THE FORMULA OF CREATION. Michelangelo Pistoletto is one of the most influential contemporary artists of his generation and a leading proponent of the Arte Povera movement. In 1998 he founded Cittadellarte, an art and creativity laboratory in a disused textile mill on the Cervo River in Biella, Italy. In his new book, La Formula della Creazione, published by Cittadellarte Edizioni in December 2022, Pistoletto recounts the human and artistic journey that led him to define the Formula of Creation, which he also calls the Formula of Life. His book offers us the opportunity to rethink the cornerstones of our existence, and calls us to a new responsibility towards ourselves, towards each other and towards the nature of which we are a part.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, how would you define your new book La Formula della Creazione and why did you write it?
I am an artist. I work with creation, but I don’t just work with creation, I want to know what the phenomenon of creation is. My whole life has been about the possibility of finding the formula of creation. I started the book 22 years ago, when I was asked to create a chapel in Marseille, France, at the Paoli-Calmettes oncological hospital. It needed to be a temple for all the different religions, because in that port city people come from everywhere. I made a space structured around a square metre cube, with mirrors on its internal sides. This square metre cube of infinity carries out the function of an altar in the centre of the room. The mirror gives the possibility of expanding vision into infinity, but this infinity is enclosed within the square metre cube of the altar; so it is infinity into the finity of physicality. This is fantastic, because although the reflection is in a sense inside of the cube, it also allows you to reflect with your mind on what spirituality can be. At the time they asked me to write a short book to explain the meaning of the work, and I started it but I never finished it until now, because the meaning of this place is so important to me that it has kept me working for 22 years.
In your book you talk about your life in terms of art and religion, and how in 1977 you put a mirror on the altar of the church of San Sicario, a village in the mountains where you live from time to time, instead of the figure of Christ. Do you use the mirror in many different ways?
Yes, in my life in terms of art and religion, but also in terms of science and society, and you could also say politics. The mirror is my fil rouge. At the beginning, I only knew that I should become an artist, because my father was an artist, and art was like my bread. When I discovered contemporary and modern art I understood that art could use everything from the past in order to propose something new for the future. For me, art was the possibility of discovering the world through myself, because modern art offered me the prospect of being totally free and autonomous in my declaration, in what I wanted to be. But in order to know myself I had to discover myself. I did that through the self-portrait, because it is traditional for the artist to make a self-portrait, but I questioned how to make my self-portrait without imposing my image through my system of painting. I wanted to discover my true identity. I wanted to know who I am, why I am, for what reason I am in the world.
What did making your self-portrait teach you?
I discovered that the mirror is essential. Without a mirror you can’t see or recognize yourself. You can recognize the entire world, but not yourself, and so I understood that the real power was in the mirror, and I really wanted to transfer the mirror into the painting. I painted a canvas black and added a lot of varnish, so it started to reflect, and when I painted my face into the black reflective surface I understood that the black canvas was the representation of the world. It was not just a static isolated painted image of myself. The people around me were also in the mirror, and the space, the day, the night, the animals, the vegetation. I understood that the work of mirror painting was the representation of the universe. Everything comes into the mirror and there was the phenomenology of time passing. Time is always changing and my present is never the same. I am a different person every minute. So that is infinity.
“In order to know myself I had to discover my true identity. I wanted to know who I am, why I am, for what reason I am in the world.”
Place of Recollection and Prayer, 2000
Permanent installation, Paoli-Calmettes Oncological Institute, Marseille
Photo: Margherita Spiluttini
Michelangelo Pistoletto, what was the revelation you had when your father took you to see Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ?
For me, that painting is the origin of perspective and science. Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation was not just a representative painting because you could see images, there was a phenomenological system of perspective. It was the invention of photography and of the mathematical way of looking at nature. Piero della Francesca was the source of that whole evolution from the Renaissance that went through to Galileo and Giordano Bruno.
Would you say that art paved the way for modern science?
Yes, and for me it was very important to understand whether it was possible in modern times to describe a new perspective for the future of humanity, as was done in the Renaissance. In our time we were blocked in a kind of square box of modernity. For example, Mondrian made a painting that was like an architectural plan of a city. And then Fontana tried to make a hole in the wall that Mondrian had made. I was in this white cube of Modernism, and I wanted to know if there was a new perspective after this. Through the mirror painting that I used to make the self-portrait I saw myself on the other side of the wall. It was like a big hole in the wall of the mirror. I saw the whole perspective in front of me. Everything was in front of my eyes, but at the same time, through this passage, through this door of the mirror, I could see everything that was behind me. The mirror does not project something in front of me, but reflects something that is behind me, but, in the end, the perspective is doubled and I was able to see everything in front of me and at the same time all of my future is also behind me.
