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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
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.