Uprooting a monumental artwork
“To enter into the forest of wood is to embark on a voyage in time, into the history of every single tree and every year of its life.”
— Giuseppe Penone
Artist Giuseppe Penone, since growing up on the fringes of a forest in Northern Italy has, like me, always had a deep fascination for trees. They have been the subject and point of inspiration of a significant part of his life’s work and his recent exhibition Spazio di Luce, which closed in October after a year’s residency at London’s Whitechapel Gallery*, is no exception.
For me this exhibit is an absolute masterpiece, a triumph both conceptually and aesthetically, and its magnificence and monumental size has stayed with me since I first cast my eyes on it. And a casting it is – a cast of a tree in bronze and not a hollowed out tree as it might at first appear. No, not a splinter of wood is to be found here. The tree in its entirety is 12 meters long , divided into eight segments. Notice I say 12 meters long rather than tall as the tree is lying down on its side, with its irregular branches protruding from each of the segments acting as legs on the ground and arms in the air, like otherworldly forest creatures rather bizarrely suspended in animation and in perfect line.
What becomes apparent on closer inspection is that the tree, a larch that was cast, is actually the void within the sculpture, and the imprint inside the hollow is that of the tree’s bark. To highlight this, both metaphorically and literally, Penone has covered the inside surface of the sculpture in a layer of exquisite gold leaf creating a tunnel running through all the segments that shimmers and exudes an ethereal glow.
The external surface of the tree segments which looks uncannily like bark is actually composed of hundreds of finger and thumb prints in the bronze where the artist and the foundry workers have applied wax during the casting process.
The tree has effectively been turned inside out.
Penone has explored this concept before of inverting the tree’s interior and exterior but using a wholly different technique and with a very different result. In his Ripetere il Bosco series, he takes a huge section of timber from the sawmill and, following the knots in the wood, sculpts inwardly, effectively backwards in time through the annual rings, to recreate the young sapling from which the large tree derived.
But this epic Bloomberg commission, Spazio di Luce (Space of Light) has so many other qualities that make this artwork truly remarkable in that it appeals to all one’s senses. It invites you to touch it (which the artist has always encouraged), to lay your fingers in the very prints made by those that cast it, and to feel the cool metal shell; it invites you to walk along its outstretched form, to somehow travel with its animated segments along its length; and it invites you to inspect it from every conceivable angle, to find endless perspectives; and to gaze through the interior of its gilded bronze sections, and peer down the hollow of its fine golden branches.
“The stretching of a branch through space in search of light has the same structure as a glance”
— Giuseppe Penone
It demands an interaction and, in the process, it takes your breath away.
The tree is a motif, an emblem that has been the source of inspiration or indeed the very vehicle of creativity of countless artists and craftspeople throughout history. At Tree Couture, the tree is clearly at the heart of everything we do (our furniture is made of solid wood from sustainably managed forests – making it the world’s most sustainable natural resource) but in addition we have used the tree itself as the point of inspiration for a number of our designs, such as our Lemon Tree Coffee Table.
And just like Giuseppe Penone, we see our work as an exploration and celebration of the inseparable connection between mankind and nature – an interaction between the natural and the manmade.
This exhibition ran until Ocotber 2013 at which point the monumental tree was uprooted.
For a fascinating insight into the man behind the tree, and the story of the project, you can purchase the wonderful accompanying book Spazio di Luce from either the gallery or here.
www.martinhampton.com (image with Giuseppe Penone)