In a former cinema transformed into Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, Tuscany, a ‘creative dialogue’ unfolds between Michelangelo Pistoletto and Pascale Marthine Tayou. Titled Una cosa non esclude l’altra – One thing doesn’t exclude the other, the exhibition is a dynamic conversation between works by the pioneer of Italy's Arte Povera movement and the Cameroonian-born, Ghent-based artist. Two artists of different cultural backgrounds – one European, the other African – and of different generations confront each other, their contrasting visions reflected through Pistoletto's quadri specchianti, the painted mirrors begun in 1962. Awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2003, Pistoletto, 85, is considered by Tayou as a ‘maestro’, while Tayou, 53, is a mid-career artist of international renown. This complementarity gives way to a unique composition, a melting pot of pluralistic ideas that could only arise through this encounter.

The initiator of this dialogue was Lorenzo Fiaschi, who co-founded Galleria Continua with two friends, Mario Cristiani and Maurizio Rigillo, in 1990. 'One could say that Lorenzo was the third artist who brought Pascale Marthine Tayou and me into conversation and mediated between us,' says Pistoletto, who included Tayou's work in Evento, an arts festival for which he was artistic director, in Bordeaux in 2011. 'My reaction was very positive because I knew Pascale Marthine Tayou well and I'm interested in duality and doing things together with other artists. Through duality we can always create something new – a balance and composition that didn't exist before and is more interesting than the proposal itself.' Tayou, meanwhile, says, 'Pistoletto's engagement with humanity and society is something that brought us close together. We sent our works to San Gimignano and when they arrived, we made choices and decided on the scenography directly. It was a game. How can you be serious with someone so strong? So we had a conversation on the ground and progressively that gave shape to aspects that weren't so weak.'

Perimetro Sospeso 2019 white painted iron, mirrors and mixed media 240 x 970 x 650 cm
Greeting visitors at the entrance to the gallery is Pistoletto's Grande sfera di giornali (Progetto per un museo), 1966-2019 – a gigantic sphere made from macerated pages of newspapers in numerous languages pressed together. The first time that Pistoletto created a newspaper sphere, originally in a smaller version, was in 1966 when he and some artist friends rolled it down the street in an 'action'; his first large sphere was realised for the Venice Biennale in 1976. On the walls surrounding Pistoletto's sphere is Tayou's installation, Daily Life (2019), comprising dozens of brightly coloured, flashing neons in several languages that relate to fast food, stores and services.

'The newspaper sphere was created with a physical dimension and when we rolled it in the street people didn't ask themselves about whether it was an artwork,' Pistoletto recalls. 'All the politics and daily communication in a newspaper become something that is thrown away. Pascale has made something similar with the neons, creating a big dynamic piece about communication and political modernity.' For Tayou, the similarity pertains to language and writing. 'The neons are a form of public outdoor writing and the sphere talks about the world in different languages in newspapers. I talk about everyday life and so does Pistoletto.' This echoing continues with two juxtaposed sets of portraits: five black-and-white portraits from 1969 of Pistoletto pulling faces for the camera and colour photos taken by Tayou's then four-year-old son of the artist wearing his mother's dress and striking poses reminiscent of her – a reminder of how Tayou added an 'e' to his first and middle names in the 1990s, giving himself a female name.

DAILY LIFE, Pascale Marthine Tayou, 2019 neon and LED signs site-specific dimensions
The interplay between the two artists takes on an operatic dimension in the former movie theatre downstairs. Pistoletto has delineated a rectangular space by using mirrors and Tenda di cavi elettrici (1967), consisting of light bulbs hanging from electric cables in a gap. Historic works from Pistoletto's multi-disciplinary practice are on display, such as Venere degli stracci inclinata (1967) – a statue of Venus on a pile of disused clothes. Pistoletto bought a concrete copy of neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's Venus from a garden statues retailer. In his studio, he placed it to support a pile of rags that he would use to clean the surfaces of his quadri specchianti. Impressed by the situation between this symbol of eternal beauty with remnants of mass consumption, Pistoletto turned it into an artwork. 'It creates a balance between the historic memory of beauty and the bad image of consumption,' Pistoletto remarks.

