At the College Art Association conference last month, I heard quite an interesting paper entitled "Arte Povera: Toward a Theory of Alchemical Ambivalence," given by Karen Pinkus from the University of Southern California. Many sessions of the CAA are recorded and may be purchased, though I don't know if this one was.
Here is the abstract of the paper:
Although there is a tendency in modern art and criticism to use the word “alchemy” simply to mean “magical transformation” of materials and self, the Arte Poveristi—Gilberto Zorio, in particular—move beyond a merely thematic use of the term. Critics such as Germano Celant and Maurizio Calvesi also invoked alchemy in their writings and curatorial practices, often more than merely rhetorically. It is easy to see how alchemy—a transmutation of a base into a noble material—was attractive to a movement developed around questions of value. When Zorio fills a vessel with a reagent that continues to change after the object is “completed” and put on the market as “gold,” he reveals the hidden ambivalence that profoundly structures the relation of theory and practice in alchemy. Ambivalence counters the idea of an art object as finite or unitary, echoing a key concern of Arte Povera. I use alchemical ambivalence to explore Arte Povera in its social and political context and in relation to the production, distribution, and consumption of the art object in Italy after fascism.