Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Social Fabric
Pan Wendt

From early 1968 to October 1970, in an atmosphere charged with the tension of social unrest, a group of Italy-based artists taking the name Lo Zoo (The Zoo) arrived on the European performance scene with a practice that in many ways prefigured the recent interest in a “relational” aesthetics. The group produced a series of collaborative performance pieces that participated in the iconoclasm and disciplinary shakeup characterized by happenings, performance, and conceptual art. But Lo Zoo also challenged their claims of immediacy and direct social engagement with a hybrid practice that aimed to produce new publics around diverse and distinctly articulated moments of creation, mediation, and response. Lo Zoo, unlike its founder Michelangelo Pistoletto, who remains an active and important figure in the Italian art world, has mostly drifted into obscurity, but a re-examination of its sparsely documented activity allows us to reframe an often misunderstood and stereotyped period in art history and offers an early example of reflection on the possibilities and limits of collaborative and socially engaged art practice in a context whose essential conditions arguably still define us.

Lo Zoo modelled its presentation on the travelling theatrical troupe, while at the same time making indirect reference to the ubiquitous street demonstrations of late 1960s Italy. In its dress and behaviour, the group looked back to the modern theatre’s humble origins, cultivating the aura of an eccentric and impoverished band of wandering busker-troubadours, figuratively penetrating a domesticated world with pictures, stories, and sounds gleaned from the great beyond. Lo Zoo’s protagonists recuperated the eternal figure of the Fool, who by desiring nothing, holding no fixed knowledge, and clinging to no place, soaks up wisdom and perspective with respect to the fictions that uphold everyday life, all the while producing new ones out of its detritus.

Proximity to the Italian art scene (with Pistoletto’s name—at least initially—the chief guarantor of venues and spectators) meant that Lo Zoo generally worked within a fine art or at least avant-garde theatre frame of reference, with its attendant debates and concerns. Initially, the group’s activities seem classifiable under such categories as the Happening, or the Action, or perhaps the new theatre championing Antonin Artaud, espoused by the likes of Jerzy Grotowski (whose “poor theatre” inspired the term Arte Povera) and the Living Theatre then active in Italy. All of these various movements or modes were defined by the urgency of a call to action, in most cases a collective, participatory one. But a closer look at Lo Zoo reveals a notion of collective action mitigated by various degrees of separation and dialogue—between audience and performers, between mediums, between subject and object, and between revelation and concealment.

The story of Lo Zoo starts to take shape with the opening of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Turin studio, in January 1966. The artist, who was about to reach a new height of international acclaim with a giant exhibition of his mirror paintings at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was drastically shifting the nature of his production. Where the mirror paintings had figures (traced from photographic reproductions and coloured with paint) affixed to reflective backgrounds made of polished steel shaped like doors and leaned against gallery walls, the new works no longer stuck to an engagement with painting or even the two-dimensional image in general. Now, with his Minus Objects, Pistoletto changed medium and style seemingly on a daily basis, adding each new work to a growing congregation in an exhibition space within his studio. The mirror paintings had challenged, on a number of levels, the notion of the artwork as the expression of an artist’s individual vision, equally placing the viewer in the divided position of producer and constituent of the work; now Pistoletto refused to sequester himself in a studio or guarantee his authorship. His objects, in turn, were ever more open-ended and demanded to be understood relationally and serially, though as a series the Minus Objects were so diverse as to be almost unreadable as a group.1 The tactic of dividing his studio into a living space, working space, and exhibition space further dramatized the gesture of reaching out, which bound Pistoletto’s practice together. Characteristically and crucially, Pistoletto brought these three spaces into close, almost direct dialogue, but refused to allow them, finally, to bleed into one another.

From this point onward, Pistoletto increasingly favoured collaboration. But many of the forms, materials, and ideas from the period of the Minus Objects found their way into the live works that followed them, as Pistoletto never abandoned the production of, and use of, sculptural elements in his performance pieces. Even the basic double structure of the mirror paintings runs through all of the late 1960s work, an opposed pairing that could be described as an outward-looking, active, and unformed element in dialogue with a relatively fixed, bounded, and objective “anchor” that centres the piece and generates a formal coherence.2

In December of 1967, Pistoletto officially announced the availability of his Turin studio for exhibitions by artists working in any medium. Various local poets who later became members of Lo Zoo soon responded with a public reading. Local filmmakers and actors, including Carlo Colnaghi, later a key Lo Zoo protagonist, also presented films and theatrical pieces in the studio in the early months of 1968. Pistoletto’s own exhibitions, which explored new venues such as nightclubs and the city streets, began to take on an event-like and participatory character.

