05/15/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

What Is The Meaning Of Art? A Master Of Arte Povera Gives The Answer

Turin's Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in the fabulous spaces of the baroque Castle of Rivoli, recently dedicated a retrospective to Piero Gilardi. Focused on the first 22 years of his career, the exhibition covered his early Nature Carpets, which brought him considerable international success in the 1960s, and a wide range of works illustrating his decision to leave the Art System and devote himself to "creative" charity work in a psychiatric hospital and, later, his direct involvement in social and political activism. Piero Gilardi in many ways anticipated later movements in seeing the aesthetic value of shared space and collaboration -- a value underpinning the open-source, Internet-based nature of tech-art today. He pioneered the "art of sharing," ushering politics into art and linking art to social issues in a participatory way. For Gilardi, ethics come before aesthetics.

Andrea Bellini, curator of the exhibition, calls Gilardi a "forerunner of relational art." Now I don't want to take issue with Bellini or challenge the paternity of Gilardi's work, but to call it simply "relational aesthetics" -- a rubric invented by Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s and misused ever since by curators lacking in imagination--hardly does it justice. Gilardi's work goes beyond the "relational"; his sense of "collaboration" embraces a shared goal and implicitly contains the sharing of knowledge and action, the horizontal dimension of participatory democracy. These artistic elements have plenty in common with the concepts that underpin art in a globalized world and the ethics of art in our global, digital age. Open source, the art of networking, Internet freedom, horizontal democracy, freedom of speech, participation and new forms of social representation are all political issues that technology always brings to the fore, concepts which people make either positive or negative use of.

So let's take a look at how and why social issues infiltrate Gilardi's art. As an outsider to the world of Italian art, Gilardi was a leading figure in the emergence of the Arte Povera movement. At the opening of the exhibition he explained:

My break with painting was marked by the Machines of the Future exhibition (1963), a sort of techno-scientific slide show on the future development of a cybernetic civilization. It was a Dadaist and radically anti-aesthetic gesture.

His radical refusal to consider an artwork as just another consumer good led him in the late 1960s and early 1970s to give up making objects altogether in favor of a direct involvement in social activism.

The exhibition featured a number of Gilardi's early works, including Discussion Machine (1963), Mood Suit (1964), the polyurethane works Igloo (1964) and Broken Trilite (1964), and examples of his Nature Carpets, such as Maize (1967) and Dry Torrent (1967) -- all of which are anything but pop. Instead, they have a cybernetic feel to them because they give feedback -- something typical of the poetic use of tech-machines. Alongside those works, on show at the exhibition was a series of documents, original drawings, the author's writings, poster designs and footage of agitprop performed live on the streets. Inspired by Soviet and Mexican socialist propaganda, he began to use popular graphics to produce poster art, fueling a debate with fellow artists who were painters. In the words of Gilardi, "The form and the artistic language were equivalent because this was an emancipation from style, which had to be overcome." These days such matters look antiquated, especially now that artists have largely absorbed these issues and naturally incorporate them in their work, as re-mixes and mash-ups triumph in our connected and overloaded image era. History, though, teaches that freedom of style was a hard-fought battle.

Gilardi also turned his attention to the meaning of art, which he summed up in clear, simple though profound words: "Art contains a truth. Which kind? A truth that is open and infinite, that is neither attested nor proved. Art contains a truth that is potential; it is not verifiable or demonstrable, but rather open and interpretable." His idea of art is of a threshold of distributed and unfinished multitudes. It is not a borderline delineated by dogma, by a negational metaphysics, but a continuous coming into being, and hence a mirror of life itself.

The exhibition ended with a series of works from the museum's collection chosen by Gilardi himself as part of The Living Boxes project. Gilardi chose works that he felt best elicited unexpected associations and connections with the artists with whom he has worked closely over the past fifty years, including Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Long, Jun Takita, Michel Blazy and Eduardo Kac.

Piero Gilardi: Collaborative Effects (1962-1985) will be on view at Van Abbemuseum from September 8, 2012 to January 6, 2013 and Nottingham Contemporary from January 26 -April 7, 2013.