'A man's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play',
Friedrich Nieztsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, Part 4, Aphorism 94.
Seeming like a bizarre artefact or hunting trophy from a primitive or even extraterrestrial civilization, Pelle conciata is a large, imposing and completely artificial animal skin made from a synthetic blue fur-like industrial fibre. A curious, almost Star Trek-like, mix of modern industrial technology and primitive cliché, this spectacular but self-evidently fictitious animal hide is one of the very last works that Pino Pascali made before his tragic early death from a motorcycle accident in September 1968. It belongs to the artist's great final series of works entitled Ricostruzione della natura (Reconstruction of Nature) - a series in which Pascali attempted to fabricate an entirely artificial world, nature and civilization, using a poetic fusion of modern industrial material, primitive archetype and imaginary agriculture. Remaining incomplete at the time of the artist's death, this series of 'Reconstructions' marked the culmination of an extraordinary and intense two-year period in which, with four outstanding and very distinct series of works, Pascali had quickly established himself as the most exciting, inventive and powerful Italian artist of his generation.
The first of Pascali's 'Reconstructions' of Nature took the form a giant blue synthetic fur spider humorously entitled Vedova blu (Blue Widow). This monstrous but also highly amusing creature, in some respects a furry animalised parody of Alexander Calder's Stabiles, was exhibited at a group show in Rome in early 1968. This exhibition was followed by the first collective show of Pascali's emerging new series of works, held at the Galleria L'Attico in Rome in March of the same year. As he had previously done with his first solo exhibition of finte sculture ('feigned/fake sculptures') at the L'Attico in 1966, this exhibition also took place in two parts: one dedicated to another example of Pascali's mysterious new synthetic wildlife - his Bachi da setola (Brushworms) - giant colourful silkworms made from plastic household cleaning brushes. The other part was an even more elaborate attempt to create a sense of an entire civilization through a collation of architectural artefacts that together seemed to materialise a completely fictitious world of adventure. This part of the exhibition constituted an entire environment that included hanging vines, trap-doors, a drawbridge, a man-trap, and a rope-bridge to nowhere, all made from metal-wool scouring-pads. Interacting with this impossible primeval village environment, Pascali dressed himself in the clichéd guise of a savage, draped in raffia and wrapped in a fake-fur animal hide.
Carrying crudely fashioned agricultural implements of the kind that he would again use in his last 'performance', in Luca Patella's film of him as a kind of mystical farmer sowing bread-sticks in the sand, Pascali had himself photographed for the exhibition catalogue among these constructions in the guise of this savage and alongside images of Tarzan's famous chimpanzee side kick, Cheeta. Mixing layers of artifice and apparent impossibility, Pascali, like a modern-day shaman, had once again transformed the sterile space of the gallery into an enchanted and mesmerising realm of potential. However, his aim with this series of works, was not just to transform the supposedly fixed environment of the gallery into a fluid, open and magical world, as indeed he had done before with his previous shows of weaponry, feigned animal sculpture and geometrically defined elements of nature. Here, in an apparent parody of modern science's brave-new world of synthetic and 'man-made fibres' that was then transforming the cultural landscape and creating, Pascali believed, 'a new nature', his new 'reconstructions' explored and asserted an entirely alternate universe and direction for mankind - one directed not by the strictures of logic and science, but by Pascali's own more open, individualistic and human 'technology of inquiry': play.
In what was, perhaps, another reaction against the depersonalising collective and mechanised consumerism of Pop culture in contemporary America, Pascali was seeking in this series of works more than ever to re-invoke the magic of simplicity and to place the creative power of the individual at the heart of the world. 'There are already some frightening examples in America of things being out of synch', he told Carla Lonzi in 1966, 'in an American laboratory, you can see some unbelievable materials. Well there's already no point of contact between these materials and those that the American artist is using. Artists must make use of materials perfected by researchers, it seems as if nature has been virtually exhausted, a new nature is being created. In Italy there's quite a different atmosphere - there's still a mental reality with possible choices, they will not to be taken for a ride. The European artist is a solitary man but also an autonomous one - a man who brings an autonomous civilization to life.' (Pino Pascali, 'Interview with Carla Lonzi', quoted in Pino Pascali, exh. cat., Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, 1991, p. 16).
Pascali's adoption and amusing application of man-made fibres and the synthetic materials used in simple household cleaning products reflected a long-held interest in the innate properties of material that he shared with an artist like Piero Manzoni. 'I like to take the material itself as my point of departure, because the material itself contains its own limits,' Pascali explained. 'If one chooses a certain material, one is setting very definite limits on one's possibilities. I do not think one can do everything with a certain material, one can only do one thing and this thing is an idea in itself' (Pino Pascali, 'Interview with Carla Lonzi', ibid., p. 82).
In addition to the self-defining language of materials that Manzoni, and before him Alberto Burri had pioneered, Pascali introduced the highly individualistic and also often humorous aesthetic of play (and playfulness) as a serious anti-rational method of inquiry. 'Play isn't just a thing for children,' Pascali insisted, 'it's a system of knowledge. Children's games are really meant to allow them to experiment with different things - to get to know them and at the same time to go beyond them.' (Pino Pascali, 'Interview with Carla Lonzi', ibid., p. 9). As Palma Bucarelli wrote of Pascali's work in the introduction to his great retrospective exhibition at the Galeria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome held shortly after his death in May 1969, 'Within the state of alienation in which he has placed himself, the man of our time can be free, can be himself, only if he plays; and playing is not a way of departing from reality but of entering into it' (Palma Bucarelli, 'Introduction', Pino Pascali, exh. cat., Rome, 1969).
Pelle conciata, which was first shown at this retrospective, is a work that stands at the centre of Pascali's playful aesthetic and material investigations. Self-evidently a skin, a material surface and, because of its distinctly anti-natural synthetic blue colour, also manifestly a fiction (a finta scultura), this synthetic fur pelt, like the fur mushrooms, giant fur bird's nest, or plastic brushworms, stands as a manifestation of a new, magical but also wholly artificial nature.
In the sense of it being a pelt cured and made according to the practice of ancient and primitive societies, this skin, as both an artefact and icon, is also a potent symbol of man's concept of civilization, of its foundations and of man's brilliance in his ability to forge and construct a life and a world for himself from the material of his surroundings. In this, this work also stands as a metaphor for art itself and the intrinsic role art plays within civilization. 'Art means finding a method for change: like the man who first invented a bowl to hold water. This is how a civilisation is born through the desire for change,' Pascali said. 'But what I really wanted to emphasize was the passion that presides at the creation of a civilization. That's the problem which is central to the Italians, the Europeans; it needs the passion of man who has nothing, to truly create something.' (Pino Pascali, 'Interview with Carla Lonzi', ibid., p. 22).