Soon after, Lo Zoo crystallized as a cross-disciplinary collaboration between a group of artists working in various mediums who encountered one another in Turin through Pistoletto. Membership fluctuated constantly, though Pistoletto and his companion Maria Pioppi remained constants. The name Lo Zoo came from Carlo Colnaghi, a trained actor and founding member of Lo Zoo, known for his expansive gestures, booming voice, and strong theatrical presence, who was often visible in the most expressive roles in the group’s pieces. Colnaghi quipped that with respect to society he was “in the same position as a caged lion.” When interviewed about the group, Pistoletto explained that:

Now we know we are The Zoo. We no longer work for viewers; we ourselves are actors and viewers, makers and consumers....When you see, hear, and smell a piece we play out together,...what you think you understand will be just the skin, the envelope, but you will never know what happened until you become actors and viewers on this side of the bars.3

The statement suggests that Lo Zoo was conceived as a work for its makers. Far from breaking down barriers between audience and performer, Lo Zoo enacted such a breakdown strictly behind the bars of the “zoo,” the invisible wall that ineluctably divided the two. What the audience experiences can only be the shell, a representation of collaboration. Following a thread leading back to the mirror paintings, action and reflection mingle but cannot come together. The possibility of community through collective work is represented, but not proffered to the audience; if a public is formed, it is in response to or dialogue with the work, or around the work, but not through the work. Perhaps even rejection of the work would be the most productive response.

The confrontational challenge of Pistoletto’s statement is reflected in the absurdist comedy of one of Lo Zoo’s first pieces, L’uomo ammaestrato (The trained man), first shown in a small fishing village in August, 1968. The piece emerged almost spontaneously, its various elements designed within a day by Pistoletto, Pioppi, Gianni Milano, and Carlo Colnaghi. The actors began with a procession through the streets, loudly singing and playing various instruments in order to attract a crowd. This achieved, the performers installed themselves in the town square and play-acted, in a bawdy and exaggerated tone, the story of the “trained man.” Pistoletto, dressed in a robe, grimacing, chomping, and whistling accompaniment on a bird-caller, had painted a sheet with crude images relating to the tale and proceeded to point to each image while Colnaghi narrated the story of a boy “born of the fart of an ass, brought up by a snake, found in the woods by guitti (travelling minstrels) who now show him to the public, demonstrated what they have trained him to do: speak, play the trumpet, read, distinguish colours, and not bite the head of his tamer.”4 Colnaghi himself played the tamer, Milano the “trained man,” while Pioppi played one of the guitti, wrapped in scarves, carrying a kitten, and posing bizarrely. The audience was invited to laugh while Colnaghi enacted the domination of Milano, both performers exaggerating the gutter-comedy to great effect.

The work is a not-too-subtle satire of social order and “culture” as born of deprivation and the brutality of entertainment. But while the piece expresses disgust and a critique of the makeshift and false conditions of existence, it also offers a focal point for remaking such conditions. The actors could equally be read as resourceful, as capable of making something, anything, with the simplest means—even pure negativity out of the remains of an exhausted situation. It is worth noting that piles of rags, wet newspapers, a stack of bricks wrapped in cloth, and various other “recyclings” of discarded objects, some of them even older works by Pistoletto, populate the mise-en-scène. They are not so much transformed into art as they are simply made visible and reusable by art. Analogously, transforming the audience begins through the making of pictures and indirect, “cultivated” speech, not through literal action but through the production of response, the creation of a situation of viewing. Lo Zoo is against “theatre” that tries to discipline its audience in the manner of the “trained man.”

The group could be accused of picking on the people of an isolated fishing village, but soon after this performance Lo Zoo inflicted L’uomo ammaestrato on the high culture crowd gathered around Germano Celant’s October 1968 exhibition at the Amalfi Arsenale, Arte povera + Azioni povere, where the artists of Arte Povera found their first large international audience. The troupe paraded into the exhibition space the first two nights of the exhibition, exhorting the gathered critics and culturati to follow them out of the Arsenale to the piazza of the town, where they presented their spectacle.5

L’uomo ammaestrato belongs to the earliest series of Lo Zoo productions, the most literal in their assertion of spontaneity and flirtation with chaos. But while by mid-1969 Lo Zoo’s works were far more rehearsed and carefully staged, many of the elements introduced in that piece remained central to the organization of the group. The image of the travelling band in ragged costumes, the arrangement of makeshift “sculpture,” and the strategy of audience-gathering through procession all reappeared in numerous Lo Zoo pieces, from collaborations with Musica Electronica Viva, the Italo-American avant-garde music collective, to the portable theatrical performances Play and I ratti baratti, the centrepieces of a tour of Northern Europe in the spring of 1969.

