Mario Merz: What Is to Be Done?

27 July – 30 October 2011

Exhibition in Galleries 1, 2 and 3

A leading figure of Arte Povera, Mario Merz's approach to art making was driven by asking: what can an artist do in the face of a precarious future?

This is the first exhibition curated at the Henry Moore Institute by its new Head of Sculpture Studies, Lisa Le Feuvre, and the first solo show of Mario Merz (1925-2003) in the UK for nearly thirty years.

Merz was a leading figure of Arte Povera, a term referring to a loose grouping of Italian artists who turned their attention to their surrounding environment in the immediate post-war period. Merz rethought the possibilities of sculpture by observing the world around him. 

Along with other Arte Povera artists, Merz turned away from representing modernity for its own sake, instead seeking to explore the role of art in day-to-day human experience, turning to materials that were ready at hand.

In Merz's case, these include glass, metal tubing, blankets, bottles, wood shavings and neon, the focus of the selection of works in this exhibition. His sculptures also respond to systems that form our natural surroundings, such as the mathematical Fibonacci sequence.

The exhibition presents twelve works made between 1966 and 1977; many have been rarely exhibited in the last four decades. 'Automobile pierced by neon' (1969-82) is a Simca 1000 car impaled with arrows of light from a neon tube; 'What is to be done?' (1968-73) poses the question of this exhibition's title in neon on a bed of wax; and 'Object hide yourself'(1968) is one of Merz's distinctive igloos, built from bags filled with wood shavings circled by his own neon-lit handwriting.*

Merz began using neon in 1966, seeking to find a contrast between natural phenomena and the logical that would complicate and energise his chosen materials. The neon passes through different forms - here at the Henry Moore Institute these include a car, bottle, blankets, glass and wax. Merz described his use of neon operating as 'a kind of thunderbolt that would enter objects'.

Alongside the selected works, two film portraits of the artist will be displayed, one by Gerry Schum ('Lumaca', 1970 from the Identifications series) and the other by Tacita Dean ('Mario Merz', 2002).

Schum's film shows Merz in a natural setting, drawing a snail spiral following the Fibonacci sequence directly on to the screen. Dean's 'Mario Merz' shows the aging Merz in Tuscany, sitting in silence with a large pinecone in his hand. Both films are a study of light in space and form in nature - core ideas in Merz's sculptural work.


Mario Merz lived in Turin, growing up under Mussolini's regime. He was imprisoned for a year in 1942 for his antifascist views as a member of Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty) group. He began drawing in 1945 whilst incarcerated, drawing portraits without lifting the pencil from the page. He progressed from painting into sculpture in the early 1960s.

Merz was a key figure in Arte Povera, a term that literally translates as 'poor art'. It refers to the use of non-precious materials not usually associated with art. Arte Povera encouraged a step back from the principles of popular culture and industrialisation, drawing attention to the natural world and objects within people's day-to-day life. Importantly, Arte Povera artists saw art as being a part of life as it is experienced.

Developing in a period of economic and political instability in post-war Italy, artists associated with Arte Povera looked around them for materials that were used by people in their everyday life - from wicker to iron tubing, sheets of glass, neon, wax, wood shavings and bottles. All of these materials are found in this exhibition.

Merz's last solo exhibition in the UK was in 1983 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He also featured in a group show: Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 in 2001, at Tate Modern, and had a Guggenheim retrospective in 1989.

Mario Merz: What Is to Be Done? later toured to Sweden, as the inaugural exhibition at Blidmuseet in Umeå Arts Campus.

* Work titles translated from their original Italian:
'Automobile pierced by neon' - 'Automobile trapassata dal neon'
'What is to be done?' - 'Che fare?'
'Object hide yourself' - 'Objet cache-toi'

Venue details

27 July 2011 - 30 October 2011

Venue address

Henry Moore Institute
The Headrow
United Kingdom
T: 0113 246 7467

Opening times

Galleries: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm

Research Library: Monday to Saturday, 10am - 5pm; Sunday, 1 - 5pm
Archive of Sculptors' Papers: Tuesday to Friday, by prior appointment

20 June 2012 - 30 September 2012

Venue address

Umeå Arts Campus
Östra strandgatan 30B
903 33
Visit website

Opening times

Monday: Closed
Tuesday to Sunday (except Friday): 11am - 6pm
Friday: 11am - 9pm

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