In the Bosco di San Francesco, at Assisi, there is a work by Michelangelo Pistoletto, named Terzo Paradiso, a grove of olive trees set out in a variation on the sign for infinity. Visitors are invited to participate in the work by walking on the path through the grove, thereby duplicating or tracing the expanded infinity sign.
Different as it is in form and intention, this work by Pistoletto offers an alternative notion of infinity to the one pursued for so long by Roman Opalka. Pistoletto’s infinity is available by means of its sign, and may be realised, however briefly, in following its course. For him, infinity is not an aspiration but a space of possibility. The visitor who walks attentively along the path may enter a different condition. Pistoletto’s olive grove is a device for accessing a paradisal renewal of creative possibility.
In contrast, Opalka’s numbers move towards an infinity that never arrives, a purely numerical, and therefore impossible, infinity. In his long working life, he never got any nearer to the infinite than in making his first canvas. Of course, this is something of which Opalka was perfectly aware. His life’s work may be seen as one long momento mori, within which the distance between achievement and mortality could be kept constantly in view. The numbers 1 and 5607249 are the most poignant in his work.
Where is the place of the viewer in this enterprise ? We can watch Opalka’s steadfastness, hopefully with sympathy. We can understand, from the start, the heroic nature of the work, with its built-in certainty of failure. For us too, it can function as a reminder of mortality, a great chastening example. But we remain onlookers at a remarkable endeavour.
This sense of spectatorship is confirmed by the aesthetic qualities of the Detail paintings, the beautiful flow of marks across the canvas, perhaps a legacy of abstract expressionism, or tachism, or lettrism, in what is essentially a conceptual art. The distance here is not that between infinity and mortality but between the skilled artist and the unskilled viewer. Or one might perceive a distance between the rigour of the concept and an inherited mode of execution.
The generosity of Terzo Paradiso is that Pistoletto encourages us to participate in the work more directly. We become co-creators. Along the course of the path among the olives, we walk in paradise. To the two connected circles of infinity, Pistoletto has added a third circle, the three standing for nature, for culture, and for a sustainable balance between them. This to-be-achieved balance is the third paradise. Perhaps for Pistoletto infinity itself needs augmentation, by meaning and participation.
Opalka’s course is one of acceptance – acceptance of the task at hand, acceptance of mortality. Freedom, or any possible happiness, is to be found within the condition of things, in faithfulness to the task and in denial of any possible freedom outside of the task or outside of mortality and the given. To activate Terzo Paradiso, you follow the olive path round an expanded infinity, and then you step away from it, into your own freedom.