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Mario Merz: The Art of Building an Igloo

A survey at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, views the artist’s oeuvre through the prism of the form he returned to constantly throughout his life

Mario Merz made his first igloo in 1968. Part of a group exhibition at Galleria Arco d’Alibert in Rome, it comprised a hemispherical steel structure, covered with plastic-wrapped blocks of clay, and an Italian version of a quote, in neon, attributed to North Vietnam’s General Võ Nguyên Giáp: ‘If the enemy concentrates his forces, he loses ground; if he disperses them, he loses strength.’ 

For Merz, who was born in 1925, the quotation’s appeal had more to do with Eastern philosophy than with military strategy but, in referencing the Vietnam War while raising questions about how we inhabit the planet, his igloo was quintessential Arte Povera – the late-1960s Italian art movement that was as much about attitude as its use of ‘poor’ materials.

The igloo structure apparently came naturally to Merz: he had already built his first one before discovering that he was using the same construction techniques as the Inuit, after which he embraced the word to describe an ongoing series of works. At Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, a slightly later version of the original Igloo di Giap provides the starting point for ‘Mario Merz, Igloos’, a survey of the artist’s oeuvre viewed through the prism of the form he returned to constantly throughout his life.

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Mario Merz, Senza titolo, 1985, installation view, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich, 1985. Courtesy: Fondazione Merz, Turin; photograph: Paolo Mussat Sartor © Mario Merz, by SIAE 2018

For this ravishing show, Vicente Todoli, HangarBicocca’s artistic director, working with Fondazione Merz in Turin, has filled the gallery’s vast Navate space with single, double and triple igloos made of glass, earth, stone, twigs, canvas, wax and wire mesh. Bracketed by The Drop of Water (1987) – from which water streams into a bucket that mysteriously never overflows – and Untitled (Double Igloo of Porto) (1998), topped with an imposing stag, the show invites viewers to thread their way through this ‘city of igloos’, as the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann termed his 1985 installation of Merz’s work at Kunsthaus Zürich, which inspired HangarBicocca’s current exhibition.

Szeemann’s ‘city’ contained 17 igloos, but Merz went on making them until his death in 2003. Todoli’s remarkable achievement is to have brought together more than 30 different examples from collections across Europe, many of which must have languished in storage for years. With the help in particular of Mariano Boggia, Merz’s long-term assistant, Todoli has created a poetic and thought-provoking display. 

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Mario Merz, ‘Igloos’, 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Renato Ghiazza © Mario Merz, by SIAE 2018

The differing sizes of the igloos and the variations in colour and texture give a rhythm to the show: for Merz, it was a kind of music. A self-taught artist who began drawing while imprisoned for his antifascist activities during World War II, Merz never abandoned painting. Here, in Time-based Architecture, Time-debased Architecture (1981), a large white canvas depicting a prehistoric creature intersects an igloo made of broken glass panes spray-painted red, blue, yellow and black. For Gaddafi’s Tent (1981), made of canvas, the igloo itself becomes a 3D painting. Touches of delicate, ice-blue neon also abound – most notably in Merz’s trademark Fibonacci sequences (the numerical progression underlying natural forms, such as the spiral) written in the artist’s spidery hand.   

For Merz, the convex form of the igloo resonated with both the shape of the earth and that of his own cranium, enabling him to link contemporary society with the prehistoric past and to explore ideas about how we inhabit our world. Underlying the works, even the later ones, is the heady political optimism of 1968: a belief that a better society was possible. ‘The igloo is a womb […] Things can be born from the igloo,’ Merz tells Szeemann in a video made at the time of the Zurich show, adding, with a nod to Lenin’s renowned 1901 political pamphlet: ‘Why don’t we artists ask ourselves, “What is to be done?”’ ‘Without a question mark,’ responds Szeemann – and they burst into song.

Mario Merz, 'Igloos' runs at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, until 24 February 2019.

Main image: Mario Merz, 'Igloos', 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Renato Ghiazza © Mario Merz, by SIAE 2018

Jane Ure-Smith is based in London, UK. She is a journalist specializing in the visual arts and writes for publications including The Financial Times and The Economist.

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