Mario Merz

Untitled (A Real Sum is a Sum of People)

1972

Original title
Senza titolo (una somma reale è una somma di gente)
Medium
10 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper and neon lights
Dimensions
Image, each: 260 x 260 mm
overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Tate Members 2006
Reference
T12192

Summary

Untitled (A Real Sum is a Sum of People) is a sequence of ten framed silver gelatin photographic prints arranged in a horizontal line beneath a succession of nine blue neon digits. The photographs depict artists and art dealers dining at Ponte delle Gabelle restaurant in Milan. The first nine images have been shot from the same position, but the tenth shows a different part of the restaurant. The sum of diners depicted in each photograph corresponds to the figure in neon directly above each image. These run from left to right, with the number of diners increasing according to the rules of the Fibonacci sequence, which are reflected in the numbers written above them. This mathematical sequence, named after the twelfth-century Italian mathematician who identified it, works by adding together the two previous numbers to arrive at the next. As such, although the first photograph shows an empty room with no neon number written above it, one diner sits alone in both the second and third photographs, two diners in the fourth, and so on, until the tenth image in which thirty-four diners are represented. The neon digits are formed to look like a handwritten script.

This work was created in 1972 by the Italian artist Mario Merz. The neon tubes that make up the work were commissioned by the artist and constructed from a series of clear glass tubes bent into shape and filled with inert argon gas. The tubes are secured by crude wire fixings to wall-mounts, and each number is connected to the next by a wire that carries an electrical current through the sequence. These electrical components are visible when the work is installed. The version of Untitled (A Real Sum is a Sum of People) in Tate’s collection is from an edition of five.

Untitled (A Real Sum is a Sum of People) is one of four parallel works produced by Merz in 1972, each bearing the same name but with variations to the content, the location of the restaurant depicted and the overall composition. The first work in this series was orchestrated inside a factory cafeteria in Naples and photographed by Italian photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni, while further iterations took place in the King George VI pub in Kentish Town, London, and the Restaurante della Spada, Turin. All four versions depict people gathered around tables and investigate Fibonacci’s sequence through the documentation of fluid social groupings.

Merz began his career as an abstract painter but swiftly abandoned this in favour of more radical creative practices. He began working with neon in the late 1960s, incorporating it into his installations alongside ordinary objects such as umbrellas and raincoats. During this time Merz became a major figure in arte povera, a movement identified by the art critic Germano Celant in 1967. The artists associated with arte povera frequently explored the relationship between art and life as it was made manifest in natural processes or cultural dynamics, such as the social gatherings documented in each iteration of Merz’s Untitled (A Real Sum is a Sum of People).

From 1970 onwards Merz devoted much of his work to exploring the Fibonacci sequence in various media (see, for instance, Fibonacci Tables 1974–6, Tate T03673). In a statement printed in the catalogue to a 1989 solo exhibition held at the Solomon R. Guggnneheim Museum, New York, Merz said of his group of neon works exploring the sequence that ‘I did this series because it is biologically conceivable, because it has a direction, and above all, roots’ (Merz in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1989, p.109). The Fibonacci sequence had originally been used to describe reproductive patterns in rabbits, and this statement from Merz suggests that the artist was interested in exploring it due to its expression of the ordered geometry of the natural world and its implications for biological and broader scientific discovery.

Further reading
Mario Merz, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1972.
Mario Merz, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1989.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Arte Povera, London 1999, pp.252–4.

Thomas Scutt
December 2013

Supported by Christie’s.