Giuseppe Penone

Giuseppe Penone’s interventions into the growth of trees in Alpi Marittime (Maritime Alps, 1968) constituted the beginning of his artistic path, which immediately converged with the orbit of arte povera. In Alpi Marittime, the passage of time is an essential factor for constituting form, and coincides with a ritual of transformation. Penone altered the direction of growth of three artificially interwoven shrubs. He traced the outline of his body by inserting nails in the trunk of the tree and then cast his hand in steel; this hand was then placed to clasp the trunk at one point so that it enters the history of the tree, deforming it with its own imprint. These are all actions that, with a violent gesture, interrupt nature and imprint upon the natural phenomenon a sort of writing that, with time, will graft together with it.

The photographic documentation of this work appeared in the same room with the actual trees, which were uprooted in 1985, to be transported to another environment. The attempt at osmosis between the process of the plant growth and the trace impressed by the artist corresponds to an esthetic ideology characteristic of the late ’60s: the hypothesis that art might overcome its separation from life by converging with it. In this hypothesis, the intervention of time upon form is essential, and consequently every monumental tendency of the work ends up being unfeasible. It is possible to grasp the sense of a changed historical/cultural climate, comparing this first work by Penone with his most recent work, Sedimentazione nera (Black sedimentation, 1991), an irregular parallelepiped made up of superimposed layers of gray stone, all cut and evenly leveled off, with the exception of the upper slab, where the stone is still in its rough state. One part of the parallelepiped is deeply recessed and allows one to discern, at the back of the dark cavity, the multiple layers of earth that the end wall protects with a glass box, like a sort of transparent sarcophagus. Progressive time, which was open to all circumstances in 1968, has become hidden time here; the rocky character of both the rough and the worked stone constitutes a shell of protection and control of mother earth, which is contained within the darkness, reduced to dust, in the chiaroscuro of the stratifications. Historically, for the world of Sedimentazione nera, it is winter. The glass shield and the monumental weight of the casing impede the entry of the unforeseen and of disorder as factors of renewal; instead, the work tends to present itself as closed off in the enigmatic autism of decoration.

If Alpi Marittime and Sedimentazione nera are two extremes at either end of Penone’s development, in this show there is no simple alignment of individual works; there is, instead, a utopian all-encompassing view, realized through architectural means. The intermingling of the natural and the artificial, typical of Penone’s work, has been strengthened here by presenting the works at as many angles as possible, achieved by calculating their visibility through the openings of the rooms, and even knocking down some walls around small angular spaces. But the architectural installation of the exhibition in fact negates any degree of power that history might have; here, apparently, it is only anthropos, and not homo historicus that is compared to the imperious natural model. The fact that, for Penone, history loses out to the omnipotence of nature is most evident in works like Soffi di creta (Breaths of clay, 1978), Palate (Potatoes, 1977), or Zucche (Squashes, 1978), in which the myth of osmotic interpenetration between humanity and nature takes the form of a coitus or a paradoxical fertilization between the subject and the extrahuman material. The result is a hybrid; in it, history is estranged. It signals a loss, no longer a choice.

Luciana Rogozinski

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.