When We Say “Beautiful” We Are Alive: Marisa Merz

by Hans Ulrich Obrist


I’ve known Marisa for over twenty years. As a teenager, I began visiting the Kunsthaus Zürich almost every day; in the period that Harald Szeemann was curator, the museum was a my school and became almost a second home. I was particularly struck by Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk (The Tendency Toward the Total Work of Art, 1983), Spuren, Skulpturen, und Monumente ihrer prazisen Reise (Traces, Sculptures and Monuments of Their Precise Voyage, 1985, including works by Marisa), and Mario Merz solo show La Città Irreale, (The Unreal City), 1985. After a first brief encounter in Zurich, I had the extraordinary experience of visiting Mario and Marisa’s home and studio in Turin, where I returned 22 years later, on August 3 of this year, for the interview below. Many encounters followed over the years. In 2001, I was on the international jury of Harald Szeemann’s Venice Biennale, where Marisa was assigned the Biennale di Venezia Award for lifetime achievement. When Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Laurence Bosse and I curated three years of exhibitions at Villa Medici (La ville, le jardin, la mémoire, Rome 1998-2000), we showed Marisa’s marvelous wax violin. In 2002, our paths crossed again in Paris, where I was living and where Marisa spent a lot of time. I met Marisa many times, but never, on any occasion, was able to record one of our conversations; the idea of a recording made her nervous. This interview for Mousse is, I believe, her first in decades, and for me it is a dream come true. It has only just begun.
—Hans Ulrich Obrist, Salibury, September 2009


Turin, 3 August 2009 ~ IN THE DINING ROOM


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: So, Marisa, shall we try turning on the camera?

MARISA MERZ: No, no [smiles].

HUO: But we need it to tape with, it’s to record what we say.

MM: No, I don’t trust machines. I’m sorry.

HUO: But now we’re here, how do we go about this?

MM: Obrist, I’m so glad to see you, so glad you came! But no, no, no. I’ve never lived around machines, I’m not familiar with them, they don’t… interest me. And… I don’t trust them, every once in a while I try turning on the television for five minutes, but I don’t like that either, and it’s practically broken.

HUO: But Marisa… if we just tape the voices, without filming anything…

MM: [irritated and sarcastic] The voices get lost, they have to get lost.

HUO: But I don’t see any other solution… unless we write down what we’re saying…

MM: Eh…

HUO: Maybe that might work? Don’t you want to talk?

MM: I wouldn’t say so, I don’t know, you know?

HUO: Ah… you know, I remember that time in Paris when we set up an interview at Marian Goodman’s gallery and you ran out the back door and left me there to interview Mario, while you were walking around the Marais…

MM: Is that how it went? Maybe…

HUO: Anyway, this house is incredible! Fantastic! There’s so much work here, in the studio.

MM: I’m not the one who should be talking…

HUO: What are you working on right now?

MM: [rather amused] There’s no work to see here.

HUO: You mean here in the studio? Where is it that there’s no work to see?

MM: Out, around, maybe it’s there and no one looks at it, it isn’t seen… let’s go have a cup of coffee!

HUO: Good idea! Maybe first I could see the studio?

MM: Oh yes, of course! Go on! That room on the right is Mario’s studio

HUO: And this piece of paper? Did you write this? “When we say ‘beautiful’ we’re alive”.

MM: That came into my head at a certain point. Because when you say it in a given moment it becomes “beautiful”. Now I want to remove that, though.

HUO: Are these pieces new?

MM: References.

HUO: References?




MM: References, I mean “to themselves”.

HUO: They’re much larger than the drawings you did for Paris.

MM: Well, yes.

HUO: Are they part of a cycle?

MM: Maybe… in any case, that’s enough of these big ones for now. Especially since I have no more room. When you look out there’s always this vast open space!

[The studio looks out onto the large market square of Porta Palazzo.]

HUO: You can’t imagine how striking it is to see such big drawings, because in Paris you said that this kind of scale wasn’t your thing.

MM: Yes, true, but I was tired of working at the table.

HUO: And is there a long preparatory stage for these drawings? Are they based on sketches, or done off-the-cuff?

MM: No, directly, like that.

HUO: I like them, they almost seem conceived for a chapel…

MM: [laughing] Oh indeed! I’d like that… a chapel… and to be inside it…

HUO: But how did they come about? Was it an epiphany?

MM: Actually, it was a coincidence. Somebody sent me this paper.

HUO: And the gold and silver weren’t there in the Paris drawings, which were darker.

MM: Yes, much, much darker

HUO: And this work wasn’t done for a show?

MM: Well… no. No one asked me!

