Piero Gilardi

MAXXI, Rome, Italy

Down the stairs leading to this survey of Piero Gilardi’s extraordinary career, ‘Nature Forever’, tumbles a long carpet of artificial grass – a cheeky nod to the artist’s most recognizable, if abidingly enigmatic, body of work from the mid-1960s: mats of luscious flora wrought entirely from polyurethane and dubbed ‘Nature Carpets’. In 1963, Gilardi erupted onto Italy’s postwar art scene with his ‘Machines for the Future’ – neo-Dadaist contraptions inviting participation (they flash and whir upon being breathed or yelled into). Nature and the future seem increasingly incompatible on this planet. Why, then, did Gilardi so consistently and insistently yoke them together? For an artist so dedicated to a radical politics of protest – against environmental degradation, and the late capitalist depredations in which they originate – what could ‘neo-technological’ and ‘cybernetic’ strategies offer? Comprised of more than 60 works – many of them large-scale, interactive installations in a wide range of media – the exhibition goes some way in answering these questions.


Piero Gilardi, IGLOO, 1967. 2 x 2 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: Collezione Fondazione Gilardi, Rome; photograph: Francois Fernandez

Piero Gilardi, IGLOO, 1967, installation view at MAXXI, Rome, 2017. 2 x 2 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: MAXXI, Rome and Collezione Fondazione Gilardi; photograph: Francois Fernandez

Born and based in Turin, Gilardi contributed significantly to the early development of Arte Povera. On both Gian Enzo Sperone and Iliana Sonnabend’s rosters, he exhibited throughout the 1960s alongside artists both local and international, from Dan Flavin to Andy Warhol. Beginning in 1967, however, he renounced what he called the ‘art system’ for activism. This shift occurred in the context of increasingly dematerialized tendencies in aesthetics – a refusal on behalf of many artists to produce saleable commodities. The site of FIAT’s major factories, Turin and its labour politics formed the crucible of Gilardi’s work as it did for many fellow artists. Yet, while Pino Pascali’s artificial cannons and Mario Merz’s neon ‘Che Fare’ (What is to be done?) works from 1967 onwards, which obliquely quote a 1902 speech by Vladimir Lenin, addressed historical matters, they also consisted of commercial objects. Gilardi sought to circumvent the market entirely, to make direct interventions ‘within life’.

This did not mean an irrevocable break with the art world:  became a vital interlocutor between the Italian neo-avant-garde and currents abroad. As the 1960s utopia gave way to the hard-bitten ‘70s, the artist shaped foam rubber into political masks used in street demonstrations (as in his caricatural effigy of Gianni Agnelli, FIAT’s owner). From anti-psychiatric activism to anti-nuclear campaigns and the infamous G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, Gilardi invoked festival and play as means of political subversion. The even more recent ‘Museum of the [Economic] Crisis’ (2012–17) is made of memorials to anonymous workers’ deaths and giant, latex rocks – held aloft during street demonstrations as metaphors for the burden of the crisis. 


Piero Gilardi, INVEROSIMILE, 1989, image of interactive projection. Courtesy: MAXXI, Rome

Piero Gilardi, INVEROSIMILE, 1989, image of interactive projection. Courtesy: MAXXI, Rome

What, though, provided the original impetus for Gilardi’s ersatz mimesis of nature? Did he imagine an idyllic conciliation between technology and nature? Did this not contradict the very premise of Arte Povera, which eschewed industrial modernity for atavistic textures and experiences? Writing about Gilardi’s work in Flash Art in 1967, the British critic Henry Martin astutely suggests that ‘the cure is uncannily similar to the illness’ – meaning that the artist’s appropriation of technology formed the first step in countering its deleterious effects. A 1990 multimedia work Inverosimile (Unlikely) involves funhouse lights, music and dancing stalks of corn – almost Disney-like in its critique of agricultural policies.

As evidenced in this year’s Venice Biennale, Arte Povera and ecological questions remain lightning rods for contemporary aesthetics. Whether in his turn to what he called ‘new media art’ in the 1980s, his longstanding interest in biopolitics or the fundamentally relational nature of his work since the early ’60s, Gilardi’s oeuvre persists with a contemporary relevance not often encountered in a career spanning six decades.

Main image: Piero Gilardi, 'Nature Forever', 2017, installation view. Courtesy: MAXXI, Rome; photograph: Francois Fernandez

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018