‘Igloo Nero’ by Italian artist Mario Merz (1925-2003) is a work full of contrasts. He made the inner igloo of black asphalt in the period between 1967 and 1979. On it are the ‘handwritten’ words in neon letters ‘luoghi senza strada’ (places without streets).
The igloo’s dark shape contrasts with the light cast by the letters. The words in neon contain a reference to the modern urban culture, while the text is an allusion to virgin territory. The igloo itself is a primitive dwelling, usually intended as temporary accommodation. In that sense, this work is closely linked to an important current theme: migration. When the work was exhibited in 1994, Merz expanded it with a second ‘shell’. The tubular framework to which pieces of slate have been attached has an open character through which the first, closed igloo remains visible. On the one hand, the second igloo enlarges and reinforces the shape of the first one, but at the same time, it partially obscures it and makes it look smaller. The natural slate material is a contrast with the industrial asphalt and neon.
The igloo is a recurrent motif in Merz’s work after 1967. ‘The essence is that it’s not just a sculpture, but a real, liveable structure,’ he explains. It is a primitive building form, an archetypal home, with a direct link to the human dimension. The hemisphere houses a single space without walls or ceiling. It only serves to separate the outside from the inside. It is also the most logical form to be placed in a landscape, one that does not create barriers. The inhabitants of a home like this are still close to nature. Merz prefers to work with basic shapes like an igloo or a table. The social significance of those objects is more important than their geometrical shape. The notion of expansion and replication plays a role in many of Merz’s works. It can be found in the igloo, swelling from top to bottom in accordance with a certain pattern, as well as in spirals and cones and in the Fibonacci sequence. This series of numbers, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, shows up in various works by Merz.
Mario Merz’s work is considered part of the Arte Povera, an Italian art movement that originated in the late 1960s. The term refers to the unglamorous natural or everyday materials the artists used as a reaction against official art which, in their view, was too far removed from reality and daily life. The group had no real signature style, but consisted of like-minded artists who wanted to do away with the boundaries between art and daily life. Their works not only consisted of objects presented as installation or environment, but could just as well consist of processes, particularly processes of growth and change and energy transfer. The relationship between nature and culture, tradition and development are other recurrent themes in Arte Povera. There are occasional links with Land Art and Performance Art, two phenomena that emerged in the same period. All these new art manifestations were attempts to stretch or disprove accepted ideas about art. They tried to appeal to human intuition and were much less pragmatic and self-referring than the minimal art and fundamental art exhibited in the museums of modern art at the time. As a movement, Arte Povera only existed for a few years, but individual artists continued in the direction they had set out on.
Nicola de Maria (1954) is one of a younger generation of Italian artists. His painting ‘Participa alla creazione’ is related to Marion Merz’s work in some ways, as it is about sophistication and organisation, on the one hand, and about a primitive situation, on the other. With the title (Participate in creation), De Maria refers to the moment at which the earth was created, at which order was first established in the chaos that ruled until then. Light was divided from darkness, land from water. The painting is simple and complex at the same time. Its horizontal division immediately evokes the association with a landscape. Yet the ethereal blue at the bottom of the painting is confusing: it looks like sky, but is in the wrong place. There is a ‘hole’ in the black part through which a pale bluish-green is visible. This could be seen as light breaking through a dark sky, but the association with water is more logical given the colour. The light shades have been painted in a horizontal movement; the black shows brushstrokes in all kind of directions, reinforcing the impression of order versus chaos. Nicola de Maria’s work is generally exuberant and colourful, poetic and energetic, and radiates a positive attitude to life. This artist does not work according to a predetermined plan, but rather performs instinctively. His paintings are often not limited to canvas, but may cover walls or even entire rooms, of which paintings can then be a part. ‘Participa alla creazione’ is an austere work within De Maria’s oeuvre. However, the title is representative for his vitality and his desire to continually create new, heavenly worlds.