Famous Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, resembles a guru, or perhaps a philosopher from classical times, his eyes still shining bright. Receiving questions reclined on a bench at the entrance of Blenheim Palace – the site of his upcoming show - the 83 year old co-founder of Arte Povera is dressed all in black, replete with his trademark wide-brimmed felt hat. Completely at home holding court, it wouldn’t have felt out-of-place to give the veteran artist a title in our conversation, perhaps Godfather.

While we talked, a stream of workmen carried mysterious angled mirrors and shining chrome objects up the stone stairs of the entrance and into the palace’s domed reception area. At once incongruous with the stately pile yet equally familiar, associations abounded; Tintin’s Professor Calculous preparing for a scientific experiment at Marlinspike Hall, or a scene in the latest Bond film; Daniel Craig in his Aston Martin gatecrashing a SPECTRE meeting.

The mirrors are in fact Pistoletto’s work being installed in the show, and, given the fragile nature of the material, the artist didn’t seem particularly concerned at their safety. Then again, the artist’s previous work has included live performances of attacking mirrors with sledgehammers and defacing their surfaces with magic marker: “Fragments are equal to parts of the whole,” Pistoletto explains, just as Lao Tzu might have done. Foreshadowing Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and even Andy Warhol, the artist doesn’t make any of his own work which also perhaps underpins his non-precious attitude towards his art:

“I haven’t made anything since the 1950s when I stopped painting. After that I found I liked to work with assistants, to share the work, nothing can happen by being alone. Like a scientist I like to understand life through phenomenon. In order to create something there needs to be two people, then something is created that has never existed before, a baby for example. However with two people, something bigger than the sum of the parts is created, like God. This was the idea [of the hanging piece in Blenheim’s domed entrance] the symbol of infinity but expanded to produce a triple helix, the creation that is bigger than the sum of the parts, a place of combination, something new.”

Pistoletto’s inclination towards the sagely and communality is unsurprising given that the Italian artist was born into the ‘Il Duce’ years; “One person alone creating can become authoritarian, society sometimes looks for one, for easy answers…” and reached his twenties in the American funded economic boom of the 1950s.

Pistoletto started out in his family’s furniture restoration trade and enjoyed economic stability from a young age. From there he was encouraged by his mother to pursue graphic design and advertising, and when at college he discovered Italian modernists that were literally splicing open the social order there was no turning back:

“I discovered [Lucio] Fontana and [Alberto] Burri, it opened my eyes, I learnt everything about modern art. I knew I could live comfortably with my previous career, but with art I could do research on the human and I had to do it.”

By the 1960s Pistoletto was being courted by galleries in Italy and in 1966 had an important solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, while 1967 saw the artist win first prize at the São Paulo Biennale. More recent late career shows have been at the Louvre in Paris and at London’s Serpentine as well as the Venice Biennale. Pistoletto doesn’t see himself as defined by the 1960s as much as having a foundation in the era. The artist was an important contributor to ‘Arte Povera’ for example, a movement sometimes misunderstood as ‘the art of poverty’ as Pistoletto explains:

“Arte povera is in fact a concentrated vision of art, an exclusion of what is not needed, based on energy and the material physicality of life, it is based on a research of identity. After the war there was a great explosion of the new economy, a loss of ethics along with American consumerism, a feeling of living in an artificial bubble, arte povera was the moral voice.“

Combining elements of modernism and surrealism as well as pop art Pistoletto reflects that although he was aligned at the time with pop artists such as Warhol in terms of their removal of biographical content and the movement’s immediacy and accessibility, the period also saw an important divergence:

“Pop art was a critical understanding of capitalism and consumerism, but I didn’t want to just stop at criticism, the protest isn’t the finality. I am an artist for preposition not for protest. When there’s a revolution everything goes back to the same as it was before, no-one knows how to organise the situation. In the 60s I was making theatre in the street, after 1968 the big dream turned into a nightmare, especially in Italy with the Red Brigade etc. it was art itself that could give me answers. My mirror paintings gave me my first answers, for me it combined philosophy and spirituality – I discovered a balance between different sectors of life.”

Over the course of our conversation Pistoletto uses the term ‘transcendancy’ repeatedly, and therein lies a key concept of his work which, though echoing from the tumultuous past very much has a resonance for the equally tumultuous now. As Pistoletto says:

“We need to find an ethic beyond religion, beyond the pyramidal system of the church and social order. Everyone needs to take maximum responsibility. The responsibility always seems to be very big, in reality just daily responsibility is needed.”

There was an apparent inconsistency in what the artist was implying; a show at Blenheim - after all one of Europe’s most magnificent palaces - didn’t that somehow undermine his counter-cultural proposition? Pistoletto’s answer to this conundrum came naturally, a career-long consideration:

“The mirror shows life as it is, the viewers become part of the work, without restriction. I try to propose something that is already in people’s mind, their best desire, the big ego creates the sublime sometimes. Art was previously commissioned by the palace, but the 20th century wanted to be autonomous and independent from the palace. Now there needs to be a balance between poverty outside and the riches within. It’s fantastic and very important that Blenheim want to bring art inside. I am, free, they offered me a chance to be free here”.