Giuseppe Penone is an artist whose work is a powerful reflection on the earthly condition of nature and humanity. Associated with Arte Povera, Penone uses the elements of bronze, marble, gold, resin, thorns and leather to document the qualities of mortality in his current exhibition at Gagosian, Britannia Street, “Circling”.
Humans are circling; through jobs, relationships, homes, postponing the end point until it comes. The point where a once sharpened pencil, endlessly circling, now soft and blunt, ceases to make its lead impression on the paper. Worn down to a splinter, it tears the page in a final protest to death. Penone examines these circles, the rings of a tree trunk or a fingerprint, the ageing of the earth, and the journey towards our ultimate decline.
One of the two large-scale works in the exhibition is ‘Scrigno’ (Casket) (2007) where, layered across the wall are large and wrinkled brown leather panels. The leather was wrapped around a tree to take an imprint of its bark surface. Skin on skin, it is a memento mori of an animal and a tree, aligning what once protected their organs, collecting scars and wrinkles, perhaps even fatal wounds, forensically revealing the passage of time. The brown colour of the leather is rich, ripe and warm, like the skin of an Italian after a lifetime under the Turin sunshine, who circles slower and slower. Penone praises mortality through the impression that we leave behind. These create a backdrop for the spine of a bronze tree branch, which opens on a hinge like a casket. Chopped and cast in hot molten bronze, the branch is a lonely stake without his saint and Penone’s victim in the name of art.
Penone works with trees unconventionally, using the form as a cast and allowing nature to shape his work, rather than shaping nature. ‘Matrice di bronzo’ (2008) is a freestanding cast bronze branch. The branch lies exposed and open, horizontally out of action, painted internally with gold and filled with amber resin, which pools in a central channel collecting insects, dust and fingerprints. This golden lining is so beautiful, but this form is just an impression of former life. Veins are now blocked and chopped short, these tributaries lead to nowhere.
‘Pelle di marmo e spine d’acacia—Marta’ (2006) and ‘Pelle di marmo e spine d’acacia—Livia’ (2006) are wall works both divided into two. On one half, the raised veins of Carrara marble flow in relief towards the other half, where acacia thorns continue to follow the irregular pattern. Marble is the translucent skin which preserves human personalities from history in the form of statues, to whom thorns are no threat. Although almost invincible, marble is cold to the touch, frozen still in a moment, and therefore still loses a fight against mortality in symbolising death, rather than life.
The second of the large-scale works is ‘Sigillo’ (Seal) (2008). A cylindrical marble column balances across a 20 metre marble slab, as if rolling out a pattern, veins are indented yet form a patterned relief. Penone found inspiration in Ancient Babylonian seals which were used to make impressions in clay. Repetitive forms in the Middle East formed a focus for worship, through an endless circle of concentration, there was no crown of thorns or wooden cross. Throughout history, religion has provided us resolution, comfort and an answer to death, yet half way through it’s journey, after ten more metres, Penone’s cylinder will fall off the edge into the unknown.
Through his work, Penone explores how knowledge of pending death, is an essential quality of humanity. This limit that we are given, of youth and perhaps of happiness, is what makes this world meaningful. This exhibition is a study of material preservation of life and a grateful nod to death, circling like a beautiful bird of prey.