By the time Lo Zoo took its show abroad, the main contours of their events were more or less well defined. Musical, verbal, gestural, and sculptural elements were all combined, organized around the presentation of a loose narrative. The various actors both cooperated and played off one another, improvising a call-and-response dialogue between the various mediums and the inclinations and ideas of each individual participant. As if paraphrasing Umberto Eco’s call for “open works,” Lo Zoo’s pieces embraced dissociation, juxtaposition, even total confusion. The narratives presented often reinforced the carnivalesque breakdown of order, as in The Crazy Prince presented in Naples in February 1969, where Lo Zoo staged the growing madness of a prince, played by Pistoletto, who “opens the doors of his palace so the citizens can take possession of it.” The piece begins where Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana ends: “when the bagmen have left, when the banquet is finished...[it] follows the various characters that have left the palace.”6

Lo Zoo staged chaos but did not see itself as producing chaos in the social world. Rather it accepted discontinuity, again following Eco, to be the condition of the times, and the role of artists was to make it newly visible as a field of possibilities.7 Making discontinuity visible—or rather perceivable, since Lo Zoo involved all of the senses in its plays—involved the need to frame the activity of the artists, even if the framing was of the most temporary and fragile sort and involved a degree of negotiation with a given social situation.

The group’s central framing device was often a very large, square white sheet, first laid out on the ground to demarcate the performance area, and later frequently subjected to a variety of operations. In a performance of I ratti baratti (The bartering rats) in a student squat in Heidelberg, in 1969, Lo Zoo found itself in a large gymnasium shared by over a thousand young people, milling around somewhat aimlessly and failing, in Pistoletto’s recollection, “to find any kind of form for their social experiment.”8 Lo Zoo became involved in intense discussions with the students before an agreement was reached whereby a space could be temporarily liberated for the performance. The sheet was laid out, an audience formed around the clearing, and Lo Zoo proceeded to present a piece that involved the slow emergence of the various costumed actors into view, one by one, tentatively, as if testing the ground for the first time. Each actor attempted to do something, perhaps make music, perhaps merely find a task, with various apparently random objects strewn upon the sheet. The work staged an arrival into a social space of sorts, commonality produced by means of lighting, props, and the portable proscenium of the cloth. The interactions that followed between the “rats” in the zoo, treading on a figurative screen, or canvas removed from its stretcher, were opaque and mysterious, linked only by the general character of animation, as if the characters were awakened only by the fact of their being framed and observed.

After a lengthy European tour in the spring of 1969, which ran from Italy through Germany and the Netherlands and included such disparate venues as the Stedelijk Museum and the Paradiso nightclub in Amsterdam, Lo Zoo retreated to Corniglia, a small fishing village only a few kilometres from where the group had debuted. For nearly six months, the group, at that moment numbering twelve artists, withdrew from performance venues and conducted daily exercises in preparation for exhibition in the fall of a piece entitled L’uomo nero.9 The exercises, which took place in the village square every afternoon for three to four hours, centred on an improvisational experiment conceived by Lo Zoo. Each day a different person in the group would be designated, or marked as “l’uomo nero,” and would assume the role of director of that session’s activities.100

The props used for the piece were stripped down to the white sheet alone, and it therefore figured centrally in the exercises, which attracted a daily crowd of onlookers from the village. Pistoletto recalls that a recurring motif was the raising of the sheet high into the air and letting it fall onto the characters, capturing their gestures in a kind of sculptural group, the sheet veiling, enclosing, connecting, and formalizing the activities, but also manifesting, through its flexibility, the shapes and movements of the participants’ bodies. Again Lo Zoo was concerned with producing a dialectical reverberation between intimacy and masking, between subjective participation and transformation of people into objects. Their work was grounded in a carnivalesque scene, founded on theatrical gestures and costumes, and on direct bodily engagement, involving the various senses in a perceptual play.

Cloth as clothing or cloth as canvas or screen; Lo Zoo followed the classic modernist path of searching for origins and grounds, emptying a space for something unforeseen to come, and yet this clearing was also a veiling, built upon the fictional masks and costuming of theatre. Each day a new version of collaboration unfolded with the white sheet; involvement was never allowed to become fixed; a new “l’uomo nero” donned the costume of the leader, and then passed the mantle onto someone else, ensuring the temporariness of any programme of cooperation and liberation.

