‘These figures are mythical not domestic…. (In the crocodile) I wanted ...a slightly unsettling image and presence of a ghost rather than of a skin. These animals made me feel light in life, because they have something ancient about them, a sense of the unknown, of unavailability as far as I am concerned. They are absolutely solitary creatures, they do not participate in the collective life of the street. The animals are all those things combined.’ (Mario Merz quoted in Mario Merz exh.cat. Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1989, p. 54)
In Piccolo caimano, made in 1979, Mario Merz makes use of one of the seminal images of his art - the crocodile - to transform the entire exhibition space into a fluid and open arena of possibility. Echoing an earlier version of this idea (now belonging to the Centre Pompidou in Paris) in which Merz had used a stuffed alligator mounted on the wall and trailing a sequence of neon numbers, in Piccolo caimano Merz makes use of a stuffed caiman trailing a similar sequence of numbers to invest the enclosed geometrical space of a home or gallery with a similarly magical and timeless sense of transformative potential.
For Merz, the caiman, the crocodile or the alligator are all effectively interchangeable. Each, like other archetypal animals that have appeared periodically in his work, such as the rhinoceros for example, are significant primarily because they are both ancient and also mythical creatures. Such animals represent the continuing evolution of life over millions of years. The purpose of the caiman’s appearance in this work, here, on a gallery wall is to invest the enclosed, geometric space of the gallery with a sense of this continuing history fluidly running through the apparently solid, immovable walls of the building in the present moment and thereby, to open up the space to a sense of universal possibility. The numbers that the caiman trails behind its tail articulate this purpose by being made of neon - a fluid, moving gas that represents for the artist the perpetual flow of life and energy running throughout the world. The sequence of numbers that the neon articulates belong to the Fibonacci series used often in Merz’s work to illustrate this same sense of the life-force as a naturally spiralling energy and growing force permeating the day-to-day life of the world. Running from zero to infinity, the Fibonacci series is a sequence discovered or invented by the Italian mathematician Leonardo da Pisa in 1202. An organic mathematical progression - two ‘parental’ numbers that give rise to a third - it is a sequence that has been found to be echoed closely in nature. Da Pisa discovered for example, that this simple sequence, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and onwards to infinity, could be used to calculate the offspring of rabbits. Its proportions also relate to the proliferation and growth of many organic materials, among them such elements that appear frequently in Merz’s work as leaves, reptile skins, deer antlers, pinecones, seashells and iguana, crocodile and alligator tails.
The sequence, as formalised by Merz into energizing, fluid and also dimensionless neon light, is seen by him therefore as an enlivening organic force that speaks of a potential development or extension into infinity. It is an organic extension of light and space into infinite space but also a metaphor for the development of life. The sequence proliferates with such accelerating scale and rapidity that, as Merz recalled, it ‘inspired my idea that it was possible to represent with new faculties all the examples that occur in the world of expanding materials viewed also as vital living lives.’ (Mario Merz cited in Mario Merz exh.cat. Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1989, p. 102) Numbers Merz insisted, and particularly those of the organically progressing Fibonacci series, because they are ‘a relative extension of the body through the five fingers’, have an innate relativity to life that ‘excludes the psychological but not the physiological extension’. The Fibonacci sequence could therefore be used as a way of ‘unloading’ or transforming space. ‘A wall is a load (bricks, stones, lime, historical anxieties, psychological anxieties)’ Merz explained, referring to works such as Piccolo caimano ‘the numbers unload it the way music unloads the chemical density of the atmosphere. Music too has mathematical or numerical equivalences. Time is a tap root immersed in the ground (the date of birth). Time then develops in an objective and relatively free reality the way the tree develops from the tap root into the atmosphere.' (Ibid)
In this way, the presence of a sequence of organically developing neon numbers ‘growing’ along the wall notionally transforms the wall into an organically developing entity like that of a tree and the gallery space into an interior not unlike those posited by Merz’s igloos. The presence of a caiman ascending the wall of such an environment and being the ‘tap root’ of this sequential organic development of space is therefore not as surprising as it may at first seem. Not only doe it metaphorically dissolve the apparent restrictions of the enclosed geometry of the gallery space, but it also infuses them with a poetic sense of what physicists and geologists term ‘deep time’. The apparent path of an ancient and mythological creature such as a caiman, apparently crawling up the wall and leaving behind it a trail of illuminating numbers illustrative of the perpetual flow of life, imbues the apparent sterility of the grid of our modern world with an enduring and timeless sense of magic and mystery.