Mario Merz envisions the contemporary artist as a nomad, shifting from one environment to another and resisting stylistic uniformity while mediating between nature and culture. Since 1968 Merz has used the hemispherical form of the igloo—a transitory dwelling—to express his faith in the liberating powers of restlessness with the world and its values. He assembles the rounded structures with segmented, metal armatures, usually covering them with a net and bits of clay, wax, mud, burlap, or leather, glass fragments, or bundles of twigs. Phrases making political or literary references, spelled out in neon, often span the domes. The earliest such example, Giap Igloo (1968), bears a slogan attributed to the North Vietnamese military strategist General Vo Nguyen Giap: “If the enemy masses his forces, he loses ground; if he scatters, he loses strength.“ The contradiction inherent in this phrase captures Merz’s conception of the igloo as a momentary shelter that, despite its perpetual relocation, remains a constant.
Merz often uses materials indigenous to the sites of his exhibitions to reinforce the nomadic essence of the igloo and its references to a humble economic system close to nature. For a 1979 show in Australia, for instance, he used eucalyptus leaves to blanket an igloo. He also adjusts the structure’s scale and intricacy of design—more recent examples have been pierced by curving tables, surrounded by stacks of newspapers, or clustered in groups—to correspond to the environment in which they are exhibited. Unreal City, created for the Guggenheim Museum’s spiraling rotunda on the occasion of the artist’s 1989 retrospective, is a tripartite igloo: the large, glass-covered structure is transparent and reveals smaller wood and rubber versions nestled within. As in all of Merz’s sculptures (and much Arte Povera work in general), this piece embodies both beauty and violence: the shards of broken glass clamped onto this fragmented edifice are at once delicate and dangerous. The neon phrase ”Città irreale“ (Italian for ”unreal city“), suspended across a wire-mesh triangle on the dome, refers to the intensely subjective, surreal quality of Merz’s art. Although the nomadic artist may shift from one location or style or medium to another, creating momentary theaters of meaning, the sites visited are, ultimately and essentially, places in the mind.