Marisa Merz, the only woman to be officially included in the influential art movement Arte Povera, is now the subject of a major exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. A movement that took a stand on issues of the corporate mentality of art and society, and which grappled with consumerism through its use of unusual and discarded materials, Arte Povera – although perhaps not instantly recognisable – informed many an artistic movement since its conception in the late 1960s. This conceptual hub of Arte Povera haunts Marisa Merz's show, and yet her ability to extend this theme into issues of femininity and craft mark her out as theoretically more robust than her male counterparts.
The works on display here vary from paper to textiles to metal sculpture and installation, all using "poor" or "low" materials for their tactility and recognisable form: Merz displays a mastery of the everyday and mundane. This is perhaps best represented through her instantly recognisable piece Untitled (Living Sculpture) (1966), part of the Tate Modern collection. This piece, consisting of thin aluminium suspended from the ceiling, acting as an organic cloud of man-made material – a bizarre shifting, metal, natural form. Aluminium itself is not instantly equitable with high art and yet this piece – a piece of contemporary and conceptual art that forces you to stop and consider it – hangs like a spectre of industrialisation, a questioning of mass-produced product against a naturalistic form.
Compounding this issue of material choice, Marisa Merz's exhibition consists of many pieces of unfired clay which are in appearance earthly and formed from dirt. Bringing to mind the Prometheus myth, Merz forms distorted faces and shapes from this clay and, when they are displayed en masse growing from the floor, she raises man from the dust. This is mythological and yet earthly, forcing the manmade and natural to once again collide; her use of unfired clay, used most commonly in craft and early earthenware pottery, also forces this concept to embody issues of femininity and creation. References to craft (traditionally the realm of the female) and to the creation of human features suggests a mother earth figure, a woman creator in a world of the metallic and the manmade. To see works embodying this humble origin displayed as high, and revered, art shows an beauty in the mundane, the everyday and the homely – a feminism that much of Arte Povera lacked.
The exhibition also displays an array of Merz's recent (mostly from around 2003) crayon drawings of ghostly, female faces. Frequently not fully-formed, these faces act as spectral viewers to Merz's show. Demonstrating an interest of the line between the abstract and the representational, these works, alongside her clay formations, prove Merz is not purely stuck on her Arte Povera roots, but has an ability to grow and continue to produce works of interest and, dare I say, importance.
There is more to say about Merz, but it is in viewing this show that you understand why. A discussion is needed about her found object works (in the central space of the Serpentine Gallery); the political philosophies that inform her works; and why Untitled (Living Sculpture) is the only piece of Merz's work that is on frequent prominent display in a public institution. The Serpentine always produces shows that make you consider the nature of art and how it is viewed, and this show is no exception.