Collected Works: Art
Venus of the Rags
by Michelangelo Pistoletto
A mountain of mismatched material looms. Shirts, ties, and underpants have been flung together with abandon. Sleeves and legs of beige, red, and blue form a single, grubby dune. Poised to add another item to the heap is a nude woman, apparently cleft from marble, stony drapery trailing from her fingers. Her smooth, mineral form is a textural foil to the organic grain of flimsy, throwaway cotton. Seen from behind, her neck tilts, curving her spine into a question mark.
We encounter Venus of the Rags as a salvaged scrap of antique art, ransacked from the archaeological museum and smuggled into a white-walled art gallery. Rather than a specimen of prize rarity, this sculpture is a copy of a nineteenth-century pastiche by Bertel Thorvaldsen, Venus with Apple. Her image has not just been recycled, but recast as a cheap knock-off, a bargain found in a garden centre. She has emerged from layers of earth as a trophy of bootleg booty.
Juxtaposed with the fermenting cluster, Venus is reanimated, rudely awoken from a long slumber by the lingering scent of washing untouched for several centuries. To dump a pile of socks at the feet of a goddess is a levelling gesture, but the pyramidal structure does not take the classical down a peg. Instead, it aspires to the architectural zenith of the ancient world. We find the antique’s original, gaudy colours in the rags, rather than in the figure’s grey state, wasted by time and dust.
Venus does not give us a helping hand, nor does she turn to greet her admirers. No longer petrified in soil, she is aware of our gaze but declines to meet it. She refuses to acknowledge our presence, or to humour our curiosity. Whether the discarded textiles that she faces erode the hierarchies of art, or slyly pile up to their pinnacles, we should not demand her attention. Toppled from Mount Olympus, Venus of the Rags is far too busy dealing with the dirty laundry of endless classical revivals.
Words by Elizabeth Brown