As a Gallery Assistant you come to know the exhibiting artworks intimately. Your perspective is constantly questioned through the visiting public’s range of responses and unexpected questions. You approach each day in a different mood with a new personal set of concerns, bringing light to overlooked facets of the work and leading to a closer familiarity with the subject. In my appreciation, I have also developed a sense of ownership over the works that have been showing at Nottingham Contemporary’s over the last few months and I will miss their presence when the exhibition closes at 5pm today.
Of the past three and a half years that I have worked at Nottingham Contemporary I connected with the art of John Newling and Piero Gilardi more than any prior exhibition. I would like to use this space to reflect upon a few selected ideas on Gilardi’s touring exhibition ‘Collaborative Effects’ curated by Andrea Bellini which surveys his career as an artist and facilitator, from his famous Nature Carpets to his political activism props. On an instantaneous level Gilardi’s artworks are magical and convey wonderment, but on a deeper level it conveys visionary ideas about the potential of art in society, and is a reminder of his tremendous legacy on art practice. I became increasingly interested in how the curator represented the life and works of a man who resisted conforming to museums expectations and who followed an nontraditional career path for an artist.
My favourite room (and the focus of my post) is Gallery 2 containing Gilardi’s hyper-realistic versions of nature made from polyurethane foam designed in the sixties to be domestic, affordable, and to be physically interacted with. These Nature Carpets were designed as comfortable spaces to sit, lie, picnic, socialise, and I am sure they were used by hallucinating hippies and passionate couples craving new surreal experiences. All under one roof you will find: a field of corn on the cobs, a watermelon patch, a stony beach and fallen autumn leaves, and if you stare long enough you may begin to believe that you are there. Perhaps they are more comparable to illustrations in a story book as they are almost too perfect and too vivid to exist anywhere other than in our imaginations.
Gilardi and friends authentically enjoying Nature Carpets
In the talks I delivered on Gilardi I emphasised institutional critique in Nature Carpets, recontextualising them to the radical sixties when more artists were actively questioning and redefining the white cube space and its ideologies. Gilardi created fine art objects that demystify museum values through privileging participation over contemplation and broad access over elitism. In Gilardi’s work you do not need an art history degree to appreciate these playful works- a broad range of people including children were excited by the Nature Carpets at Nottingham Contemporary and it made the sometimes clinical galleries feel unusually alive and joyous.
In 2013 the art context has changed, and now Nature Carpets are delicate historical artefacts to be enjoyed from a safe distance. This seems ironic when text panels suggest that the artworks meaning derives from our personal and sensory experience with them. Bellini chose the title ‘Collaborative Effects’ to stress the collaboration between artist and viewer through participatory art, which is ironic when these artworks are no longer interactive. It is also a rather unconventional title for a retrospective which usually celebrates individual authorship. I do not feel that Nature Carpets meaning is lost but rather they serve a new function reflecting visions of the modern world that are dated. Now that we are disengaged from the sixties, the institutional critique context provides an academic framework that did not need explanation when it was conceived. On another note, it is a bizarre and amusing thought to remember that Gilardi’s generation viewed polyurethane as an advanced futuristic material.
Above: then, Below: now
The actual display decisions are interesting as Gilardi’s choice of presentation differs from museum preferences. When Gilardi previously exhibited Nature Carpets they were in disarray like bargain carpet warehouse piled on top of each other. Sometimes they would be on run of the mill carpet rolls intended to be bought be the metre, which looks unglamorous yet it importantly highlights galleries are sites of commerce. One Nature Carpet at Nottingham Contemporary depicting a pebbly beach is still mounted upon the carpet roll, reminding us that in order to fund a career as an artist works must be made to satisfying the paying customers. The display at Nottingham Contemporary gives the impression of their original display with many on floor, but they are in an orderly parallel arrangement and subtly elevated on a low black plinth. Is it too offensive to the museum, its public and the artist to display his work in a way that looks careless? I feel sorry for the wall mounted works behind Perspex as it is an iconoclastic act which removes intrigue and tactility and acts as a tomb.
Photo by Peter Anderson
As a compromise to allow some physical interaction with the work, Gilardi created a Puzzle Carpet which he donated to Nottingham Contemporary, and it consists of polyurethane stones, twigs, and interlinking sections of grass which can be rearranged. It plays a very important role in understanding the works- not in an academic sense as it is often discussed in text panels- but on a personal and emotional level. The work receives a lot of attention by members of the public, but adults generally just feel the textures whilst children take joy in fashioning their dream landscape. I have spent many hours rearranging the work and I love the childlike action of enjoying the feel of textures on my skin and creating something “just for fun” with no greater intention. If Gilardi’s participatory works can be interpreted as a metaphor for the public taking action to make political change, then maybe children’s uninhibited behaviour reinforces his ideas.
Gilardi demonstration Discussion Machine
Another interactive work enjoyed by children and avoided by adults is ‘Discussion Machine’ (1969)- a white ordinary looking object, which is actually a device that illuminates when visitors loudly shout into it. Gilardi conceived of it as a domestic item that would be used as a stress relief device at the end of an unbearable day. I feel it actually works best within the gallery environment as it is engrained within regular attendees to be quiet, respectful, and contemplative, and this artwork disrupts this accepted conduct. I enjoyed seeing the look of shock upon faces when I encouraged them to noticeably shout in a quiet sacred space. The brave few who wanted to see it illuminate usually attempted to shout as quietly and socially acceptable as possible, conversely to my instruction. There is a magical moment afterwards where the shouter looks pleased and proud with the Discussion Machine, despite its unsophisticated use of technology which dazzled people in the sixties. Through breaking the social barriers, the environment loses its intimidating clinical connotations and becomes a playground to be enjoyed freely by the masses.
Gilardi is a figure forgotten by art history, despite his lasting legacy: being a key founding member of Arte Povera, developing the famous important 1969 exhibitions When Attitudes Become Form and Op Losse Schroeven, and bringing artists such as Jan Dibbets and Richard Long to public attention. Also I admire his political activism, particularly seeing the sense of community he creates through encouraging people to fight for their beliefs. On one level it is unfortunate that there are so few English texts that critically engage with Gilardi or recognise his contributions however it feels right that he remains on the outskirts of the art institution. Being around his artist vision for the last few months has felt like a great privilege to me.
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