That Ways of Seeing is still well worth reading ought to be evident to all recent visitors to London's Serpentine Gallery. Its current exhibition - which ends today - is devoted to the Italian artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto (born 1933). He has filled the gallery with coils of twisting cardboard to create a labyrinth. Dotted around are various symbolic artefacts intended to represent the world's four major religions. This site-specific installation is called The Mirror of Judgement. Visitors, as the title suggests, encounter themselves reflected in large mirrors placed at various junctures. These link back to Pistoletto's Mirror Paintings of the 1960s, a fact mentioned in the introductory interpretation panel:
The Mirror Paintings... reflect their surroundings and the viewer as a part of the image, linking
art and life in an ever-changing spectacle... After moving through the maze, visitors encounter
a number of mirrors and are invited, quite literally, to reflect on themselves and society.
For the artist, art should inspire and produce social change, both on an individual and collective
level. Pistoletto describes this engagement as "a winding and unforeseeable road that leads
us to the place of revelation, of knowledge."
This sense of transformation and enlightenment is brought to an ecstatic crescendo in the accompanying catalogue, which ends with a statement by Pistoletto:
The future for me is not about the possession of the world, but about making love with the world
- it's our partner. But if we make love with the world, we have to love humanity. If you love humanity,
you love yourself (cited in O'Brien 2011: 23).
There are many words to describe this sort of artspeak rhetoric, some more polite than others. It is a variation on the theme of Berger's mystification. It is also deeply disingenuous.
This is demonstrated by one of the artefacts included in Pistoletto's installation. Christianity is represented by a prie-dieu or "kneeler"(1). On it is a metal plaque that reads:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF
FOR 50 YEARS A WORKER IN THIS CHURCH, BORN 1842. DIED 1915.
"MY GOD SHALL SUPPLY ALL YOUR NEED."
The inclusion of this item is part of Pistoletto's call for art "to produce new symbols, or to change old symbols into new ones" (cited in O'Brien 2011: 22).
The prie-dieu made me reflect on myself and society - just as Pistoletto intended. In the hope of reaching "the place of revelation, of knowledge" I asked a gallery invigilator about George Smith and the church at which he had worked for half a century. She had no idea. Nor did the chap at the information desk. He went upstairs to consult the curator and when he came back he informed me that the prie-dieu had been bought at an antiques auction. Nothing else was known about it. He added helpfully that one thing, however, was certain: George Smith was of no significance to Michelangelo Pistoletto.
It was at that moment that the scales of mystification fell from my eyes.
"Democracy", says Pistoletto, "is horizontal, it isn't a pyramid" (cited in O'Brien 2011: 21). If this is the case, why doesn't anyone care about George Smith (1842-1915)? Pistoletto and the Serpentine Gallery claim that "art should inspire and produce social change". Unfortunately for them, The Mirror of Judgement has exposed both its creator and its host. They preside over a smoke and mirrors act shot through with mystification.
One newspaper critic was duped into taking Pistoletto's "richly symbolic spiritual journey". But something troubled him: "why must [Pistoletto] be so maddeningly obscure?" (Hudson 2011) The answer is because, without the obscurity and the mystification, there would be nothing left except for strips of cardboard and bits of old junk ripped from a forgotten church.
Pistoletto talks about "making love with the world". Perhaps he's right. I certainly felt screwed by my Serpentine experience.
(1) "prie-dieu, n. A piece of furniture for the use of a person at prayer, consisting of a kneeler with a narrow upright front surmounted by a ledge for books or for resting the elbows" (OED 1908/2011).
Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing, BBC & Penguin (2008 edition)
Hudson, Mark (2001) "Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgement, Serpentine Gallery, review", The Telegraph, 11/07, accessed 17/09/2011 at, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8630864/Michelangelo-Pistoletto-The-Mirror-of-Judgement-Serpentine-Gallery-review.html
O'Brien, Sophie et al (ed.) (2011) Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgement, Serpentine Gallery, Koenig Books
OED (1908/2007) "prie-dieu, n.", Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., accessed 17/09/2011 at http://oed.com/view/Entry/151198
John Berger's Ways of Seeing is now available (in black and white) via UbuWeb.