Michelangelo Pistoletto reflects on memories, the mind and his mirrored artworks

Italian artist's exhibition at Burj Al Arab examines human history and religious connections passed down for millennia

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All art is political and universal, Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto believes.

“The moment you bring your art into the interaction, into the social, it cannot not be political,” he tells The National.

Pistoletto’s exhibition Judgement Time, running at Galleria Continua, Burj Al Arab, until February certainly lives up to this.

Through his mirror paintings, a signature element of his practice, Pistoletto combines the conceptual and figurative to create fourth dimensions of thought that probe into history, the present and the representation of the universe.

The Dubai exhibition is separated into two spaces. The first shows one work entitled Il Tempo del Giudizio (The Time of Judgment). It consists of four large mirrors on each wall facing the centre of the space.

In front of three of the mirrors sits an object representing a religion. A Buddha sculpture to represent Buddhism, a kneeling stool or prayer bench to represent Christianity and a decorative rug to represent Islam.

The fourth mirror has no object but is meant to represent Judaism. This is represented by the distinct arched shape of the mirror recalling the shape of the Torah.

The symbols are designed to create a dialogue with the viewer as they see their reflection in the mirrors. No matter where and how one positions themselves in the space, elements of the other objects and mirrors are reflected back to the viewer.

“You are part of something, but cannot exclude any other part of other things,” Pistoletto says.

“For me, this is a good balance for a much better world – to understand each other but at the same time take our autonomous responsibility in front of ourselves. Because the moment you are in front of yourself, you are in front of everybody else.”

Pistoletto explains these mirrored self-portraits are a way to reveal that each religion is not just one person but a symbol of many people. They may all be separate but are also connected; it's an idea that is both spiritual and political that can only meet through art.

“Art is the basic dynamic of the human mind that combines these things," he adds. "Art is the origin of all the possible meetings.”

Pistoletto also sees the artist as one of the few people who can combine these ideas in one space for people to experience the same thing.

“If I was not an artist, I would never ask myself where religion and politics come from and where they go,” he says.

“But as an artist, I am so free, totally free, that I cannot just fly in freedom – I have to be responsible for my freedom.”

Born on June 23, 1933, in Biella, Italy, Pistoletto was one of the main figures of the Italian arte povera, meaning "poor art", movement which began in the late 1960s.

Arte povera rejected the ideas of traditional techniques and materials and created a new sculptural language by using everyday materials. Not only did artists like Pistoletto disrupt the values of the gallery system and concepts of art, but they also played an important role in influencing future movements associated with performance and installation.

Pistoletto has used the concepts of arte povera to make conscious statements about representations of reality. This is seen in his mirror paintings in the second part of the exhibition.

In 2013, Pistoletto’s exhibition Year 1, Paradise on Earth at the Louvre Museum in Paris showcased many of his mirror works. For the exhibition, Pistoletto photographed visitors observing ancient sculptures.

These images were imposed on large mirrors and are currently on show at Louvre Abu Dhabi until December 17. In these works, viewers see their reflection through the images of museum visitors examining the ancient works of art.

Pistoletto then photographed museum visitors in Louvre Abu Dhabi, again, examining ancient work. In turn, he placed these images on large mirrors and showcased them in Galleria Continua.

“The figure that I fix on the mirror painting is a memory of a moment, it's not the entire memory but it is the basic concept of the memory,” he says.

“Because what you're seeing in the mirror is the reality, it is the universe in its existence, but what you see in the mirror was not there one minute before.”

His artworks show men and women looking up at African sculptures; a child standing next to an ancient South Asian sculpture; and a man pointing up next to a stone sculpture of a cross-legged Buddha. In all of the mirrored works, we, the viewer, also come face-to-face with our reflection.

Pistoletto says that through these works we are studying images of ourselves as we observe ancient representations made by people before us, reinforcing the idea that we are in a constant search for versions of our existence.

“The connection with history is very important because in the Louvre we have the memory of human history,” Pistoletto says.

“Without sculptures or paintings made in the past, we would not know who we are, where we come from. They are a documentation of our memory.”

Michelangelo Pistoletto's solo exhibition Judgment Time is on display at Galleria Continua, Burj Al Arab, until February. More information is available at galleriacontinua.com

Updated: December 15, 2023, 6:05 AM