Patella’s SKMP2 (1968) is a formally complex homage to the Dada film Entr’acte (1924) by René Clair and Francis Picabia. Together with Patella, other Arte Povera artists stage a playful performance with synthetic materials and natural elements. In Patella’s next short, Terra Animata (Animated Earth), a couple’s performance instead measures the scale of the size of their body in relation to the bare surrounding landscape. Patella enjoys subverting and re-inventing this apparently harmonious relationship through body choreography, the use of colour filters, agile camera movements, inverted images and accelerated animations. In his Che Posizione! (What a Position!, 1962), Pino Pascali collects a series of illustrations and imagery from advertisements to create compositions that stylistically borrow not only from the historical avant-garde – such as Futurism, Cubism and Constructivism – but also from Arte Povera and Pop art. Thematically, the film draws our attention to industrial materials and the socio-political implications of this artistic choice.
The final part of this film season on day three, entitled The North Wind, ended where it began, in Turin, to delve further into forms of experimental filmmaking that were at the crossroads of Arte Povera and the avant-garde. These screenings were particularly enlivened by two of the more enthusiastic voices in the audience of the Film Auditorium at Tate Modern, filmmakers Tonino De Bernardi and Pia Epremian, who also screened two more films and led the stage discussion on Arte Povera and Pop art. Dissolvimento (Dissolution, 1970) was another performance piece made by Epremian who, together with painter Gigliola Carretti, created a provocative intervention around the theme of body politics and the innovative impact of women on the domestic space; it could be seen as a feminist manifesto about transgressing the boundaries of gendered spaces. Massimo Bacigalupo’s 60 metri per il 31 marzo (200 Feet for March 31st, 1968) foregrounded performance and spontaneity in the form of a film diary which depicts life in a day unfolding as a euphoric, optimistic Happening. The film becomes a metaphorical journey through space and time, revisiting Indian ancient arts and scriptures, modernist paintings and poetry. While Bacigalupo’s monochrome compositions of textual and visual quotations may be seen as tenuously influenced by Pop art techniques (and Arte Povera), the successive flow of five one-minute long promotional films sponsored by Olivetti (the leading Italian manufacturer of typewriters in the ‘60s) provides much clearer examples of Pop art creating portraits from the fashion, corporate and art world. Flamboyant, artificial colours – alongside sculptures made of fabrics and various metals by Arte Povera artist Marisa Merz – are also strong referents to both Arte Povera and Pop art techniques in Tonino De Bernardi’s playful Il Mostro Verde (The Green Monster, 1967). His subsequent and concluding film of the season was La Favolosa Storia: il Bestiario (The Fabulous Story: The Bestiary, 1968), one part of a film trilogy, which boldly explores transgressions of gender and sexual binaries. Through audio-visual juxtapositions, multiple screens, and a vivid colour palette, De Bernardi clearly voiced his interest in primal expressions of subjectivity, pushing the limits of the artist’s experimental practices in relation to fixed filmmaking structures.
Despite the shared socio-political connotation, I found the film season showed a stronger connection to Arte Povera than to Pop art as it consistently revealed formal motifs based on materials and performance art rooted in the avant-garde, both historical and contemporary. The films were less the result of encoded signifiers and signifieds sourced from modern advertising than compositions with human beings alienated from the natural world as a consequence of consumer culture – hence performance art was both a symptom of social dis-function and an assertion of self-expression. These are the reasons that underpin their being on the one hand visually aware of Pop art imagery, on the other primarily removed from the ambivalence of the artificial world of Pop art subsuming and re-cycling consumer culture. The strong influence of Arte Povera on Italian experimental films comes through with the aesthetic sensibilities of both conceptual and land art, which were concurrently developing internationally – Arte Povera will evolve into these strands.
The anti-imperialist criticism of the films in the program was not founded on slogans or established communication strategies. It was instead dedicated to foregrounding de-humanised, alienated individuals as exploited models of commodification, as these were often illustrations, cut-outs, mannequins or stars as materials to be exploited by mass culture. Furthermore, consumer society appeared to be out of synch with its natural environment, having to get to grips, creatively, with industrial materials, and performing at times hysterically a displaced sense of emptiness or despair. At the heart of these films lies a strong criticism of social injustice and cultural impoverishment, and its detrimental effects on the legacy of the avant-garde’s true spirit of social progress.
If Arte Povera was Pop: Artists’ and Experimental Cinema in Italy 1960s-70s
23-25 October 2015, Tate Modern, London
Program website: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/eventseries/if-arte-povera-was-pop-artists-and-experimental-cinema-italy-1960s