HUO: I remember being in this house in 1986, 1987. I came here as a student and you and Mario were already living here. When did you move here?

MM: I don’t remember.

HUO: And the writing on that sheet of paper, did you write that?

MM: Ah no, I don’t want you to read that. Or, well, this part is ok: “Almost”. “Image or geometry”. “The image escapes geometrical control?”

HUO: Are these questions you ask yourself?

MM: Yes. You see, geometry is controlled, it contains what’s near and what’s far, and even perspective.

HUO: But these things you write are beautiful!

MM: I only write notes on slips of paper!

HUO: We’re surrounded by artwork, the whole house is full of it, this is an incredibly productive time for you!

MM: I always work.

HUO: Every day?

MM: Yes.

HUO: Even at night?

MM: Yes. I sleep in fits and starts.

HUO: Ah! Like Leonardo, who would sleep for 15 minutes and then work for three hours, and so on.

MM: Ah yes, a genius.

HUO: Is he a hero of yours?

MM: There are no heroes, this is a heroless time.

HUO: It’s post-heroic?

MM: Who knows…




MM: Then there ’s this drawing here on the floor, this is old.

HUO: What you were saying, about geometry. It seems to me that in these new drawings the geometry is still there, but blown up.

MM: That’s it! I like that you say that. It’s true, something is left, but it’s put back into circulation.

HUO: Yes, and at the same time the scale is also blown up.

MM: That’s it.

HUO: And when you make these drawings, do you proceed by successive layerings of colour, or is it all at the same time?




MM: See, in this drawing the face hasn’t been retouched at all, nor has this other part at the top, but all the rest has. Everything recomposed.

HUO: That seems important to me, because the faces are the center of the drawing.

MM: Yes, the face is a void, an emotion, I think.

HUO: And is this process of creation fast or slow?

MM: The faces are very fast, the rest, I don’t know… fairly slow, in any case.

HUO: And where do the gold and silver come from? They also show up in the sculptures, you’ve used them before.

MM: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember where they come from.

HUO: And these texts here?

MM: Ah, this is the Middle Ages…

HUO: The Middle Ages? In what sense?

MM: The Middle Ages, because medieval painting is very architectural, there ’s architecture in the painting.

HUO: And that drawing up there, with the big hands?

MM: It’s one of the ones I did left-handed. But don’t write about that!

HUO: So now you work with both hands!

MM: Well, yes.

HUO: All these pieces are new, it’s amazing, there are so many of them. And out of all the pieces in the house, what’s the most recent?

MM: When you rang the doorbell, I was on the ladder making this [an enormous drawing hanging on a wall].

HUO: I’m thinking that your working method has changed a lot. It used to be very focused, whereas now it’s different, very physical!

MM: Naturally.




HUO: And this drawing is wonderful too… this house is a museum!

MM: You know, I made this paper myself, with Mario, in Japan.

HUO: When Mario won the Emperor’s Award?

MM: No, earlier, we went there many times.

HUO: There’s also a slip of paper with a title: “Life Stories”

MM: Oh really? Well, good.

HUO: And do your pieces all have titles?

MM: The titles come and go.

HUO: You know, I like the word you used earlier, “Almost”.

MM: That ’s what I meant, you see? And then, there ’s an expression I like a lot, it’s very… very important to me, “maybe so, maybe not”.

HUO: And this other drawing?

MM: Ah, that’s the Archangel Gabriel.

HUO: And this one next to it?

MM: That’s yet to be done, it’s there waiting.

HUO: You don’t use spray paint anymore?

MM: Almost never.

HUO: Here there’s some other things you’ve written. They’re like haikus, you know!

MM: Haikus are beautiful.

HUO: “What does icon mean from ancient Greek”. “The new icon was Byzantine Pop Art”. Is Byzantine art important to you?

MM: I don’t know how to answer because I don’t know if I’m that familiar with it, I’ve seen some fabulous mosaics, but…

HUO: “Time simulated from below is above”.

MM: What that means is that time is also an action that takes everything, and going from below to above is a different action, it’s not normal, it goes against gravity.

HUO: Like a metaphor? An elevator that runs in two directions? You know, time and action make me think of Boccioni…

MM: Ah yes, him and all of Futurism, the reinvention of the wheel…




HUO: And these books on the table here, are they things you’re reading?

MM: No, they’re Mario’s.

HUO: And what are you reading?

MM: I don’t know what to read… sometimes Marcus Aurelius.

HUO: And that drawing on the wall across from us?

MM: Ah, that’s my version of The Lady with the Ermine.

HUO: Leonardo again! It’s beautiful!

MM: Thank you.

