Granite, lettuce and universal disorder

From the infamous Black Square to a shark preserved in formaldehyde, modern and contemporary art often confuses, amuses, or annoys. Here is an example on why it (sometimes) deserves a second look.

Untitled (Sculpture That Eats), Giovanni Anselmo, 1968, Centre Pompidou, Paris
Source: Centre Pompidou

This is Giovanni Anselmo’s Untitled (Sculpture That Eats). It consists of two blocks of granite, separated by a head of lettuce, all three tied together with a copper wire. The object exists as long as the salad insures the width of the structure. The more time passes and the salad disintegrates, crushed between the two slabs of granite, the more likely it is for the object to fall apart. Anselmo’s structures are often organized by energy, close to breaking point.

Torsions, Giovanni Anselmo, 1968, MOMA NY
Source: MOMA NY
A piece of leather, trapped on one end in a block of cement, is twisted around a wooden stick. The suspended movement is also a form of suspended time.

The Sculpture that eats takes the form of a mouth, demanding countless heads of lettuce in order for the object to remain on display. The contrast between the granite, usually associated with funeral art, and the vitality of green lettuce, is hinting to the fragility of life. The lettuce is the frailest part of the structure, but it is also what keeps it together. Anselmo is fascinated by granite and anthracite as fossilized remains of early organisms. In Trecento milioni di anni, he reminds us that a piece of anthracite was once organic matter, vegetal or animal, before being submerged under the earth and hidden away from light. Adding a lamp to his installation is a way of undoing these millions of years of darkness (hence the name).

Trecento milioni di anni, Giovanni Anselmo, 1969, musée d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris
Source: MAMVP
A lamp is fixed on a piece of anthracite, constantly illuminating it while the object is on display.

The Italian artist is interested in essential elements: time, space, gravity and energy. The lettuce in our case illustrates the concept of entropy, popularly described as a measure of disorder. To understand entropy, imagine two pieces of metal that touch each other, one being hot and the other one cold. In time, the two will inevitably reach an even, lukewarm temperature. The metals will never exchange temperatures, the hot one becoming cold, or vice versa. Therefore, the (thermal) energy concentrated into the two pieces of metal will always spread out, disperse, just like ice cubes will eventually melt in a glass of soda. And since this is an inevitable process, occurring in all aspects of life, all of the energy clumped together in the universe will eventually disperse.

Venus of the Rags 1967, 1974 Michelangelo Pistoletto born 1933 Purchased with assistance from Tate International Council 2006

Giovanni Anselmo is a prominent figure of Arte Povera. The name was initially used for a new, experimental theatre, around 1967, promoting a direct exchange between the actor and the spectator, as a reaction against the multi-sensory qualities of theater in general. For artists, this translated into the use of primal forms, present in all aspects of life, experienced directly and not mediated through representation, ideology or codified languages. Arte Povera was a reaction of Italian contemporary art against the supremacy of the American art market, and against the consumer society. It was a new focus on the artistic gesture, rather than the art object, and a refusal of heavy equipment or abundant resources that tie the artist to cultural institutions.

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