After that black varnished canvas you made paintings using real mirrors, and in your mirror painting there is an empty space that is open to chance. Is this so that nobody knows what will be in the painting?
The polished metal mirror allows me to place a photographic image of a person or an object or myself or someone or something else into the large reflective surface, but what I fix in the reflecting surface is an image of something that exists only for an instant, because photography fixes a figure that exists only for a moment. The memory of the fixed moment lives together with all the different moments that are reflected in the mirror.
In your book, why do you refer to Jackson Pollock’s work with chance?
We can say that everything exists by chance. The world, the universe itself, exists by chance. It allows different elements to combine and create something that didn’t exist before. It is the mechanism that creates the combination of all the different elements that make up relativity. All the relationships happen and create something because chance is something that allows things to happen without anything being determined beforehand. There is no determination, there is combination.
What is the difference between your work and Pollock’s?
Pollock dripped the colours on the canvas, and the composition of the painting came about by chance. It was not predictable, but the moment the work was done it was fixed forever. Instead, in the mirror painting, the fixed image is always in opposition to chance, which is always in motion and alive. The painting represents exactly, directly, the chance of the universe.
Is your work with mirrors also a kind of transition from the gold background of icons?
The icon is characterized by Byzantine religious paintings, and we find the same concept in Egyptian tombs. Gold was applied to the face of the Pharaoh because the representation of the person was a way to prepare him to survive after physical life. Gold was conceived as the best physical material to represent immortality because it is incorruptible. For my mirror painting I use stainless steel, also an incorruptible metal.
Will it last forever?
Nothing is forever, but the duration of the mirror painting offers the person who is fixed on the surface the possibility to follow the future and transfers their memory to the infinite memory of the mirror. All this has to do with the original need of the human being to go on living beyond the dimension of physical life.
“Humankind is creative. Science can be destructive or positive. We have to see if there is a new way to escape the game of destruction.”
Michelangelo Pistoletto, you are a key figure in the Arte Povera movement which countered Pop Art, but did you also take conscious steps not to allow the identity of your work to become fixed?
I try to find a different combination with what is going on in the moment but am never part of it forever. I was part of Pop Art and I created the situation that produced Arte Povera because it was a way of doing work that was different from the universal concept of the consumer system that Pop Art was related to. But my work was close to Pop Art, because the Pop artists made an art that was objective. It was not invented as an individual autonomy, it was a way of respecting what exists and what everyone can see and understand.
In the case of Pop Art, from a Campbell’s soup can to a Coca Cola bottle?
That is the objectivity that everyone understands, but, for me, everyone’s life was not just the life of the consumerist system. That was universal for the Pop artists, but I wanted to know the objectivity of the universe, not the objectivities of the American system.
How did Arte Povera come about?
Arte Povera came after a series of works I did called Minus Objects. I wanted to make objects without a Michelangelo Pistoletto label, because if I just kept my one style that style would become a label of the consumerist system. I want to destroy my label, and each work has a different label of my self.
In parallel with the Arte Povera period you also created The Zoo, made up of people from different artistic disciplines such as music, literature, theatre and visual arts?
The Zoo is Michelangelo Pistoletto who is no longer just one animal but many animals. My themes existed before Germano Celant created the word Arte Povera. “Povera” doesn’t mean poor in the sense of having no money, it means essential. Every work, every moment of your life, is essential. Your life is not just a common convention. It includes the freedom to be essential.
Why did your art need other people?
The moment I made my first mirror painting I no longer made my self-portrait my image, I used the images of everything and everyone. I was not alone in the mirror image, I was with others. The fact of not being unique and alone was the discovery of my identity. My identity is the other.
Is this why in 1991 you became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?
In Vienna I began telling the students that there was no place for all of them in museums, in great collections, in books of art history, because there already were hundreds of them. The world is full of students who will become artists, but there is no place for all of them. I didn’t want anyone to leave the Academy as a failed artist. In order not to be a failed artist you have to know that the whole of humanity needs you, not just the museums. You have the possibility of using your autonomous creativity to implement the creation of society. Art is projected into the beauty of balance and harmony, and you have to create beauty and harmony in the world not just as an individual artist but as a society of creative, responsible people producing beauty and harmony.