[The dining room is full of dozens of sculptures, mostly small heads and half-busts, many of them on Mario Merz’s large glass table, which also serves as the dinner table.]

HUO: Tell me about the sculptures. How do you make them? Do you work here, in this room?

MM: At the table.

HUO: And how are they made, in terms of technique?

MM: Soft clay.

HUO: And these sculptures of heads that are down here?

MM: Oh! Junk. Things that don’t have anything to say. But I hold onto them, because every once in a while… voilà! You see them, they become visible, they talk, I see them.

HUO: So they’re waiting, they could.

MM: Yes, they could. Depending on the light and the shadows in the room, they could emerge and become visible.

HUO: There’s another head here on the wall…

MM: That’s San Juan de la Cruz, I really like this passage…
“rising beyond all science / I did not know the door / but when I found the way, / unknowing where I was, / I learned enormous things, / but what I felt I cannot say, / for I remained unknowing, / rising beyond all science.”

HUO: The text we saw earlier again. I thought that could be the title of our conversation: “When we say ‘that’s beautiful’ we’re alive”.

MM: You think?

HUO: Here there’s some copper mesh, on the floor. When I came here years ago there was much more of it.

MM: Yes, I make that mesh myself. It’s something very slow, restful.

HUO: And every once in a while it shows up in the canvases, as a second layer over the surface.

MM: Yes, sometimes.

HUO: And these sculptures, they’re sitting on these high tables.

MM: Yes, Mario made those plinths.

HUO: Ah, and could these other sculptures that are on the table wind up on those bases?

MM: Yes! Of course! Why not? This one here looked good to me this morning, in this light.

HUO: So it was waiting for this morning.

MM: Yes indeed, it could.

HUO: And this drawing of an angel, with a red square on its head, was it waiting? And then?

MM: Nothing! It was finished.

HUO: Here there are some lines of poetry. You read lots of poets? Who?

MM: This is Rilke. I read Hölderlin. And Dante, Le Rime, in vernacular.

HUO: And there’s Tagore here, too!

MM: Yes.

HUO: And contemporary poets? Do you know Alda Merini?

MM: I saw her on TV once, she seemed good…

HUO: She’s very good! I’ve interviewed her many times.

MM: Here’s Dante. “Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son / Humbler and higher than all other creatures / Fixed aim and goal of the eternal plan” (Paradiso, XXXIII).

HUO: Here’s a passage from Hölderlin, and at the bottom you’ve separated off the world “nevertheless”. “Nevertheless” is another beautiful word. And here’s another book by Ratzinger…

MM: That’s Mario’s as well.

HUO: It’s interesting that Mario was following Ratzinger’s work before he became pope.




[A large piece by Marisa takes up the entire wall between two windows that also look out on Porta Palazzo. The market is over.]

HUO: It’s interesting that this piece of yours is still in Mario’s studio…

MM: Mario wanted it!

HUO: I remember clearly that it was there when I came…

MM: Yes.

HUO: What year is it from?

MM: I don’t know.

HUO: What is it titled?

MM: It might be called Pentagram, but if that’s not right it doesn’t matter.

HUO: You know, I remember your pictures being on canvas, but now, in the last five years…

MM: On paper.

HUO: And another paradox is that on canvas they were much more like drawings, whereas now, on paper, they are much more painterly.

MM: That’s true!

[There are pinecones on the table in Mario Merz’s studio.]

MM: Mario liked them, they were important to him.

HUO: Pinecones. They’re incredible pieces of natural architecture.




HUO: And these portraits?

MM: They’re two portraits of Beatrice.

HUO: And here on the portrait you’ve attached a slip of pa- per with a passage from Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”. Is Proust important to you?

MM: Proust no, I wouldn’t say so.

HUO: Ah, and here’s another one, “It’s a good drawing”.

MM: Right, it’s true [laughs].

HUO: This tiny drawing of an angel has another slip of pa- per: “Before and after desire to encounter the harp and angel”

MM: Here there’s another one from Dante, “Ah! how deep was the disturbance in my mind / When I turned once again to gaze on Beatrice / And found I could not see hereven though / I stood close to her in the world of bliss” (Paradiso, XXV).

HUO: And this? Is it yours? “I am / with that curve of / that mountain which / I see reflected / in this lake / of glass – at Mario’s table”.

MM: That’s where I’m sitting now, see?

HUO: Marisa, thank you. Now shall we go have that cup of coffee?

MM: Oh yes! Let’s go downstairs.

HUO: And these dolls and puppets down here? They were already sitting there 25 years ago.

MM: Yes, they’re there, watching.


Originally published on Mousse 20 (September-October 2009)


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