Energy of a Potato (or Untitled or Energy) is a work by the Argentinian artist Víctor Grippo. It consists of a simple electrical circuit in which an analogue multimeter is connected to a potato by two wires. Because the electrodes on the end of the wires are of different metals – one copper, the other zinc-galvanised iron – the circuit allows the potato to act as a simple battery. The battery works through the reciprocally balanced processes of oxidation and reduction occurring at the electrodes: the acidic juices of the potato oxidise the zinc, producing electrons that pass through the wires and multimeter to the copper electrode, where they reduce hydrogen ions to form hydrogen. Because the zinc slowly dissolves as a result of this process, the electrode needs to be renewed periodically. Similarly, the potato perishes and when the work is exhibited it is usually replaced weekly. When exhibited the multimeter is usually set to display voltage (V), rather than current (mA).
This work was created using readymade objects in 1972 in Buenos Aires, where Grippo lived and worked throughout his life. He is one of a number of artists – including the Brazilians Cildo Meireles, Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, and the Chilean Eugenio Dittborn – who were responsible for the development of South American forms of conceptualism and arte povera that addressed social and political concerns through everyday objects and practices.
Before establishing himself as an artist Grippo had studied chemistry, and he carried over into his creative practice an interest in processes of transformation first investigated in the scientific field. Energy of a Potato offers a succinct instance of Grippo’s fundamental concern with the interrelationship between physical and imaginative acts of transformation. The energy stored within the potato is available for work, and this work is as much the ordinary labour of everyday life as it is the reflective engagement of the mind. In a 1976 statement on this subject, Grippo wrote:
Today, in an era when there are senseless people who boast of ‘not knowing how to do anything with their hands’, we are waiting for another era, in which an absolved mankind might recover his love for the trades, and, exercising his conscience, be able to minimise the distance between knowledge and action. Perhaps a sustained, concerted effort will at some moment improve mankind as well as society in such a way that the coincidence between art and work, as a single human ritual, will regain validity once more.
(Víctor Grippo, ‘Some Trades’, statement for an exhibition at Galería Artemúltiple, Buenos Aires, 1976, in Grippo, Pacheco, Longoni and others 2004, p.314.)
Energy of a Potato sits within Grippo’s larger series of works under the title Analogía (Analogy), begun in 1970. For example, Analogy 1 1970–1 (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts) comprises forty potatoes on a table connected with wires and electrodes to a voltmeter that can be switched on by the spectator. Here, as in many of Grippo’s works, there is an opportunity for the viewer to become actively involved with the object. Such engagement is not an imposition placed upon the viewer, but rather a sign of Grippo’s concern with the everyday tasks of making and doing and their representation within the sculptural object.
The potato is a common daily food of Latin American origin and a dietary staple throughout the world. The ‘analogy’ referred to in the series’ title is that between the transformation of matter occurring in the operation of the potato battery, and the transformation of consciousness occurring in the viewer’s encounter with the work. In his notes on the series written initially for Analogy I, Grippo related the daily presence of the potato in our meals to the daily requirement to judge our actions, to behave morally and with integrity, and to exercise freedom of thought with respect to religion and social practice. (Grippo 1976, in Grippo, Pacheco, Longoni and others 2004, p.78.) Writing in the catalogue to the artist’s posthumous retrospective in 2004, curator Angeline Scherf speaks of how for Grippo the potato ‘symbolises the neglected creative energies, the lost acquirements. By coming back to the sources of its meaning – the basic food par excellence – Grippo gives it back its political and social reality.’ (Scherf in Grippo, Pacheco, Longoni and others 2004, p.305.)
Closely related to the concerns of Energy of a Potato is Grippo’s installation Tables of Work and Reflection, also in the Tate collection (Tate T12166), which similarly focuses on an individual domestic object – the table – as a site for the conversion of contemplation into action.
Guy Brett, Transcontinental: Nine Latin American Artists, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, and Cornerhouse, Manchester 1990, reproduced p.80.
Víctor Grippo, Marcelo E. Pacheco, Ana Longoni and others, Grippo: Una Retrospectiva: Obras 1971–2001, exhibition catalogue, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires 2004, reproduced p.81.
Supported by Christie’s.