Fancy your chances as a conceptual artist? Then try this. Picture a headless triangle, like the vertical section through a Toble- rone. Now place another inverted version of this triangle on top of the first. Does the result look like a bow tie on its side? Congratulations: you are a conceptual genius.
That is, at least, if a new installation by Michelangelo Pistoletto is anything to go by. The bow tie aforementioned is Pistoletto's "art sign"; that is to say, the hieroglyph by which the 66-year-old ex-Arte Povera artist now represents himself in his continuing cycle of work known as Progetto Arte. Pistoletto is famously fond of mirrors, and in particular of that ambiguous point where an object and its reflection touch. Thus the bow tie, which you may choose to see not as a pair of headless triangles but as a rhomboidal mirror reflected in another rhomboidal mirror.
So far, so straightforward. Walk into the artist's new installation, commissioned by the Henry Moore Foundation especially for its studio in Halifax, and you will find these bow ties everywhere. The work takes the form of a series of bow-tie-shaped cages, connected to each other by bow-tie shaped doors and each containing a bow-tie-shaped object: a beautifully crafted wooden desk, a ping-pong table, metal bookshelves and so on. What we are being invited to do, it seems, is to think of ourselves as being in the Lewis-Carrollish land of the in-between, that place where things and their anti-things touch. Thus the objects in Pistoletto's cages may be seen as either works of art or of design, as either abstract or functional. (Arte Povera, imbued with the democratising spirit of the 1960s, blurred the elitist edges of art by including all other forms of human creativity in its definition. Pistoletto's roots show.)
The cages themselves are objects which enclose space but they are also a work of sculpture, to be viewed from the outside. Pistoletto has recently employed life prisoners to make another cage installation for Paris's Champs Elysees 2000 show: it is called, archly, Free Space. The way the Halifax installation relates to the space in which it stands, snaking around an enfilade of Victorian pillars and thus by turns enclosing or evading them, is similarly ambiguous.
All this is both classically driven and socially well intended in an Arte Povera kind of way. Visitors to Halifax are invited to create art signs of their own on banks of computers, thus showing that we are all artists, really. By doing so, these same visitors also enlist in Pistoletto's UNIDEE, or University of Ideas, an institution which exists in open virtuality rather than in brick- walled fact. This breaking down of barriers between the real and the virtual, the artist and his audience is matched, in pictorial terms, by Pistoletto's fascination with the ambiguities of flexion and reflection: an obsession as old as illusionistic art. (Just think of Velazquez's Las Meninas.)
The trouble with this new installation, though, is that its message is simply too thought out, too pat. This is essay art, just waiting to be subjected to a post-structuralist analysis in some obscure critical review. …