Artist's Breath consists of the remnants of a red balloon tied to a piece of string on which there are two lead seals. These elements are attached to a wooden base to which is also affixed a small metal plaque bearing the artist's name and the title of the work:
Originally the balloon was fully inflated with Manzoni's breath but as it deflated the rubber became stuck to the wood underneath. It is now brittle and, in places, very fragile. The string is attached to the base only where it meets the balloon; elsewhere it can be freely moved about and is kept in place only by the weight of the lead seals, which have the name 'Piero Manzoni' punched into them. The total number of examples of Artist's Breath which Manzoni made is not known: Battino and Palazzoli identify eleven in their 1991 catalogue raisonné (pp.443-5) but the Archivio Opera Piero Manzoni in Milan have archived sixteen to date - nine white, seven red and one blue - and may yet identify more.
Artist's Breath was made at a time when Manzoni was producing a variety of works based on provocative and controversial performances. These included drawing 'lines' of various lengths (see Tate T01871 and T01874), marking eggs with his thumbprints and then eating them, and signing the body of a woman to designate her a 'living sculpture'. A number of his works comprised the fetishisation and commodification of his own body substances, the most famous of these being the cans of his own excrement which he sold for their weight in gold (Artist's Shit 1961). Also in this category were the Bodies of Air, produced between 1959-60. These wooden boxes, each containing a balloon, a stand and an air pump, were an important precursor for Artist's Breath as the balloon could either be inflated by the purchaser or, for an additional charge, by Manzoni himself, who valued his breath at 200 lire per litre.
'When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal', Manzoni said in 1960 (Serpentine Gallery, London, p.144). Each Artist's Breath was, however, far from eternal and the value of the deflated balloon, emptied of the very breath that warranted it, has become a humorous paradox. The balloon can also be seen as an object of pathos, the result of a gesture of creative resignation that is now a metaphor for a deflated body. Germano Celant, the pre-eminent critic of Manzoni's work, has described the cultural atmosphere in which Manzoni began working as one 'still pervaded by the tragedy of the Second World War and strongly marked by a sense of failure bound up with that vast, historic catastrophe' (Serpentine Gallery, London, p.17).
Two important precedents for Artist's Breath were Marcel Duchamp's 50cc of Paris Air, 1919 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), in which the artist sealed fifty cubic centimetres of Paris air inside a pharmaceutical vessel, and Yves Klein's Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility performances, begun in 1959, in which designated volumes of immateriality were ceded only on the payment of gold.
Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni, New York 1972
Freddy Battino and Luca Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni: Catalogue raisonné, Milan 1991, p.84, catalogue no. 989, reproduced p.444
Piero Manzoni, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1998, reproduced p.147 in colour