A colleague of ours had the opportunity last week to attend the opening events for Italian artist Giuseppe Penone’s outdoor exhibition in New York’s Madison Square Garden, and offered the following observation.
Giuseppe Penone joins the ranks of prominent sculptors (Sol Le Witt, Jessica Stockholder, Mark di Suvero, and Leo Villareal, among others) to have shown their work in the urban oasis of Madison Square Park, as part of the contemporary art program Mad Sq. Art. Three of Penone’s signature tree sculptures are currently planted in the center of the park, on view through February 9, 2014. Cast from bronze, and so eloquently lifelike that you might miss them, the twisting, bending branches of Penone’s trees behave, on second glance, strangely. They reach for the ground, clasp one another’s limbs like hands, and cradle impossible objects: giant stone boulders taken from the river near Penone’s Italian home.
On a recent night, onlookers circled the sculptures’ trunks, painted a realistic flat gray, with glints of polished bronze showing through, touching their surfaces to check that the bark was metal and not wood. A look up, toward the sky, reveals the pale boulders clustered in the three trees’ branches, backlit by the spire of the Empire State Building.
After looking at some of the striking images of the installation available online, we were inspired to return to the equally striking publication on Penone that Yale University Press recently distributed for our colleagues in Belgium, Mercatorfonds. This book begins with a long and thoughtful interview between Penone and art historian Benjamin Buchloh, and we are pleased to share with you the following excerpt that addresses Penone’s attraction to, and artistic approach to, the tree form.
B[uchloh]: For example, your work with trees is almost the opposite of a readymade. You start with the industrial object and you return, through a process of re-naturalization, to the natural object. It’s interesting to see how that goes against industrial order. To recover what, exactly? What do you want to recover? Nature? An origin? An essence?
P[enone]: You could say an origin. What fascinated me was the idea of recovering things in time. It’s partly the fascination that archaeology can have, when the find things in layers of sediment, layers of history. It’s a work that doesn’t simply emerge from an analysis and ideas about art, it’s also something instinctive. I’d supposed that wood would give me the unbelievable possibility of going back through the time of the tree to rediscover its form at a particular moment of its existence. I did have to think about the form, choosing to reveal just a part of the tree to make the work comprehensible – if I’d liberated the tree completely I’d have obtained a natural form, but not a sculpture.
B: For the beam, can you choose any old beam?
P: No, I have to choose a beam that seems to contain the centre of the tree within it, otherwise I have only fragments, pieces.
B: And how long did it take when you did it the first time, do you remember?
P: Three or four days for the first one, which was very small.
B: And did you do it by hand, or with an electric tool?
P: By hand.
B: That’s like an inversion of [Constantin] Brancusi’s process. For Brancusi, it was liberating the essence of the material by making the surface more and more perfect. Making marble look like the essence of marble, wood like the essence of wood, making the surface as perfect as possible. You, on the other hand, remove material to return to the origin, the essence of the material.
P: In a way, in order to exist and become language, expression, comprehensible, a work needs to be demonstrative. If Brancusci’s work didn’t show perfection, it wouldn’t be comprehensible. In my case perfect work would mean freeing the tree completely from the mass of wood in which it’s encased, but then that perfection wouldn’t demonstrate the work. To do that I retain part of the material from which the tree emerges.
B: And to reconstruct the origin along a temporal axis? It’s a kind of backward movement, a regression perhaps, or reflection. Its’ a kind of hidden agenda that you introduce into the work, it’s not an active, progressive, return to the source, rebuild a foundation, an essential truth…
P: No, it’s not about that at all. No, in this case I rediscover a form that is natural, and there’s a kind of amazement, a surprise that’s provided by the material itself. I did it for the reasons I mentioned before in relation to my work on the growth of trees. My interest in trees, in their form, is of course an interest in nature in general, but it isn’t necessarily idealizing nature. I make a work by following the material, using the possibilities of the material. Deep down I’m saying something about sculpture, I’m not saying something else and illustrating it with a sculpture or an action. And it’s more or less the same for all the work I do. I try wherever possible to find a kind of archetype of the possible form of the material, because an archetype is about connections, a form that is synthetic, and synthesis is one of the most important elements in the creation of a work, because it’s a small space that has to contain so many things, so there has to be a great deal of synthesis to get to a work that is strong, and durable in time. Otherwise it becomes a description and you add more and more… Sculpture in particular needs this, painting a big less, but sculpture needs a very strict synthesis. You can also obtain synthesis as a consequence of action, of the working process itself. And if you can find the logic of the material in the material itself, it’s easier to find the right form for its use. I couldn’t reproduce the tree we were talking about in plaster or resin. It would be meaningless. It’s an interest in the material itself, and the material itself justifies the work. What I’m saying may seem contradictory in the sense that I have also made trees in bronze. But there’s another motive that impelled me to make that work, and that was to understand the technique of molten bronze casting. Bronze casting is a technique based on falling, the force of gravity. To obtain the object you want in bronze, you build a network of channels around the wax model, which takes the bronze to the entire surface of the sculpture and allows the air to escape. These channels have the structure of a tree. Trees escape the force of gravity. A similar structure is made to create the form of the cast, which is obtained by falling. These two things – the force of gravity and escaping the force of gravity – are totally identical forms. For example, I was very moved by [Antoni] Gaudí’s study for the Sagrada Familia, where he hung ropes in space and attached weights to them to study the curves of his vaults. Furthermore, bronze is a material, a technique that was invented at a time when human beings saw reality as animate. I think it changed the way of seeing things to be able to create a material made by man. Before that, they used stone. So what was done there wasn’t innocent, I think it was something that affected the entire system of ideas about nature. That couldn’t have happened without a ritualization of the process. It’s an invention that gave its name to a period of human history, the ‘Bronze Age’. And the melting process, with the furnaces like a womb, has something in common with the alchemical idea of transforming materials. And all that was done at a time when there was a great respect for trees, for example, for all the nature that surrounded human beings. Creating that supply structure for sculpture – I think, it’s my supposition – must have been a very considered thing. And bronze acquires a colour that imitates vegetation very closely. If you put a bronze sculpture outside, it oxidizes in the rain, the sun, it takes on very natural colours, similar to vegetation. I’m very interested in this mimesis for the reasons I’ve just mentioned.
Excerpted from Giuseppe Penone: Forty Years of Creation. Copyright © 2013 by Mercatorfonds. All rights reserved.