Between 1966 and 1968 the Italian artist Mario Merz made three almost identical works of art. The two that survive are both in public collections, one at the Stadtisches Museum Abteiber, the other in the Tate Modern in London. It consists of a tall almost- conical willow structure with an open top.
The skeins of willow that form this work were woven not by the artist himself, but by the expert hands of artisans. The finished artwork is large, big enough for an adult man to fit inside, and carries connotations of rustic rural life, temporary shelters, and traditional agricultural practices. It looks simultaneously functional and functionless, simultaneously craft and art.
Merz was associated with the Arte Povera movement in Italy. Characterised by their use of unusual but everyday materials, the loose grouping of artists is said to have been Europe’s last avant-garde movement. Cono is now considered an archetypal Arte Povera work;it is usually displayed in the gallery as a stand-alone piece, a sculptural work not to be touched. A quick look at its early exhibition history however reveals a different story.
Now regularly titled Cono (cone), a name that draws attention to its essential form, the work was originally displayed with titles that highlighted its craft features. At an exhibition in 1969 it was exhibited as ‘Cestone di vimini’ (willow hamper) with the subtitle ‘con acqua all’interno in ebollizione’ (with boiling water inside). Not only does the name ’hamper’ have clear domestic overtones, it directly references the material, which draws attention to its process of manufacture . The subtitle invites some kind of culinary function: an interactive feature which had been on display the year before when the cone was exhibited with a pot of boiling beans inside, and audience members were allowed to climb in .
These early displays incorporated a sense of performance, functionality and usefulness: a far cry from the cordoned off sculpture that is on display today. Is it by coincidence that the work’s admission to the canon of art history has apparently been accompanied by the loss of its craft identity? The idea of domestic function, interaction, the prominence of material and technique (the word ‘cestone’ is close to ‘cesteria’, meaning ‘basketry’) have all been obscured over the years in favour of a more abstract, less tactile object, something more akin to ‘art’.
This subordination has led to an under-analysis of the crafting and collaboration that brought Cono into being. The names of the artisans who made Merz’s object have been lost. Their labour, time and skill have been abstracted into an artwork. This negates their presence and also underplays the importance of craft in general. By looking at Merz’s methods, materials and the history of craft practices in Italy, a complex artwork is revealed that has craft at its centre.
The images of agricultural life evoked by Cono are not incidental. The method of weaving wood to form containers for transporting hay, grass, vegetables and other items, has a long history in Italy. Although differing in construction, one such traditional object bears a particularly close resemblance to Merz’s cone.
This basket, known as a gerla, zie, or scivéra, among many other dialect names, is a woven cone-shaped basket used for the collection of crops. It is a product of north-eastern Italy and can still be bought (though mainly as a decorative item) in that region today. Made with a square base from which long supporting rods (typically of hazel) fan out into a cone shape; the basket is then woven around with thinner strips of hazel or willow to form a dense weave. A more open-weave version also exists, and is used mainly for collecting hay and foliage. The gerla has straps attached so the wearer, usually a woman, can carry the load on their back and leave their hands free for work. The allusions to a gendered type of craft are significant and found throughout Arte Povera, from crochet to knitting. They seem to situate the artworks and the artist who made them in opposition to the perhaps quite masculine aesthetic of American Minimalism while also tying into an Italian artistic tradition that frequently idealises the country through the image of women.
The gerla was a familiar feature of peasant life into the twentieth century and appears in paintings of rural life during the nineteenth century and before. These images are particularly numerous around the time of Italian unification in 1861, when a number of artists sought to convey a vision of a united Italy through depictions of, rural, mainly female, subjects.
The context in which Merz’s works were made is important for understanding this work. This was a time when nature and culture seemed to be growing apart. In the early twentieth century, Italy had lagged behind other nations when it came to industrialisation, and it was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the country experienced the economic and industrial boom that propelled it into modernity. The design and manufacturing industries flourished and agricultural occupations decreased, as many emigrated from the farming areas of the South to work in the factories in the North. Seen against this backdrop, Cono takes on a special significance. In a time of factory production, the work seems to stand for traditional hand skills, and closeness to the land. It’s archetypal shape and basis in cool maths might seem modern, even akin to American Minimalism, but it carries a warmth of human skill and time. It is an artwork embedded in a specific culture and history and while it does not lament any lost way of life, it celebrates a kind of continuity with the past rather than the rupture which the avant-garde it typically said to represent. Its cultural moment and relationship to modernity, as well as the hidden elements of craft, creation and the maker’s labour, are all deeply woven into the wicker structure.
 M. Sonnabend, Mario Merz, exhibition catalogue, (Galerie Sonnabend: Paris, April 1969).
 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera, (Phaidon: London, 1999), p. 56
Words by Kate Devine. Kate is a Techne PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London researching the role of craft in twentieth century avant-garde art and design in Italy. She is also an art writer and educator, and occasional potter.