Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
26 May 2018 - 28 April 2019
Review by Kristina Foster
Part of the thrill of going to see Giuseppe Penone’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is that you are able to feel something of the curiosity that the artist experienced as a child as he went to forage for natural materials in the idyllic woodland of the Piedmonte, Northern Italy. Entering YSP, which was founded by Peter Murray in 1977 on the 500-acre Bretton Hall estate, the bucolic view of the West Yorkshire hillside becomes interrupted as sculptures by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ai Weiwei leap out from their hidden pastures, and it is quickly apparent that this is no ordinary country walk.
Some turn their noses up at the concept of sculpture parks as environmentalist, hippy-dippy fads, preferring the cold neutrality of the gallery instead, but it seems almost perverse to ignore the natural landscape that has inspired Penone’s sinewy, eclectic tree sculptures. They are, after all, products of the artist’s immersive enquiry into the dynamic cosmos of the forest: ‘I feel the forest breathing / and hear the slow, inexorably growth of the wood / I match my breathing to that of the green world around me.’
The interconnectedness of bodily and arboreal forms, breath and breeze, sap and blood, branches and limbs, skin and bark - Penone’s work traverses these intersections to collapse the boundaries between the human body and the natural world. This permeability takes the visitor on a journey of identification and alienation throughout the exhibition. ‘Trattenere 6, 8, 12 anni di crescita’ (2004 -2016) is the first work on show in the Underground Gallery, a liminal indoor and outdoor space. A bronze cast of the artist’s hand grips a tree trunk which crumples under it like flesh. This is characteristic of Penone’s playful and occasionally unsettling use of materials as he uses bronze casts to recreate the texture of bark which is, in turn, manipulated to evoke human anatomical parts, for instance, flayed skin in ‘Equivalenze’ (2016).
Walking into the garden, I experience a vertiginous unease under the towering structure of ‘In bilico’ (2012), a bronze cast of a tree propping up a boulder, as smooth as a giant ostrich egg. Further down the garden is In bilico’s more ‘twisted’ twin sister, ‘Luce e ombra’ (2014), whose branches crane down into the shape of an optic nerve. Positioned amongst the manicured hedgerows and round topiaries of an eighteenth century garden, these weird forms begin to take on a nonsensical, Carrollian feel. In this arboreal wonderland, the trees really do have eyes.
Inside the gallery, ‘Matrice’ (2015), a 30-metre-long bisected and disembowelled fir tree, extending the length of the gallery, is the obvious apex and epicentre of the exhibition. Penone has carved out a growth ring within the tree’s innards, allowing you to peer down a smooth, curvaceous line. Excavation is a technique used frequently by Penone as he attempts to find ‘the tree within’, that is, the artistic form within the natural material. However, this smooth surface contrasts the rigid branches which protrude rudely out of its body. This is another idiosyncrasy of Penone’s sculptures which always purposely stop short of being beautiful, foregoing the omniscient power of the artist in order to mirror the stubbornness of nature to resist satisfying symmetry or curvilinear shapes.
The use of wood, twigs and leaves in his work seems to recall Penone’s artistic output of the 60s and 70s, as part of the Italian art movement ‘Arte Povera’ (Poor Art), which placed an emphasis on the use of throwaway materials. However, today, Penone does not shy away from monumentalizing mediums. In ‘Indistinti confini – Holona’ (2016), the artist reproduces the form of a tree in both bronze and marble, carving out an astonishing verisimilitude which inevitably evokes the skill of his Renaissance forefather, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Indeed, it is hard not to believe that this piece in some way pays homage to Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’ (1622 - 1655), as the sculpture’s marbled roots recall the twigs sprouting from Daphne’s fingers. Perhaps the emotional and transformative effect of nature is not the point behind Penone’s more subtle work, but in the pastoral surroundings of YSP, the image of the Ovidian landscape is never far off, and this exhibition certainly offers a modern take on the human desire to return to nature and the appeal of metamorphoses.