On the ground is the only artwork created jointly by Pistoletto and Tayou: a pile of bricks 'dressed' in rags by Pistoletto (first made in 1968) and painted granite stones by Tayou. 'We combined a concept of construction, interpreted by two different people, about everyday materials,' Pistoletto says. 'It's as if we were drinking from the same glass,' Tayou adds, laughing. A line of washing, a wicker basket and a stepladder (also by Pistoletto) adds to this mise-en-abyme, in the centre of which is Pistoletto's L'Albero (1983), a towering polyurethane sculpture of two interlocked bodies with an enormous hand rising upwards, the movement contrasting with Tayou's Black Forest (2019) of white, spindly branches hanging downwards from the ceiling. 'Pistoletto's character is leaning up to the sky, like someone in Paradise Lost, perhaps imploring and holding onto the ceiling through the branches,' Tayou observes. 'It's a bit like a dream, with as much lightness as possible.' Just one of Tayou's Poupées Pascales (2019), crystal sculptures wearing a motley of materials that draw on the tradition of African tribal arts, is included, like a guest overpowered by Pistoletto's oeuvre. Tayou started making the Poupées Pascales in 2005 after glimpsing a Murano glass vase and mistaking it for an African tribal sculpture during a trip to Venice.

Nicchia 1989 wood 201 x 250 x 65 cm
Perimetro Sospeso 2019 white painted iron, mirrors and mixed media 240 x 970 x 650 cm
Assembled in a square outside, staring at the closed-off installation, is Tayou's Shanghai Colonial (2019): a group of elongated, wooden African sculptures of men and women in snazzily coloured western garments. 'They're human beings who want to enter the exhibition,' Tayou exclaims. 'The exhibition begins as if we're pushing Pistoletto's sphere in the street and then there's the crowd of people looking at us. It's like a reflection of the world looking at itself.' Based on figurines of colonial characters, the piece was inspired by a story about a white, colonial man asking an African sculptor to make his portrait and how the sculptor represented him as a black man wearing western clothes. At Galleria Continua, the piece appears to evoke the aspirations of African migrants. Yet its title refers to China's trade investment and influence in Africa replacing that of Europe.

Did the difference between Tayou and Pistoletto's origins provoke any conflict or tension when they were creating the exhibition? 'Our difference in origins has no meaning; we're both human beings who love life and are generous,' Tayou replies. 'So it's been easy to share a dialogue in this meeting point between two curious people. There was no conflict or shock.'

The desire for social inclusion reoccurs around the theatre's perimeter. Pistoletto's 2016 mirror paintings with 'respect' written in four languages – Italian, English, Chinese and Arabic – are presented on Tayou's Black Holes (2019) wallpaper of unfathomable black shapes of varying sizes, representing a borderless horizon. On the far opposite wall is Tayou's mural, Universalis (2019), depicting an imaginary map with countries and borders remodelled in a different arrangement, inviting the visitor to consider the randomness of birth. Recognising a parallel between Tayou's wall drawing and his broken mirrors, Pistoletto says, 'They both resemble territories.'

Il Rispetto, Michelangelo Pistoletto, (general view) 2016, mirror, colored wood and gilded frame, 250 x 150 cm each

Notions about the mirror lie at the heart of Pistoletto's work. His quadri specchianti express how a painted mirror encapsulates the past and the future whilst being an artwork animated by the engagement of the visitor in the present. In a balcony above the movie theatre are three quadri specchianti, each showing a fixed image of a performance of a young, nude woman leaning into a pile of rags, interpreting the Venus in Venere degli stracci inclinata. They were made during Pistoletto's South American tour organised by Galleria Continua last year, one in a museum in Chile, the other two at a collectors' villa in Miami.

On the opposite balcony are three of Tayou's Kids Spirits (2011) – collages made with pages from children's used school notebooks that he found in Cameroon. Against the background of children's notes is Tayou's intervention of drawings of children, steps and ladders – symbolic of his youthful quest for freedom before leaving for Europe – as well as poetic assemblages of cotton threads, beads, chalks, needles and feathers. Next to these are Cristal Masks (2019), each composed of two African wooden masks from market stalls in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, that are placed on coloured crystal, rock-shaped sculptures. They exemplify how displacement and transposition underscore Tayou's practice, which reflects upon postcolonial issues, national and cultural identity, and the duality of his African heritage and European experience.

The dialogue between Pistoletto and Tayou continues in other rooms. Standing in front of Pistoletto's Fame (1989), a single bed/sofa with a headrest reading FAME, are six of Tayou's Totem Cristal (2019). These totemic elaborations of Poupées Pascale metamorphose the African mask and totems into male and female crystal figures dressed in textiles, artificial flowers and beaded necklaces. In Italian, the word 'fame' means hunger, in stark contrast to its celebrity connotation in English. Are Tayou's crystal characters thinking about lining their bellies or dreaming about success? As Pistoletto says, 'We're in between the physical necessity to nourish ourselves and the desire to be recognised.' For Tayou, the piece mirrors one's interpretation of 'fame'. 'You look at the room to have your own vision of the world,' he says. 'Does 'fame' mean what the others think of you or what you think of yourself?'