Is that why you then created Cittadellarte?
Cittadellarte was created so that not only the different fields of art – such as music and theatre, visual arts, cinema, sculpture and so on – but also politics, economics, religion, science and so forth, are connected to all the different fields of society. They are not independent of society, but are within it, as the engine of society.
What is the role of art?
The role of art is to implement the capacity of the human being, who uses and exercises art in all fields without knowing that he or she is an artist. They don’t know that this art is the creativity that they use just because they are human. Humankind is creative. If you are creative you need to know that there is a way to use your creativity in a very responsible way. When you studied to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer and so forth, you learned how to use materials, you learned a technique. That was a way of learning, but then you have to invent a way to use it in society, to have a common understanding and continuously recreate and reinvent society. Society is not fixed forever.
Painting or sculpture is great, but a doctor cures you and an engineer builds a house. Is what an artist does useful?
The doctor brings his or her creativity to the possibility of developing and fulfilling their specific role in the best possible way. Everyone has the quality of an artist, but it can be used in all different ways for all different fields, so the artist has to become responsible for what is between all the different fields. That is society, and society is created little by little. Creativity is the human ability to organise thought and the action in a specific way. You can also use art in a specific way, for example, if you have a pop band and you develop a specific way of using the voice. But when you use the voice you use mathematics, so there is a connection between all the different fields. Art is human. It’s time to take joint responsibility, all creators to work in the world together, not just to live according to convention.
Cittadellarte – the Pistoletto Foundation in Biella, Italy
Photo: Enrico Amici
Star Self-Portrait, 1973
photograph on transparent film, 200x 105 cm
Collection of the artist, Biella
Photo: Paolo Pellion
Michelangelo Pistoletto and the physicist Guido Tonelli
Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella
Photo: Pistoletto Archive
Cittadellarte – Pistoletto Foundation, Biella
Photo: Damiano Andreotti
Michelangelo Pistoletto at
Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella
Photo: Pierluigi Di Pietro
From Infinity to Creation, 2021
digital print on foam board
180 x 600 cm
Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto Collection
Photo: Pistoletto Archive
“Cittadellarte is a new school, where you learn how to use creativity.”
Michelangelo Pistoletto, you were brought up as a Catholic and say that you are attracted by the monastic life and the figure of the Christ. Are you very religious?
The Italian word religione means to put together, but it can also mean to banish. Religion is not meant to be sectarian; it is meant to bring people together in an open way. We need to come together, to understand each other, to understand the way to be together.
What do you believe in Michelangelo Pistoletto?
I believe in the need for knowledge and discovery. That is why science is very important in my work, because science is a way to know, not just to imagine. You have to verify imagination. I don’t exclude the emotional and I don’t exclude the rational, but I do have to see how the emotional and the rational can fit together.
Is that why several years ago you created the symbol of the Third Paradise?
As we talked about in the book we did together, The Voice of Pistoletto, everything begins with the transformation of the idea of the infinity of the mirror into a science that is the mathematical symbol of infinity. It is a line that crosses itself, and the point of intersection is the point of infinity that is so small that you cannot reach it. Infinity has to be understood, because we live in infinity, we don’t live in finity. Infinity is transformed into finity in physical life. That is why I cross the line of infinity twice in the symbol of the Third Paradise.
Because one crossing is symbolic of art, the other of science?
When I crossed the lines over I wasn’t thinking about art or science, I was thinking about the shape with which to explore infinity and finity. To explore the point that is infinity I had to cut that point and create the space of material life that took the place of the point of infinity. Instinctively I crossed the line twice, instead of just once, and so an outer circle came alive. It was the physical into the nonphysical.
Why do you explain this to children by using the example of a football?
We can say that the football represents the physical possibility of life activated by this symbol, and the circles represent one team on one side and the other team on the other side. In the middle is the football. The ball is opportunity. It is what I said before, it is the physical possibility of using chance, and when I start to use chance it is the point of attraction of all the differences. All the differences are represented in the different teams. Each team is different, and without this difference there is no game of life. The ball is the centre, and so the two teams try to bring the ball onto their side is the game of life. This is the chemical game, the physical game, the electronic game; everything works in this way, and we have transferred this game to our social hypothesis. In ancient Rome, the game was life itself. As a gladiator, you had to die. The winner was the one who killed the other. The sphere of the ball is an evolution of using the idea of life itself, where the goal is to kill someone in order to win. If you play with a ball the goal is not to kill someone but to score a goal. The game of life and death is still alive in our society.
