Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mario Merz's The Philosopher's Egg

At 55,000 square meters, Zurich Railway Station is one of the largest covered spaces in central Europe. Not just a busy terminus, it is a place that is rich in works of modern art.  In a previous post I briefly discussed Niki de Saint Phalles' Guardian Angel.

Mario Merz: The Philospher's Egg

High above the commuters, we have Mario Merz's The Philosopher's Egg. The work is inspired by the Fibonacci progression, that famous mathematical sequence, discovered in the 13th century by Leonardo of Pisa (Leonardo Fibonacci). Fibonacci's infinite progression (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, etc) which is built by adding a number to the following number (1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8: etc) apparently reveals the hidden mathematical design that underlies most natural growth, especially spirals. It defines the growth of snail shells, plants and leafs, pine cones, pineapples and the skins of reptiles; it describes the number of petals in a flower, the geometry of seed heads, the arrangement of leaves along a stem, the lumps on a cauliflower, the way a pineapple fits together.  As the mathematician Ian Stewart writes in his new book  The Mathematics of Life (New York, Basic Books, 2011) "Marigolds typically have 13 petals. Asters have 21. Many daisies have 34 petals; if not, they usually have 55 or 89." (p. 39)

Leonardo of Pisa first discovered the Fibonacci sequence when he was studying animals in 1202 - specifically the reproductive rates of rabbits. (Mind you, although it is generally claimed that he discovered the progression, it was known to Indians scientists at least a thousand years earlier.) Merz has chosen to focus on animals in his work of art, composed of spirals of neon tubes punctuated with birds and a large reindeer.

In an obituary for the artist that appeared in the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote that Mario Merz's work was "permeated with ideas of growth and fecundity and spreading across floors, walls and ceilings -- had an exuberance that could be alternately carnivalesque or spare, pastoral and populist."

It is said (by some) that Merz's construction enhances natural and spiritual energy. I'm not sure. I would describe this work as being spare and populist, without being popular. I must admit, the first time I saw it was one July and, for the life of me, I thought the good Swiss hadn't bothered to remove their Christmas decorations. Perhaps it was the reindeer.

Mario Merz: The Philospher's Egg

I've been looking at The Philosopher's Egg, on and off, for eleven years. I would like to say it is growing on me. Perhaps it is, but only very, very slowly. The increase of my appreciation certainly does not parallel the Fibonacci progression.


  1. Hello:
    We have long since been intrigued by the Fibonacci sequence and its occurrence in natural forms and so we find this art work most interesting. We too are not sure that the work itself is so appealing but the theory behind its construction and its placement in the vast space of the Zurich Railway Station is certainly of interest.

  2. Hi Jane and Lance,
    I agree that the idea is appealing, more so than the execution. Mind you, my photos are not the best quality.

  3. I love the Fibonacci sequence though and I always like to see art inspired by science. It's wonderful too to see public art in a railway station,

  4. I'll be writing in future posts about more public art in Zurich.