MA thesis in Contemporary Art History at Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, July 2012
Supervisors: Prof. Claudio Zambianchi; Prof.ssa Silvia Carandini

Historical and contextual background

The topic investigated in the present research originates from the exhibition “Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many 1956-1974” holded from March to August 2011 in Rome at MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts, curated by Carlos Basualdo.
In this exhibition there was a section entitled “Actions, Performances, The Zoo”, dedicated to one aspect of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s activity that the criticism tends to underestimate, preferring instead to focus on the more reknown production of the artists, the one that we can define his “stylistical code”, in particular the Mirror Paintings, the Plexiglas and the Minus Objects.

Starting from winter 1967-68, with the opening of the Studio and the exhibition at L’Attico runned by Fabio Sargentini in Rome (1968), Pistoletto begins to interpret the space as a possible place of encounter for poets, musicians, visual artists and also for persons not strictly related to the artistic practices: some of them will join together in The Zoo, a group that worked between 1968 and 1970.
The first aim of this research is to study in-depth this aspect of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s artistic experience.
Secondly, Claire Gilman in her essay Pistoletto’s Staged Subjects, analyses the use of the object in the Zoo experience, and quotes Gillo Dorfles who observed that “the absurd, the incomprehensible, the playful, and the occult” which characterized the Japanese Gutai movement, as well as Jack Kerouac and the Living Theatre that had found its Italian expression in Pistoletto’s “poor” [theatrical] creations”.

Studying in depth the question of the possible relations between Pistoletto and the theatre, we could note that Maria Teresa Roberto in the essay Davanti allo specchio, al di qua delle sbarre. Lo Zoo dagli antefatti a L’uomo nero, 1966/1970 makes a connection between the Zoo and the contemporary situation of the Italian theatre revolution.
Nevertheless, both books don’t deepen these comparisons and don’t explain if is more correct to talk about theatre or performance, consequently they leave an open question.

On the other hand, concerning the specific literature about avant-garde theatre, this topic is not analyzed: the only exception is represented by the book of Franco Quadri, L’avanguardia teatrale in Italia (materiali 1960-1976), in which The Zoo is briefly described in a section dedicated to the experiences of the Italian research theatre.
Starting therefore from these considerations, the present research has as second purpose a new reading of the experience undertaken by Pistoletto between 1968 and 1970.
So The Zoo is reinterpreted in the light of the researches of the avant-garde theatres, including Italian theatre of the 60s, Jerzy Grotowski, The Living Theatre, The Bread and Puppet and The Odin Teatret directed by Eugenio Barba.

Regarding the methodological approach, this work is subdivided into three chapters: in the first there is a description of the historical and artistic context and the prior events that generated the Arte Povera, movement where Michelangelo Pistoletto was included.
Particular attention is intended to explain Arte Povera’s contribution into the Italian artistic situation, taking into account the exhibitions and the fundamental events in three cities: Rome, Amalfi – frame of Arte Povera + Azioni Povere in 1968 – and Turin, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s native city.
The second chapter examines the first period of the artist activity, in particular from the first Mirror Paintings to The Zoo.
The reason why it refers to only the period between 1962 and 1970 stems from the fact that – just in this period – Michelangelo Pistoletto’s research goes along with the practices that aim to intertwine Art and Life: amongst them we can find also the avant-garde theatrical experimentations.
Lastly, the third chapter begins to specify the analogies and differences between The Zoo and the experiences of the avant-garde theatre, attempting to explain why should be more appropriate to talk about theatre and actions instead of happening or performance.

The present research had as purpose on the one hand the analysis of The Zoo created by Michelangelo Pistoletto, on the other proposed a new interpretation of this story.
After an historical and artistic contextualization of the environment in which Michelangelo Pistoletto worked, the research started to analyse the production of the artist, focusing particularly on the period from 1962 when the first Mirror Paintings were created, until 1970, when The Zoo experience officially finished.
In this part of the work there is a description of the actions leaded by The Zoo not only in Italy, but also abroad in the sphere of a very fertile political and cultural situation.
In the third chapter, it has been used a comparative methodology in order to attempt to answer the issues opened by the recent sources that tend to bring The Zoo nearer to the experimentation of the research theatre rather than the happenings or performances.

Through this study it has been noticed that both in The Zoo and in the contemporary experiences of avant-garde theatre certainly remains the vagueness typical of the happenings and performances, originated from John Cage and Allan Kaprow’s works.
Although the differences derived from social, political and cultural backgrounds, the mutual aim of these experiences have links with the debate that was under way in the Arts between the Fifties and the Sixties: indeed, the common denominator is the will to take back Art to Life.

Nevertheless, we could say that if the performances and happenings maintain always the impromptu and place the trust in the casual aspect, on the other side The Zoo and the avant-garde theatre staged shows with plots.
First of all is important to underline that the theatrical experiences analysed here refer to the earliest example of the research theatre, Jerzy Grotowski, who with his Poor Theatre focused the attention on the relationships between the actor and the audience, eliminating from the spectacle all the elements that can distract the spectators.

Besides the use of the plot and the stage objects derived from the recycle and the everyday life, other elements of The Zoo borne out not only in the street theatre experiences such as The Bread and Puppet Theatre or The Odin Teatret in Carpignano Salentino in 1974, but also in the experimentations of The Living Theatre and the Italian theatre of the 60s.

As we have seen, these experiences share the will to intertwine Art and Everyday Life: to do this, they come out from the deputy spaces of the art in order to involve as many people as possible to spur them to reflect on the contemporary society.
This purpose is reached through the use of traditional themes, known to the popular imagination, that are therefore immediately perceived by the audience.
This fact is the symptom of the desire to overthrow the barriers between the disciplines, and also of the will of these artists to start a “democratization” process of the art, as they stage productions that can be read in several levels.
Nevertheless, although the analogies and differences recognized with the various theatre groups, we could say that The Zoo remains a unique experience.
In fact, during the three years of activity, The Zoo never became an institutional theatre company, nor collaborated with official or “off” theatres. Furthermore, they never founded schools and laboratories and had always been a flexible organism, where anyone could come and go at will.

Due to these considerations, The Zoo could be interpreted as a link between the artistic and theatrical practices: certainly possesses some characteristics that nearer it to the happening; nevertheless, through a more detailed analysis, analogies and differences with the contemporary theatrical experimentations emerge.
The limit of this research could be recognized in the fact that the avant-garde theatre experiences between the Sixties and the Seventies are countless, just thinking about the “cantine” phenomenon in Rome and the experiments of the underground Italian theatres in general, whilst here it has been decided to consider only the most famous.

Nevertheless, this limit could become a main strength because the present research is a starting point for new reflections on the topic.
I hope that in the future this question will be further developed as it is an interesting subject in order to offer an overview as complete as possible about the relationships between theatrical disciplines and Visual Arts since the Sixties.




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