God bless conceptual art. Only a conceptual artist would have the cheeky nerve to reduce the four major religions of the world — religions over which wars have been fought and countless lives lost — to a handful of inanimate objects. Buddhism? A Buddha statue. Judaism? Some tablet-shaped mirrors. Christianity? A kneeling bench. Islam? A prayer mat.
Which would seem silly and painfully literal if not for the rest of the art installation, a vast sea of mirrors and undulating cardboard that looks as though someone unraveled an entire stockroom of Gehry's Wiggle chairs. The cool part: You get to walk through it.
The artist, Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto, calls it The Mirror of Judgment, and it's designed as a labyrinth that guides visitors through the big-four religions, from one inanimate object to the next.
It is "a winding and unforeseeable road that leads us to the place of revelation, of knowledge," the artist says. We don't know about that. But we bet in person it's a lot like wandering around a Richard Serra sculpture: fun, disorienting, and totally divine.
It also points to an important footnote in art history. Pistoletto is best known as a leading light of Arte Povera (literally "Poor Art"), a small, short-lived art movement of the 1960s and '70s. Pistoletto used "impoverished" materials, like rags and bricks, to react against post-war consumerism and corporate culture. (The preponderance of cardboard in the latest installation shows he's still got a poor man's palette.)
We see echoes of his style in the environmentally enlightened art of today, whether it's sculptures made of recycled wood scrap or a machine that turns art-school waste into pencils. You could say he was one of the first guys, if not the first guy, to elevate sustainability to an art form.
The Mirror of Judgment is on view at the Peter Zumthor-designed Serpentine Gallery in London until September 17.
[Images by Sebastiano Pellion; hat tip to Frame magazine]