"I sell an idea, an idea in a can," is a statement made by Manzoni in connection with Merda d´artista (Artist's Shit). And this point is precisely the essential feature of Manzoni's works. The idea or concept is the main element. Whether the works still have "content" is less important. In this way, Manzoni represented an early break with the modernist concept of art; a concept in which art communicated a message and an aesthetics.
Manzoni wished to redefine this concept. He did not wish to see things in a different way; he wanted to see something else. His approach involved a realisation of how an artist could only use the materials, thoughts, and forms called for by his own time. By juxtaposing the physical and the metaphorical, the individual and the universal he sought to redefine the established concept of art.
The creative process itself took centre stage, and he discounted all forms of figurative and narrative art. In so doing, he elaborated on ideas that had previously been explored by other artists, such as the US expressive painter Jackson Pollock and the French painter Yves Klein.
Linea Lunga 7200 metri, 1960. Foto: Gunnar Merrild
The principles applied in Manzoni's art also form a clear line back to Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who caused great controversy and debate in 1917 when he exhibited a urinal, naming it "Fountain". This act challenged the established values of the art scene, touching upon the boundaries between art and non-art. After this point, everything could, in principle, be regarded as art. Many of the artists who wished to break with tradition in the late 1950s and early 1960s found inspiration in the Dada movement and in the "readymades" of this kind, propounded by Marchel Duchamp.
MOVING AWAY FROM PAINTING
During this period, a group of artists characterised by a keen interest in society wished to blur and obliterate the boundaries between art and the world which surrounded it. They wished to purge art of everything that had been passed down from the art schools of former eras. Piero Manzoni's Achromes were part of a process of cleansing. Here, he worked his way away from the figurative and the narrative, preferring instead to give the materials their own language by folding them, cutting them, or dipping them in liquids, causing them to change their nature. Or he chose materials such as cotton wool, straw, flannelette, and fur, all possessed of a materiality and tactility in themselves. Piero Manzoni's experiments with materials proved a particular source of inspiration for the artists behind the movement known as Arte Povera.
SOCLE DU MONDE
Piero Manzoni's experiments with his Achromes touch upon our conventional concepts of art, and in his artistic endeavours he continued to challenge those concepts. His efforts culminate in 1961, where Manzoni creates the aforementioned work Socle du Monde, Hommage á Galilei in Herning.
We are used to sculptures being presented on a base or pedestal, and to having the base help define the object it carries as a work of art. Here, however, Manzoni turned his Socle du Monde upside down, causing it to hold up the entire globe as a work of art. In this way Manzoni points to the entire world in an all-encompassing gesture, signing it as a giant "Manzoni".
Socle du Monde can be regarded as a distillation of Manzoni's view of art: Artists should not limit themselves to working only with a few, specifically artistic materials. The whole world is available as material, constituting an unexplored creative terrain awaiting discovery. The same train of thought applies to the works Base Magica (Magic Base), 1961 and Magisk Sokkel nr. 2 (Magic Base no. 2), 1961. The works are wooden plinths which you can step up on, thereby turning yourself into a work of art. With his trademark irony, Manzoni challenges the nature of art, the role of the artist, and the relationship between art and the world around it.
Socle du Monde, 1961. Foto: Ole Bagger
MAN AS MATERIAL
We have seen, then, that Piero Manzoni created works that rebelled against traditional art in various ways. His Achromes constitute one example, and other important works can also be enumerated. Uova sculptura (Sculpture Eggs) are works consisting of hard-boiled eggs on which Manzoni left his fingerprint as a signature. At a happening held in 1960 the audience could even eat these works.
In 1959-60 he also created works which contained his own breath. He would exhale his breath into a container, selling the container as Fiato d´artista (Artist's Breath) at prices which depended on how much air the artist had provided. He also thought about tapping his own blood onto bottles and offering them for sale. However, this idea was never realised. In this way, Manzoni incorporated his own body into his works, thereby becoming one of the pioneers of "Body Art". His incorporation of himself took on a quite literal aspect in 1961 with the creation of Merda d´artista (Artist's Shit): Manzoni's own stools sealed in small cans, each containing 50 grams. A total of 90 cans were created.
Merda d'arsista, 1961. Foto: Gunnar Merrild
The cans were sold at a price which corresponded to the current price of 50 grams of gold. All cans feature a label bearing a background pattern composed of Piero Manzoni's name repeated over and over in lines that fill out the entire label. Manzoni had previously worked with this dimension of something infinite in his work with lines, where lines on paper of varying lengths were placed in containers and sold by the metre. This work reached its acme in Linea Lunga (Line 7200m) created in Herning.
He also entertained plans to draw a white line along the entire Greenwich median, but never realised his plans. He died at the young age of 29 from a liver complaint. Yet despite the brevity of his life span, he left a definite imprint on art history and successfully affected and shifted our perception of art and of the boundaries between art and life, as was his intention.
Many of Piero Manzoni's works were regarded as provocative, and many still consider them provocative today. At the same time, however, they express Manzoni's convictions about what makes something art. A work of art is not a work of art because of the noble nature of its materials nor because of the artist's treatment of it, but because the artist authenticates it as art.