Instead of killing each other for entertainment we play a game with a ball and that’s progress. What solutions do you propose at Cittadellarte?
Cittadellarte is a new school, where you learn how to use creativity. You need to know that every action you take in your life is connected to the others. The conclusion is that I can change the world with art, because when I say change the world it means to find dynamic balance and harmony. Harmony for me is what I think should be the concept of humanity. Harmony, and not just conflict. Because if you look at this symbol, there is conflict. You always have two elements, like in football, in conflict; but you have to find a way to transform conflict into harmony. That is art.
How do you propose to address our many problems, including those arising from our invention of the atomic bomb?
Science can be destructive or positive. We have to see if there is a new way to escape the game of destruction. The way we live in the world today is not what I call human civilisation, it is only human in the sense of creating something incredibly innovative that doesn’t exist in nature. Our man-made world is fantastic, but at the same time we have created the opposite, the bomb, and we run the risk of losing all this progress in a minute. We have to understand what the problem is, and the problem is not just to make an instrument but to know how to use it, because we have incredible power today. We can destroy the world in a minute. We can also put the whole world under the control of a few people. Technology can be a disaster. With the iPhone I cannot see everyone at the same time, but somebody can see everyone without being seen. This dictatorial possibility exists in the game of technology. We have incredible power that we can either use in the best way or in the worst way.
What is the best way?
The best way is to survive, to continue our research, to know more and more, to become something beautiful. Art is when you put two elements together that create a harmony. I think that is the basic desire of everyone. Art should not just be in an independent, marvellous situation. It could become something that is the cause. We can invent and make a great work of art all together. But there can either be an art that destroys humanity or an art that allows humanity to create new life.
Is that what you are doing at Cittadellarte?
Yes, but Cittadellarte is not alone. The United Nations has produced 17 sustainable goals in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is not something that is created by some artists. It is a common necessity.
Why have you used the symbol of the Third Paradise in different ways in different parts of the world?
We have Embassies of the Third Paradise that we call Rebirth Embassies, because in many places they don’t understand the word paradise. They think it is a religious symbol, but it is not religious. The word paradise comes from the ancient Persian word for a protected garden. They built a wall around a space in the desert to protect the space inside from the wind of the desert and to allow the humidity of the night to help the vegetation grow. This artificial creation became the system for producing food artificially, as did the confinement of animals for agriculture. The stability of villages and cities came from this artificial organization, and then people said if we are able to survive even where nature doesn’t allow it, we may be able survive after we die. It is as if paradise has become paradise beyond the earth, so now in some places when we use the word paradise people don’t understand what it means. But if you know the symbol of the dynamic that we call the Third Paradise you can also propose to make a garden. In places, the Third Paradise is called the Third Garden. We recently added the symbol in Turkey, on the Euphrates, and in Syria, in Mosul.
Do you want to say something about the title of your book, which means the formula of creation?
I offer the formula as an artist, but knowing that this formula is exactly in line with science, it is not just a fantastic idea. It is a phenomenological formula that comes from the phenomenological work of Europeans. Everybody can use it, and just as the Pythagorean mathematical formula is not limited to the person Pythagoras, the formula of creation is no longer to do with the person Pistoletto. It is a formula that you can use to know that you have the responsibility of being a creative element. Bring all the creative elements together and you have a new collective responsibility, because now you know the formula. It is not an invention.
What is your purpose in this?
First of all, I give a lot of importance to the school, starting in a very simple way for the children to know how to move, knowing that you always have two elements to play with. What you do is you and your friends, you and the other, you and your mother, you and your family. You are always one of two. And you can always listen and use what comes to you and propose something that’s not just a reaction but a proposition. I think that we have to learn this, because we see that the youth of today no longer accepts what is going on. Greta Thunberg represents the need to find another way to relate, another way to create a rapport with the world, with people, with everything. But you cannot just make an accusation. You have to make a proposition. You have to learn that if something doesn’t work – because we all agree that it doesn’t work – we have to find a way to learn how to make proposals.
Is that what La Formula della Creazione is?
We have a formula that allows both catastrophes and proposals. You can either destroy the world or save it. At Cittadellarte we have a school that teaches how to take this forward, and if you want to come to Biella you are very welcome.
Michelangelo Pistoletto photographed with his new book La Formula della Creazione Courtesy of Fondazione Pistoletto.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND