Che Fare? consists of a two-handled oblong aluminium tub filled with yellow beeswax, on top of which is a light blue neon sign that reads ‘che fare?’. These words are written in a script modelled on the artist’s own handwriting, which has a continuous flow that makes the two words almost appear as one. A white electrical wire on the left handle of the tub attaches the work to a power supply. There are several versions of this work, another of which is held at the GAM-Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin.
The aluminium tub is a fish kettle, in which whole fish are usually cooked, and the beeswax is used in its raw form. This use of humble, everyday materials in sculpture is typical of arte povera (‘poor art’), an Italian art movement, defined by the Italian critic Germano Celant in 1967, of which Mario Merz was a member. In contrast to these humble materials, the neon lettering adds a streak of energy. Merz began using neon in 1966, first in relation to painting – which comprised a series of blank canvases pierced with thin neon tubes – before moving onto sculpture. In works such as Che Fare? the neon alters the physical constitution of the work as much as its visual appearance. As the curator Lisa Le Feuvre has noted, as ‘the neon warms the wax, it appears to melt and emit a smell’ (Le Feuvre 2011, p.5).
Merz began to use the Italian phrase ‘che fare?’ recurrently in his work from 1967 onwards. It can be translated as ‘what to do?’ or ‘what is to be done?’ This question is closely associated with a 1902 speech given by Vladimir Lenin in which he used the words as a revolutionary call to arms. This polemical speech was republished in Italy in 1968 (the year that this sculpture was made) and was read and received enthusiastically, particularly by students and workers who were demonstrating at the time. Lenin appropriated the words ‘what is to be done?’ from an 1863 socialist novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky. This novel was written from a position in which art is seen as the means of revealing and better understanding, but not transcending, reality. However, Merz has claimed to have had little interest in Lenin’s pamphlet, having only read it in a bookshop, and has remarked instead that he became intrigued by the question ‘what is to be done?’ (or ‘what shall we do?’) after observing children at play constantly asking this question.
In 1968 Merz made two other sculptures, Solitary Solidarity and Sitin, which, like Che Fare?, consist of a piece of the title text in neon installed within a tub of wax. These titles make direct reference to the political turmoil of 1968, quoting slogans that were graffitied onto Parisian walls (‘solitaire solidaire’) and alluding to protests that were taking place in the form of sit-ins. Che Fare? may also be understood in relation to this political context, asking ‘what is to be done’ at a time when, as Celant has put it, the status quo was ‘the authoritarian power of one generation over another’ (Celant 1989, p.24). Merz has noted that he made these phrases in neon and ‘put them inside a material that would absorb a sentence’ (quoted in Celant 1989, p.106). The curator Nicholas Cullinan has argued that the heat of the neon causes the phrase ‘to become embedded and increasingly trenchant’ in the wax, suggesting a certain intractability or obdurateness in these political slogans (Cullinan 2008, p.23).
Yet despite these readings, Merz has remarked: ‘For me, ‘che fare?’ was to be taken literally, not in its direct political thrust ... It was a question I was asking myself.’ (Quoted in Celant 1989, p.106.) Le Feuvre has argued that ‘Merz was driven by asking what an artist can do in the face of a precarious future, informed by an examination of the role of art in day-to-day human experience and motivated by the belief that an artist can show something otherwise impossible to explain’ (Le Feuvre 2011, p.5).
Germano Celant, Mario Merz, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1989, p.24 (another version reproduced pp.24, 80).
Nicholas Cullinan, ‘From Vietnam to Fiat-Nam: The Politics of Arte Povera’, October, vol.124, Spring 2008, pp.8–30 (another version reproduced p.22).
Lisa Le Feuvre, Mario Merz: What Is to Be Done?, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds 2011, p.5, reproduced pp.6, 25.
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