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Reflections on life

A rippling sea of cardboard, mirror upon mirror — Michelangelo Pistoletto finds the eternal in the everyday

By Laura Cumming  /  The Observer, LONDON

Visitors look at the artwork Mirror Well by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto during the inauguration of his show Michelangelo Pistoletto: 1956 — Da Uno a Molti, 1956-1974 at Maxxi Museum in Rome on March 3.

Photo: EPA

Michelangelo Pistoletto, poet of the mirror, sage of the arte povera movement, is so famous in his native Italy and so admired abroad that it is amazing he has never before had a one-man show in London. And what a beautiful experience it turns out to be. You wind your way through his labyrinth, moving from one sequestered sanctuary to another, pondering the cumulative connections until you are returned to the place where you began, which suddenly acquires an entirely new meaning. It is the best use of the Serpentine’s circle of galleries imaginable.

And the imaginable (or unimaginable) is exactly what Pistoletto has in mind, as it seems to me. His vision is nothing less than heaven itself. What can we imagine going on up there, through there, along there, wherever it may be? (The show manages to encompass all these different orientations with remarkable clarity.)

And what do we imagine it to be, this atmospheric dimension of infinity in which all manner of things will be well: a blank, an immense lightness, a teeming convocation representing the bodily resurrection? Again, all these possibilities are very purely and simply invoked in The Mirror of Judgment.

The starting point of Pistoletto’s paradise, so to speak, is the opening gallery at the Serpentine, where a disc of mirror on the floor shows us the cupola overhead, containing the sky more or less in the manner of a James Turrell installation: that is to say, so that one is aware of the scudding clouds and ever-changing light effects as if they were both a framed painting and a moving picture projected on a screen.

But drawing one away from this optical pleasure is a mass of corrugated manila cardboard of the sort used for packing — bales of it upended and scrolling around one gallery and into the next. It stands at waist height and looks from above very like the rippling layers of chocolate in a Cadbury’s Flake. Its fragility is self-evident, its mundane associations obvious. Catch your clothes on it by accident and it gives a faint but melodic riff.

But the broad effect is of enticing fields of corn and swirling clouds seen as if in diagram — the sort that might just as well appear on a medieval map, an Indian scroll, a Persian carpet, a Renaissance altarpiece. The associations are beguilingly clear and apt.

For all through the show, visitors are led into unexpected enclaves, each of which is fitted with mirrors and some sort of religious object. A Victorian prie-dieu, carved with a commemorative inscription; a prayer carpet; a full-scale Buddha who stands sublimely contemplating himself in the mirror, as we too are able to see ourselves wherever we go.

You might imagine being in a synagogue or examining yourself kneeling and praying to Allah. Mirrors are arched to form the Tablets of the Law or placed to face in the direction of Mecca. They multiply everybody around you and simultaneously present a religious democracy. In no time at all, and very surprisingly, the galleries feel like another world.

Pistoletto’s mirrors are never quite as simple as they appear. At the Serpentine, some are slightly tinted, giving a look of the past, while others seem brighter than they should be. Mirrors never give the world back exactly as it is, in any case, reflecting everything slightly smaller than life. And this has the effect of turning visitors into smaller versions — depictions — of ourselves, wending our way through the passing pageant, and narrative, of life.

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