Lo Zoo was finally pulled apart by the two opposing factors that it had tried to bring into close dialogue, the unpredictable shifts of everyday conditions, and the isolated stasis of form. In late 1969, several American members were deported following the public disruption related to a Lo Zoo performance, causing the temporary suspension of the group’s activities. And finally, when the group came together a year later for one last piece, the appropriately titled Bello e Basta (Beautiful and enough), at the Teatro L’Uomo in Milan, they were called upon to repeat their performance for a week straight, unaltered. The piece summed up many of its characteristic devices and modes, but the group realized they were moving toward the production of pure theatre, with its tight formal strictures and rehearsed action. The photographs that document “Bello e Basta” are the clearest and most beautiful pictures that remain of Lo Zoo. But to the degree that they articulate Lo Zoo’s actions so successfully on a two-dimensional surface, they are perhaps misleading as documents of its real activities.

This, of course, is the kind of problem that Lo Zoo consistently embraced. In an Italian artistic scene haunted by the memory of a collaborationist avant-garde, the group embraced action, dematerialization and participatory immediacy, and yet was concerned at the same time to maintain an aesthetic sphere bound to objects, separations, and representations. Lo Zoo placed the two opposing artistic tendencies into a tension and a dialogue that was already manifest in Pistoletto’s mirror-paintings. As if in warning, the group staged a collectivity both divided and connected, within itself, and with respect to the world. The form of its works, as a possible model for social forms, was receptive and elastic, diverse but still tightly wo- ven, conceiving of a community formed in response rather than in direct participation. In a sense, Lo Zoo represented a position of resolute compromise, representative of a need to keep things in play, to maintain perspective at a moment when distances were being collapsed at an alarming rate.111 Even as their works moved inexorably into the sphere of life, they demonstrated the need to clear spaces within it, often through recourse to perhaps the oldest mode of form-making, that of covering oneself with cloth.

  1. Many critics have attempted to make sense of the Minus Objects as a group, sometimes even as a single work unfolding over time. Ulrich Loock’s catalogue essay in Michelangelo Pistoletto: Oggetti in meno 1965-66 (Bern: Kunsthalle, 1989) is a clear and concise example.
  2. Pistoletto acknowledges the importance of Lucio Fontana’s work, which he encountered while still a commercial artist in the 1950s, as a touchstone for the development of this aspect of his own pieces, although Pistoletto’s operation reverses the positioning of the “open” and “closed” elements—material support opens up (becomes a door, reflects the changing world), while the figurative element becomes the fixed, closed part of the painting. Conversation with the artist, May 2007.
  3. Michelangelo Pistoletto, “Lo Zoo,” Teatro 1 (Milan, 1969), 16.
  4. Marco Farano, ed., Michelangelo Pistoletto: Il varco dello specchio, Azioni e collaborazioni, 1967/2004 (Turin: G.A.M., 2005), 82.
  5. This action is the only Lo Zoo piece captured on film, a 30-second fragment in an Italian documentary on Pistoletto.
  6. Farano, Michelangelo Pistoletto, 94.
  7. See Umberto Eco, “The Open Work in the Visual Arts,” in The Open Work (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 89–92.
  8. Michelangelo Pistoletto, conversation with the artist, May 2007.
  9. Literally, “the black man.” This title carries racial connotations in English that have resulted in the usual, and somewhat misleading, translation of “the minus man,” which makes direct reference to Michelangelo Pistoletto’s production.
  10. Farano, Michelangelo Pistoletto, 104. Pistoletto saw the position of the black man as sacrificial, and thus negative, a condition mitigated by its temporariness. Pistoletto has on several occasions, in interviews and essays, contrasted his own position with that of what he calls “sacrificial” artists, including, in quite different registers, Joseph Beuys and Jackson Pollock.
  11. For further reading on the peculiar brand of humanistic dialogue espoused by Italian artists of the period, see Claire Gilman, Arte Povera’s Theater: Artifice and Anti-Modernism in Italian Art of the 1960s (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2006), a key inspiration for my own thinking about Lo Zoo.


About the Author

Pan Wendt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at Yale University and Adjunct Curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown. His dissertation focusses on collaborative pieces by Lo Zoo, James Lee Byars, and Franz Erhard Walther.

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