A Multitude of Soap Bubbles which Explode from Time to Time: Pino Pascali, Camden Arts Centre, London

Review by Paul Hardman

This exhibition, the first dedicated to Pino Pascali in the UK, focuses on works from 1967 and 1968, the last few completed by Pascali in the final two years before his tragic early death in a motorcycle accident at the age of 32. It is his first solo show in the UK, a fact which is surprising given his international significance as a key member of the Arte Povera movement, the radical trend in Italian art where everyday materials were used in resonant combinations and in which events in art and life appeared to converge.

Pascali originally trained and then worked as a theatrical set designer, and the chest height furry mushroom, displayed among the first room full of objects in Camden Arts Centre, could easily be part of a fairy tale stage set, perhaps Alice in Wonderland as the caterpillar’s seat. In fact, this exhibition does include giant caterpillars, not to mention a giant spider, alongside a giant bow and arrow. So on first impressions it seems that Pascali was inventing a fantasy world for his audience to wander in. But it is not so simple, as in the first room of the exhibition there is also a piece that appears to be two solid blocks of earth, protruding from high up on the wall. These do not play with scale, or attempt to turn the viewer into an impish child embarking on a fantastic adventure, but relate to notions of sculpture being pursued around the same time by artist such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Carl Andre. It is apparent that Pascali was able to travel in different directions at the same time, producing work that could seem paradoxical or self-contradictory.

In the west facing high windowed room of the gallery there is an arrangement of shallow metal troughs filled with water dividing the space in two, shaped like a meandering river with two tributaries at one end. But since the troughs touch, but do not connect, this is itself a divided river, static, existing only on a symbolic or poetic level. That Pascali was making such quiet contemplative pieces and simultaneously making overtly entertaining objects such as the giant blue spider (Vedova Blu, 1968) gives a suggestion of the contrary nature of this restless and prolific artist.

The exhibition includes the film SKMP2 by Luc Patella, and it is this film, showing the artist prepare an exhibition and doing performance pieces, that gives the best opening through which to begin to build a coherent idea of Pascali and his work. Pascali said that: “Art means finding a method for change: like the man who first invented a bowl to hold water. This is how civilisation is born… after the first time, making a bowl becomes academic.” Each of his works should be seen then, as an attempt to invent and to change, to be catalysts. This is essentially a methodology for eternal play. One sequence from SKMP2 features Pascali in a small gallery space, an archetypal white cube, re-arranging and interaction with a number of tractor tyres. These simple objects are put through an incredible array of inventive uses as the artist bounces them around the room, puts them into patterns, sits in one and acts as though floating on a river, puts two of them in line and straddles them as if riding an enormous cartoon motorcycle and so on, seemingly attempting to exhaust all possibilities.

Later in the film Pascali is shown enacting a performance on a sandy river bank. First he emerges from a sack, then with a wooden rake he ploughs the sand, then marks of an area with batons of wood. When the area is clearly defined he throws water from the river onto the sand – this sequence of acts could be the artist making his sculpture as a performance, but it also is the ritual like behaviour of a shaman or mystic. At the seed of the sequence Pascali inserts some batons of bread into the sand and tears bits off to eat – he returns to being a normal man just playing with the sand and having a picnic. This is Pascali in essence: able to seamlessly shift between the serious, the magical and the absurd.

There is a further aspect to the work on display here that reveals another component of this artist’s thinking: the subtle layers of meaning that potentially can be created when one object or material becomes another. Pascali was a key member of the Arte Povera movement, a group of artists who were known for using humble found materials, rags, earth, wood, and so on. But of the group it was Pascali who used these materials in the most figurative way, using them to build recognisable things, rather than using them for their material properties or as abstraction. It is here that a semiotic play becomes more possible. Trappola (Trap) (1968) is a rope trap large enough to easily ensnare a grown adult, but on close inspection it becomes possible to discern that it is made from steel scouring brushes, this wire wool makes the trap all the more threatening on the one hand, due to the fearsome nature of this material, but on the other, making something that looks so prehistoric, or like a trap to be used by a Greek demigod, that is constructed from something that is found under the sink in the humblest kitchen creates an uncanny link between the domestic and the fantastical.

The charming and childlike surface aspect of Pascali’s work belies the fact that there is much more here to discover and explore, it is not that last time it will be said that it is was a great loss for this artist to die so young. But it is clear form his prolific and diverse practice that this was a man brimming over with energy and life and even what he was able to produce in his short time, is enough to make ripples that can still be felt today.

Pino Pascali continues at Camden Arts Centre until 1 May. For more information please visit the Camden Arts Centre website.

Installation View, 2011
Copyright Camden Arts Centre. Photo Andy Keate