During his long career, Mario Merz created sculptures, paintings, photographs, and even videos and was one of the first contemporary artists to develop installation art in the 1960s.He did not believe in distinctions between nature and culture, and moved experimentally from one technique to another. His works make use of a variety of everyday materials and motifs—ranging from metal rods to glass fragments, from fresh fruit to bundles of branches, from piles of newspapers to neon tubes, from words to numbers.
While creating dense and “material ” paintings as early as the mid-1950s in Turin—paintings that often depict natural elements such as leaves or animals —Merz emerged as a leading figure in the Arte Povera movement around 1967.
One of his first Arte Povera works is a series of sculptures made with common objects interpenetrating one another.
Merz’s artworks express an interest in accumulation, organic growth, dynamism, and vitality in general. In 1967 he also began working on his first Igloo, a hemispherical domed structure that represents a temporary and nomadic architectural ideal, a house simultaneously ancient and contemporary, a symbol of the celestial vault and of conviviality. Transitory, changeable, physical and “conceptual,” the Igloos multiplied and were inflected diversely in the exhibitions that Merz had since that time.
They are made from metal, mud, sandbags, branches, wax, stones and other materials.
The three Igloos in the collection of Castello di Rivoli, dating between 1968 and 1981,are articulated differently but relate to one another. The oldest, also the smallest (78 3 /4 inches in diameter —scaled to the size of a seated person) is Igloo con albero (Igloo with Tree),1968 –69. Made of iron tubing, glass and stucco, with a tree emerging from the top, it suggests the interpenetration of architecture and the natural world. Igloo (Tenda di Gheddafi)(Igloo –Qaddafi ’s Tent),1968 –81,is larger and covered with jute
canvas painted with a lance motif. Finally the large installation Architettura fondata dal tempo–Architettura sfondata dal tempo (Time-Based Architecture –Time- Debased Architecture), 1981, joins the igloo, made of iron tubing, stones, and glass, with a circular structure created from iron and piles of branches that sinuously extends out from the igloo. It is broken through by a large painted canvas that depicts an imaginary prehistoric animal. Thus architecture (the igloo),which is established by the time of civilization, is in its turn worn down and continually and dynamically brought into question (and into play)by the time of nature. Animale terribile (Terrifying Animal), 1981, is a large painting of an animal resembling a rhinoceros made by combining painting on canvas with iron tubing, as if the iron were able to reinforce the sense of power of the animal.
In 1970 Merz began experimenting with the notion of exponential growth, in particular the Fibonacci number series, identified with the medieval mathematician of the same name from Pisa. In this series, each number
is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Merz sees the Fibonacci series (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,an so forth) everywhere in nature, as a proliferating image. Numbers, in the artist ’s words, are “a fantastical invention,” something rational that makes it possible to approach the irrationality of life. In 1971 he began a series of interventions with numbers made out of neon and arranged in the interiors or on the exteriors of buildings. Because of its flexibility,neon allowed the artist to present a rapid and immediate shorthand writing of a number. Senza titolo (Una somma reale è una somma di gente)(Untitled – A Real Sum Is a Sum of People), 1972, emerged from this interest in the relationship between numbers and real life, as Merz combined photographs of a growing number of people sitting at the same tables of a restaurant in Turin, with neon numbers of the Fibonacci series in a celebration of gathering and socializing. Manica lunga da 1 a 987 (Manica Lunga from 1 to 987), 1990 (not reproduced), belongs to this body of work. The sixteen first numbers of the Fibonacci series, in blue neon, are placed on the brick exterior of Castello di Rivoli ’s Manica Lunga wing, in proximity to the sixteen large windows that punctuate the as an art gallery by the Savoy family in the seventeenth century, the building is brought up to date in an encounter between past and present, in which the window —a boundary between interior and exterior —takes on a primary value of relationship and interpenetration.