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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 17 April 1998 - The Italian author and academic Umberto Eco may have forgotten the fact, but he is a walking work of art. For life. That, at least, is the honour bestowed on him more than a third of a century ago by his fellow countryman Piero Manzoni.

In "living sculptures", Manzoni designated between 1960 and 1961 a number of individuals as art, Eco included. Colours differentiated and authenticated them, with some only judged worthy of the label at certain times. According to their talents, the duration of their award was more or less long-lasting.

Merda
Piero Manzoni: Merda d'artista (artist's shit), 1961
Photo courtesy of Serpentine Gallery

Viewed with hindsight, Manzoni might well be seen as at the more ephemeral end of the timeline of his own classification. His life was tragically short, ending in 1963 when he was aged just 29. His output in the circumstances was impressive, and his influence in conceptual and performance art undeniable.

No work is perhaps more symbolic of the era than Artist's Shit , constructed in 1961. A series of 30-gramme tins labelled with the same name, "naturally preserved", sit in piles or randomly on a surface. Ninety versions were made, each designed to be sold for its weight in gold.

Elsehwere, eggs marked with Manzoni's thumbprint in black sit in neat wooden boxes. They were handed out to be eaten by crowds observing their creator at work or play. The artist described the idea of himself being eaten within an hour by his observers, as they participated in a comment on art as consumption.

Such creations are entertaining - albeit rather gimmicky, and often demanding a rather careful reading of the explanations attached to the walls and display cases in order to understand the objects they illustrate. They have clearly inspired subsequent generations of artists.

Piero

Yet viewed with a little more distance, as the cracks literally begin to appear on some of his works, Manzoni's own style is also perhaps starting to look rather dated.

As a historical perspective on an innovator in modern art, the choice of London's Serpentine gallery makes some sense for the show. It has long established a reputation for bold, progressive and off-the-wall art. In the spirit of the 1970s democratic, communitarian tradition - when it was converted from a 1930s tea-room into a museum - it has maintained a policy of free admission.

But the selection of Manzoni for the Serpentine's inaugural show after a 4m facelift is perhaps a little more open to question. For the work of the Italian artist is arguably neither long-enough established to fully assess his place among the greats, nor sufficiently recent to still appear radical.

His influential "achromes" - a series of sculptures of white cotton wool, fibre glass, fake bread rolls and so on - blend almost inconspicuously into the Serpentine's newly-painted interior white walls.

In other respects, the Serpentine has emerged well in its new guise. Located in the middle of Kensington Gardens, it is a delightful space which has been unobtrusively enlarged to provide a larger and more practical viewing space without any damage to the external architecture.

It is perhaps just a shame that a little more could not have been done to make the inside more "designed" and original. And that its original function as a tea-house has been entirely neglected. After all, what is an art museum without a source of refreshment?

Overall, the Serpentine itself has been well renovated. As for Manzoni, he is, alas, something of an echo of his former self.

Andrew Jack is a British journalist and a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.



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