‘Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”
And I answer them most mysteriously
“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
Bob Dylan, Ballad in Plain D, 1964.’
BOB DYLAN, BALLAD IN PLAIN D, 1964
Pappagallo nello zoo (Parrot in the Zoo) belongs to an important series of mirror-paintings made by Michelangelo Pistoletto in the early 1970s in which the artist repeatedly used the imagery of cages to invoke and play with social and political ideas of freedom and confinement. It is one of a series of cage-image works made at this time that extended the open logic of his protest-march mirror-paintings of the mid-1960s into a wider but more philosophical context. This context was ultimately a socio-political one that owed much to Pistoletto’s recent performance experiments with his collaborative theatre-group Lo Zoo (The Zoo) as well as to the increasing socio-political division in Italy that had emerged in the early 1970s following the student protests of 1968.
Pistoletto’s La Gabbia (Cage) mirror paintings are distinguished by the way in which the artist has set a variety of patterned grids over the reflective polished stainless-steel surfaces of each work. This has the effect of showing the viewer of each work as if they themselves were imprisoned behind bars. It is a theme that was to culminate in Pistoletto’s work in 1974 in an extensive version of La Gabbia that comprised twenty-nine steel panels covered with a caged grid that Pistoletto exhibited together in such a way as to seemingly transform the entire gallery space into a prison.
In contrast to these open-form works that presented the pictorial mirror as a cage into which the viewer entered to see themselves as if behind bars, Pappagallo nello zoo depicts a more conventional image of a parrot in a cage at the zoo. By reflecting the image of the spectator against the grid of the cage when they come to view the work however, this life-sized presentation of caged bird in this, nearly two-and-a-half-metre-high mirror-painting presents an aesthetic and philosophical ambiguity. The real living presence of the viewer appears imprisoned behind bars in this work, while the static coloured photographic reproduction of the parrot exists within the imaginary representational realm of pictorial convention behind the bars of the painting. As in so much of Pistoletto’s work the artist here asks the question of his viewer where the realm of freedom lies: in the pictorial realm of the painting or in the real world that, through his use of the mirror, he has introduced into this pictorial realm. Here, in this way, in Pappagallo nello zoo, one is forced to confront his existential position in the world through the context of a caged bird in the zoo.
As he had written about the concept of his theatrical troupe that he had entitled Lo Zoo, ‘metaphorically, Lo Zoo (The Zoo) signified the state of prison in which man the animal finds himself today when he realized his vital needs for creative expansion. The need to start out from an exhibition hall to go out into the open and set down his own creations is still a metaphor and an exercise at the same time in liberating human needs. The superstructures exist, and how, but an artist doesn’t try to attack them, he simply tries to free himself from them. The task is very delicate. One can’t go at it heavy-handedly and run the risk of losing the essential, losing the space for poetry. Be more artistic in your politics and more political in your art. But don’t get me wrong again, I’m not talking about party politics, guerrilla warfare, power or protest. I’m talking about politics in the deep sense, that is, one of the economy of relations between human needs and the things that condition them.’ (Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘The Minus Man’, quoted in Michelangelo Pistoletto, From One to Many 1956-1974 exh. cat. Rome, 2011, p. 344)
In Pappagallo nello zoo Pistoletto uses the combination of a parrot - a bird that both mimics and parodies man’s speech - and the presence of the viewer themselves within the work to ask similar questions about the relationship between convention and freedom of action. In his use of a parrot in this and in other works of this period Pistoletto may also have been referencing, consciously or unconsciously, the work of Jannis Kounellis who had famously used a live parrot in one of his first installations in 1967 and also appended cages containing live birds along the edges of one of his large fabric paintings. This move - Kounellis’s first move into using real, live objects as an extension of what he always insisted was his painterly practice - represented an expansion of the conventions of painting out into the real, living world of the viewer. Pappagallo nello zoo translates this same move into the realm of the mirror-paintings, for as Robert Lumley has written of Pistoletto’s use of caged imagery in his mirror paintings, ‘the real prison for Pistoletto, however, exists in the mind and in how we understand and interact with ourselves and other people. The mirroring surface is significant for him because it offers us the possibility of seeing ourselves, seeing others with us, and seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of others in a chain of interactions that escapes our control. Retrospectively, it can be described as a visualisation of the relational art practices developed avant la lettre in the theatre practice of The Zoo. The art object has ceased to be an unchanging object of contemplation and the spectator has become an actor or participant in the work.’ (Robert Lumley ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto: Stepping Sideways, Changing Direction’ in Pistoletto Politico exh. cat. London, 2013, p.15) Pappagallo nello zoo presents the viewer with a metaphorical image of this ‘prison of the mind’. Whether the open, living real space that enters the mirror through its reflected surface offers any freedom from this arena of confinement is, however, deliberately left open to question.