‘When I place two identical copies of the same ancient statue one in front of the other, I do not aim to rediscover and recreate that statue, nor do I want to be delighted by the situation. My only aim is to focus on the distance, on the empty space between them. That is the true body of the work of art, bearing in itself, in the closed circuit of a cryptic answer, the question concerning its very existence. Hence, the decorative effect: an induced and unexpected decoration as ultimate truth, as something ‘unaware’ of the work, a decorative game that is more real than the illusion of truth’ (G. Paolini, Quattro passi: Nel Museo Senza Muse, Turin, 2006).
One classical profile turns, attempting to catch sight of its double; the other gazes back across the dividing space with puzzled wonder. The twin heads are casts of the eerily-familiar features of the Venus de’ Medici, the Hellenic marble in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, whose reproductions populate the rooms of palaces and the groves of gardens across Europe. In Mimesi, 1975, Giulio Paolini allows Venus to look at herself as many others have looked before, satisfying her curiosity after a centuries-long delay. Her eyes drink in her even features, roving over plaster-white skin and intricate curls of hair, while her counterpart looks back longingly. In setting up this circular arrangement, Paolini investigates the gaze as a process through which art is consumed: as one bust regards the other, it asserts a voyeuristic power over it, watching and observing, making the other a passive object of its regard. Yet the symmetrical configuration means it is simultaneously being looked at, losing the power it had momentarily gained. The role of subject and object of the gaze is continuously won and lost, and the two Venuses spin and pirouette in an endless loop of narcissistic scrutiny.
Locked in a self-referential investigation, Mimesi leaves the viewer a bystander, bereft of his formerly privileged vantage point. ‘When I put two identical examples of the same ancient sculpture one in front of the other,’ Paolini explained, ‘I want to be the observer who sees… all the possibilities of relationship or absence of relationship between that image and us’ (G. Paolini, quoted in Arte Povera, London 1999, p. 135). This elegant subversion of the conventions which structure art has been central to Paolini’s artistic practice. As a young artist starting out in the 1960s, Paolini was greatly influenced by Piero Manzoni’s inquiries into the substance of art. Manzoni sought to distil the creative process to its essential minimal degree, as when inking eggs with his thumbprint in the Consumption of Art by the Art- Devouring Public, in 1960.
Taking his cue from this reductive process, Paolini investigates the nature of art, creating open-ended artworks that reflect upon their own history and materiality. In Mimesi, Paolini uses plaster as a medium whose essential quality is reproduction, creating a simulacrum which aspires not to life-like illusionism but to its own material recognition: ‘a plaster cast can reproduce something which is in Greece. Yet, plaster is also a material you can touch and therefore when it breaks it is revealed for what it is. It becomes an image not of what it recounts but what it truly is’ (G. Paolini, quoted in ‘Interview with Susan Taylor’, in The Print Collector’s Newsletter, no. 5, November/December 1984). Questioning and introspective, Paolini’s work greatly anticipated the direction of Conceptual art, and established the artist as one of the key figures of what Germano Celant would later celebrate as the Arte Povera movement. Yet for all its intellectual rigour, Mimesi never loses the poetic grace and deft touch of humour which define Paolini’s distinctive pictorial language.