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Works from the 1960s through to the year of Merz’s death in 2003 for a mini-retrospective of the eminent Arte Povera artist.
Loads of artworks incorporate neon nowadays – it’s become cool in a sort of angular, techno, ’80s kind of way. For the late Mario Merz, though, who used neon from the mid-1960s, it had a far more poetic, even esoteric significance: as a substance both man-made and elemental, an emblem of energy and change that bridged the realms of nature and culture.
You can see neon being used throughout this selection of four decades of the Italian artist’s work, always in this richly metaphorical, yet sometimes also brutally physical, way. In an untitled piece from the ’60s, for instance, a neon tube tunnels through the sides of a tiny glass tumbler, from which a strand of ivy appears to sprout. And in the giant, central sculpture, ‘Movements of the Earth and the Moon on an Axis’, two huge domed structures, built from leaning sheets of glass and marble, are pinned by radiating neon tubes like bolts of lightning.
Such domes are another recurring trope for Merz. For him, their archetypal, igloo-like shapes signified the essential nomadism of humankind. Nearby, attached to canvas, there’s an example of the third major motif that characterises his art: the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence, again formed out of neon tubes. Identified in 1202, the series (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…) progresses by adding the previous two numbers together, serving as a model for all sorts of spiral shapes in nature and mathematics. And the rest of the exhibition continues with this organic theme: there are expressive, gestural paintings of expanding conical forms and shamanistic animals, and a metal sculpture of a double helix. But, unfortunately, without the neon tubes, without that weird combination of industrialised object and insubstantial energy, you never get quite the same charge.