Cristal Masks, Pascale Marthine Tayou, 2019, crystal, wooden masks, 86 x 54 x 34 cm

The interaction between Pistoletto, Tayou and the third person of the visitor is acutely felt in a room where four Totem Cristal, playfully adorned with chestnut shells, bundles of fabric and fur, stand in front of the concave wood and acrylic, iron and aluminium Nicchia (1989), or 'niche' by Pistoletto. 'The niche always serves to encompass a sculpture and in each niche I encompassed a work by Pascale,' Pistoletto explains. On the facing wall, mirrors broken into eight parts give multiple, divided and fragmented reflections. Walking around this mise-en-scène creates endlessly changing, distorted reflections of you, the visitor, conversing with the works.

This third element of the visitor's participation amid the relationship between Pistoletto and Tayou's works coheres with Pistoletto's 2003 manifesto about the Terzo Paradiso. The Third Paradise is a symbol formed through a third circle being inserted into the centre of the infinity sign, the figure 8. The idea is about overcoming the conflict between the polarities of the natural and artificial worlds by giving life back to Earth through science, technology and art. 'I created this sign by drawing two lines that intercross to create a circle, the two exterior circles being different elements of duality that reunite to make something that didn't exist before,' Pistoletto explains. 'It's a symbol of creation. When we work with other people, we create something that is not only individual or personal but common and political because politics starts from the awareness of two or several people who organise society.' A video narrates how Pistoletto has made numerous site-specific installations of the Terzo Paradiso. In 2013, the sign was exhibited on I. M. Pei's glass pyramid of the Louvre. Two years later, Pistoletto used a plough to create it in a field on the island of San Servolo during the Venice Biennale.

Pistoletto's desire to educate and transmit ideas inspired him to open an eponymous foundation, Fondazione Pistoletto Cittadellarte, in Biella, his birth town in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, in 1994. 'I made a manifesto, stating that it was time for the artist to put all the elements that compose everyday life – politics, economy, religion, communication and behaviour – together,' he says. 'Fundamentally, it's to educate young people who will govern our society.' In May, Cittadellarte held Next Generation, Please! – three days of debates, conferences and workshops on the themes of work and education in Europe.

Me as my Mother, Pascale Marthine Tayou, 2010 6 photographs 54 x 70,5 cm each

Other videos about Pistoletto recount the origins of Arte Povera, whose artists defied traditional practices and materials in Turin, and how the name was coined by the Italian critic, Germano Celant. One learns that Pistoletto's father was an artist and antique restorer and that Pistoletto first worked in advertising. On other screens is Tayou's Snapshoot Africa (2004) series dedicated to the artists Romuald Hazoumè, Zinsou Hounsa Amakpé, Georges Adéagbo and Calixte Dakpogan that Tayou filmed on the continent. Indeed, the videos capture how both Pistoletto and Tayou have been actively involved in supporting their respective art communities.

The concept of society is further conveyed in Pistoletto's Rotazione dei corpi (1989). A photographic print on Plexiglas of the galaxy superposed with the same image underneath can be moved around on a table to create different centres, indicating that there is no single celestial point. Surrounding this is Tayou's Fetish Wall (2019), composed of hundreds of colourful, rusty nails of different lengths jutting out from the walls like a constellation. 'Everything turns around each one of us,' Pistoletto says. 'Pascale put nails all around the space; each nail is like a person and the centre of the whole.'

So what did Tayou learn from the experience of making this joint exhibition with Pistoletto? 'What I learned is Pistoletto's modesty, his virtue and generosity,' Tayou replies graciously about their warm rapport. 'I'd like to thank Pistoletto for being a friend and I'm very eager for our conversation to continue.' Indicating that the Italian artist might have been challenging at times, Tayou adds, laughing, 'Thank you for torturing me.' Pistoletto, for his part, says, 'Everything I represent, and Pascale too, is an illumination, a positive image, nothing to do with rebellion. But there's always a critique underneath that leads to our proposals.' Referring to the title of the exhibition, he says, 'It's very important that something contrary or distant should never be excluded.'

Cristal Masks, Pascale Marthine Tayou, 2019, crystal, wooden masks, 107 x ø 23 cm

Una cosa non esclude l’altra – One thing doesn’t exclude the other, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy, until 1 September

Michelangelo Pistoletto & Pascale Marthine Tayou - 'Una cosa non esclude l’altra' exhibition view, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, 2019
Pascale Marthine Tayou
FETISH WALL by Michelangelo Pistoletto 2019 rusted nails, paint site-specific dimensions
Michelangelo Pistoletto & Pascale Marthine Tayou - 'Una cosa non esclude l’altra' exhibition view, 2019