14 MARCH 1998, Page 48

Exhibitions 2

Piero Manzoni

(Serpentine Gallery, till 26 April)

Notorious jester

Martin Gayford

Acouple of years ago there was an installation at the Serpentine — by Richard Wilson — which involved cutting holes in the gallery's floor and walls. Setting aside its merits as art, this revealed one thing clearly to the sharp of eye: the whole place was remarkably jerry-built. Now, at consid- erable expense, those structural faults have been rectified and the Serpentine is open again, and showing an exhibition of the pioneer Italian conceptual artist, Piero Manzoni.

Indeed, in one respect the Serpentine itself now resembles a piece of the Duchampian art it so often contains. Duchamp, you will recall, was fond of transforming ordinary objects, with a wave of his metaphorical wand, into something quite different: art. Similarly, the Serpen- tine is outwardly almost unchanged, while inwardly entirely metamorphosed. Exter- nally, the main difference is that the entrance has switched sides — causing me to make a complete circuit of the building before I found the door.

Inside, there are significant alterations — the air heated and conditioned, the draughts excluded, the rooms subtly rear- ranged. These are all useful improvements, since the conservation-rating of the old Serpentine must have been approximately that of a garden shed — and hence people were loth to lend delicate works of art to it. Everything now looks smart and new, although I have some sympathy with those who complain that we might as well have put up a new gallery and had done with it, since the Serpentine is scarcely an architec- tural masterpiece.

Piero Manzoni (1933-1963) is here pre- sented as a godfather of contemporary art; perhaps he was, certainly he is spoken of respectfully by Damien Hirst. There is no real contradiction in the fact that the over- all impression of the exhibition is quiet ele- gance, since a good deal of contemporary art is quietly elegant — see, for example, Hirst's polka-dot paintings. The bulk of what is on show is made up of `achrome' that is, white paintings which Manzoni achieved in various ways without actually using paint.

There are on view canvases creased, folded and covered with china clay, others consisting of a rectangle of cotton-wadding, fibreglass, wool and — my favourite bread-rolls of the standard trattoria variety whitened with kaolin and stuck in rows. In these ways, Manzoni managed to duplicate the effect of the average abstract painting of the period surprisingly well — the wool and glass fibre, for example, mimicked the apparent hairiness of much Fifties art.

But it must be said that Manzoni's achrome are seldom as interesting to look at as really good abstract painting, nor do they come up to the sheer presence of, say, Yves Klein's all-blue monochrome pic- tures. A few of them go a long way (though I am told by the authorities at the Serpen- tine that repetitiousness is part of Man- zoni's point, and therefore not a criticism).

Strangely, quiet elegance is — visually the keynote of Manzoni's most notorious effort, his numbered and editioned tins of his own excrement. Of course, all one sees is a neat pile of cans, each labelled in sev- eral languages. There is an English version Merda d'artista no. 66' 1961, by Piero Manzoni but somehow the Italian seems better: `Merda d'artista/contenuto netto Gr30/con- servato al naturale/ prodotta ed inscatolata nel maggio 1961'. It is, if you like that kind of humour, rather a good joke. In a photograph the artist holds up a tin with an extremely win- ning smile. But a better jape, it seems to me is the 'Base of the World', lettered upside down and applied to the floor: a gallant attempt to turn the whole earth into a Manzoni. More esoteric are his lines straight lines down the middle of a piece of paper of various measured lengths, pre- served in the kind of boxes deeds and things are generally kept in. An exhibited specimen looks like the 'zip' from the mid- dle of an abstract by Barnett Newman, with the surrounding painting removed.

Unfortunately, not much is left to look at in several of Manzoni's more striking ges- tures. The air has long escaped from the Tiato d'artista' and 'Corp. d'aria' (balloons filled, respectively, with the artist's own breath or air from a pump). What is left a small piece of perished rubber glued on a board — puts one in mind of a small and withered saintly relic. And that analogy may not be all that far fetched. 'When blow up the balloon,' Manzoni declared, am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal.' At one time, it is said, there was a museumological debate as to whether it was ethical to reinflate these Manzoni balloons. The answer was no — a conservator's breath wouldn't have had the correct artistic powers — but the point is surely more theological than anything.

The sculpture vivante — living sculptures — are even harder to exhibit. All the Ser- pentine can muster is the book from which the artist issued the elected with certifi- cates of authenticity (in different colours according to whether the recipients were declared works of art at all times, or only certain parts of them, or only in particular postures or — a very art world point, this — only if they paid for the privilege). Also, there is a photograph of Manzoni, looking impish, signing a naked model. Now, if the Serpentine had been able to round up the model and had her sit in a vitrine, that would have made a striking exhibit — an up-dated version of Giorgione's 'La Vec- chia'.

Manzoni was terribly young when he died — 29, considerably younger than, say, Hirst is now. Like several Dadaists and Futurists, he is likely to be remembered more for various japes than for long-lasting art. Sadly, however, in the reverential atmosphere of the revamped Serpentine, the naughty fun of it disappears like the air in an old balloon, It would be amusing, for example, if we were allowed to clamber on the magic base — base magica, with foot- prints stuck on to indicate posture — and thus become art for a moment. But pre- sumably this plywood box is now too sacred for the public to stand on. Manzoni would have appreciated the joke.