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February/March 2008 February/March 2008

Giuseppe Penone –
ing our attention to the very aliveness of
the breathing of the cosmos around us
that so much characterises this art, is of-
fered as a metaphor for the human proc-

Poet of the Uncanny


ess of growth itself; Penone, in a beautiful
text in the exhibition catalogue, writes:
“what’s an idea that appears suddenly or
after a long a reflection? An idea that has
been formed by adding up the myriad of
preceding thoughts, polished by the pas-
sage of time, compacted by the weight of

Giuseppe Penone, originally included by the art critic Germano Celant in the movement of “Arte Povera”, is most memories, damaged by doubts and incer-
titude…? It is the stone of a river appear-
celebrated for his investigation of the relation between nature and man. His art is often classified as Land Art or ing between the branches of a tree…”
Process Art. Villa Medici, home of the Académie de France à Rome, is hosting a magnificent journey through the
The very last room of the exhibition, an
evocative production of this timeless artist. isolated, minute closed space at the far

Lorenzo Marsili end of the gardens, features the evoca-


tive Pietra di Foglie. It is a simple com-
position, a large rock, seemingly from the
banks of a river, surrounded by a myr-
We enter from the decayed renaissance this exhibition force our attention. Life in simplicity and familiarity of the materials iad of fallen laurel leaves. The crisp but
meanders of 16th century Villa Medici, its unfolding, its growth and its mutation; the artist magically draws out the force- soothing scent of laurel (but which could
careful not to slip over a Roman column life that itself become, in this arte povera “What’s an idea that ful uncanny of the natural, in a wizardry equally well be musk, cedar, or again eu-
lying flat on the tight corridor leading to
the first room of the exhibition. Staring at
where wood and natural forms predomi-
nate, the material of artistic creation, re-
appears suddenly giving life to the inert, conferring it the
status of creature. And indeed, there is a
calyptus, to each his childhood) contrib-
utes to making the scene appear perfectly
this dead ancient marble it seems to re- turning us to a basic condition of affinity or after a long a strange foreignness of company to these simple and real. And indeed, if visual art
veal itself as the surreal end of a pipe, per-
haps a beak utilising a hollowed Roman
with the world.
reflection? An idea statues, not too unlike the sudden emo-
tion, a mixture of fear, surprise, and cu-
has traditionally favoured what Hegel
called the “theoretical sense”, of sight,
column once bringing water from the Accessing the first room a wide rectangle that has been formed riosity, of abruptly running into a mys- the art of Penone returns us to the mate-
nearby house reservoir. Or maybe, and
this thought suddenly crosses our mind,
composed of several blocs of tree bark
cast in bronze lies on the floor; Lo Spazio
by adding up the terious person on a desolated mountain
path. This near becoming-man of a tree is
rial truth of touch, and smell. The invoca-
tion that comes from this room, as from
we have already entered the exhibition, della Scultura. One section is raised from myriad of preceding at basis of another of Penone’s works, the the rest of the exhibition, is to open our
where the works are arranged by the art-
ist himself for these spectacular spaces,
the ground by about half a meter and
sustained by several curved branches
thoughts, polished by celebrated Alpi Marittime, where a se-
ries of interventions of the artists are di-
senses on our next stroll out, halting, still
in body but voyaging in mind, in front of
and this is the first to cross our path. This and covered in animal skin, distinguish- the passage of time, rectly inscribed in the process of growth a pine tree shaken by the wind.
ambiguity, which must not be untied, is
the key to the whole journey, and indeed
able from the bronze-cast bark by its soft
curves and opaque response to the light
compacted by the of the tree; he has inserted the cast of his
hand in the trunk, which will continue to The enchantment of Penone, and the
to the art of Giuseppe Penone, this art- of the room. Seen from the distance it weight of memories, grow with the exception of this point; or deepest meaning of the adjective “pov-
ist who respects the craft of traditional
sculpture and believes in the poetry of
is an uncanny presence, somewhat re-
calling, in form, Salvador Dali’s surreal
damaged by doubts he hugs a tree marking his profile on the
bark, so that his action will be conserved
era” to describe this art, is to open up a
whole realm of possibility from the very
nature. And it is in fact towards simple re- elephants with their long thin legs. But and incertitude? It is with its growth. everydayness of our lives, returning our
ality, sheer immanence, that the works of this juxtaposition, the panels lying on the
the stone of a river The exhibition continues in the marvel-
gaze modified to the world around us.
The final empty corridor which we pass
appearing between lous gardens of the villa, where the lav- leaving the exhibition offers a good ex-

the branches of a tree” ishly decorated internal façade of the


palace finally becomes fully visible.
ample of the propaedeutic function of
this art. The walls of the room are on one
Scattered over the grass, broken frag- side built of ochre bricks, on the other
ments of Roman columns, like in a pit of painted of milky white. On this second
sacred capitols, a quarry of Ionic marble. side, breaking the parade of plaster, is a
floor and the suspended, emerging pio- Suddenly staring at us is Idee di Pietra, mysterious protuberance of stone, like
neer in their centre, serves to make the like a delayed contrapposto to the flat in- the amputated limb of an old arch, or the
Opposite page: Idee di pietra, above: Lo spazio della scultura, below: Pelle di foglie
structure come alive, assuming not only a stallation of the first room; a solemn tree, last survivor of an architrave that once
strong dynamic element, a forceful three- cast in bronze, rises from this low garden sustained a lower ceiling. The profound
dimensionality, but also the suggestion weighted by large river stones laid on its disruption offered to the perceptual act
of life and breathing. This feeling is fur- branches. The tree appears pulled back by this piece of stone, unwanted and
ther reinforced by the contrast offered by towards the ground, constrained, im- unreasonable, without function or aes-
the naked, cold, and sickly yellow stone mobilised. Paradoxically, precisely this thetic, is an awareness that must be cul-
of the section of the pavement left visi- attempt to halt and immortalise the tree tivated through a particular attention to
ble, like an open wound, under the raised seems to make it appear even more alive, the breathing of the space that surrounds
panel. mobile, symphonic. The very necessity us, an inclination to its absorption and
of having to anchor the tree with heavy investigation. Almost a subversive stance
Proceeding through our labyrinth we rocks cannot, in a Heraclitean game of in an age marked by fast consumption
reach a raised and wide corridor, where the opposites, but remind us that this tree and instantaneous gratification.
branches and leaves of all sizes parade is ultimately something alive, making us
in a line of anthropomorphic statues like believe, in a sudden moment of ecstasy, Giuseppe Penone
soldiers under review; it is the series Pelle that without those grey anchors it would 30th January – 25th March
di Foglie, once again cast in bronze, a ma- fly off, or grow at magical speed and break Académie de France à Rome, Villa Medici
terial which, according to Penone, “re- the windows of the surrounding palace.
sembles the natural”, not only because if But perhaps the strange union of wood
left in the open it reacts to the weather and stone appears to betray a complicit
oxidising and changing in colour, but be- understanding, the forging of a unity
cause the process of fusion dates to an not absurd but harmonious; “after hav-
ancient past of animistic believes. An as- ing tried to avoid the obstacles present
semblage of leaves reminds us of a human in the surrounding environment”, write
face, another of a heart; branches as wav- Penone, “the tree absorbs them”. This
ing hands, saplings as marching feet; the process of absorption, stressing the life-
proportions those of a body. Despite the process of the natural, here again turn-

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