Visual artist Giuseppe Penone: ‘For nature, it doesn’t matter whether humanity survives or the flies’

Somewhere in the Alps, not far from the Italian mountain village of Garessio, lies a world-famous sculpture that hardly anyone has ever seen in real life. In front of Maritime Alps, his earliest series of artworks, Italian artist Giuseppe Penone ventured into the woods surrounding his hometown in 1968. He had made an iron cast of his own hand and forearm. He clamped it around a young tree trunk – as a permanent sign of human intervention in nature. In the years that followed, the sapling slowly grew around the hand, swallowing first the nails and then whole fingers. The unruly tree proved to be able to adapt perfectly to the artist’s grip.

In the Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar, where Penone will be honored with a retrospective in the coming months, there are four bronze casts of a comparable tree. They are made several years apart and show how the tribe has hugged the hand of the artist. The 75-year-old artist, a short man with an imposing head of gray hair, places his hand on the bronze layer of bark. “What I like about a living material like a tree is that I can clay it as it was.” The skin of a tree is liquid, given enough time. “The wood now flows around my hand like a river.”

The four casts are almost photographic moments in time, says Penone. “I wanted to relate my body and the time span of my life to that of the tree. There was equality between us, even though we had our own breath, our own rhythm. It felt like intimate contact.” He would like to make one more cast, he says, when his fingers are completely ‘eaten’. “Then the artwork is finished as far as I’m concerned.”

His workshop and archive are located in a former metal factory in Turin. But the tree is close to the property he bought in his birthplace, twenty kilometers outside Turin. He has 16 hectares of forest – his ‘real studio’ according to Penone. “I can visit regularly to inspect my tree. Only I know where he stands.”

In 1968, when you started your career, the art world was still quite traditional. What made you decide to go into nature?

“It was a reaction to the system of the art world. He was very introverted. I felt the need to make the immediate environment part of my art again. It was also a time of great freedom. The big difference with the generation before us was that as artists we could travel anywhere. Air traffic became affordable for civilians. People from all parts of the world could come in contact with each other. Thus the idea of global villagein the words of Marshall McLuhan.”

Why did you choose sculpture?

“The most interesting artists in those years were sculptors, not painters. Think of movements like Minimal Art and Land Art. Painting is much more conventional: you are limited to the flat surface, a painting always needs a protective environment. But an object, a chair or a table or whatever, already stands for itself. When you work in bronze, you stay within the conventions of sculpture. But if you use leaves or trees as material, as I did, then you won’t be bothered by it.’

Did you realize that artists like Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson in the US also went out into nature at the same time?

“Yes, it happened everywhere, including Japan and the rest of Europe. Although there was a difference between European and American art, we felt very strongly that we were moving in the same direction. The American landscape artists were known for their gigantic geometric works. My interventions were more applied to the scale of the human body. And yet we felt a kinship. We were not competitors. It was also because there was almost no art market. Our main concern was the exchange of ideas. The art world was still very small, everyone knew each other.”

How did you communicate with each other?

“Funnily enough, it went very quickly, even though there was no social media yet. When I made the first series of works in the forest in 1968, I took pictures of them with me to Turin, to the Sperone gallery. A few days later, art critic Germano Celant saw these pictures and wrote me a letter asking if he could use them for his book on Arte Povera. [een beweging die zich afzette tegen de consumptiemaatschappij door met ‘arme’, gevonden materialen te werken, red.].

“I sent them and that was the beginning of my career. I was 21 years old and suddenly I was the youngest member of a new Italian art movement. A year later I was invited to international exhibitions in Düsseldorf and Leverkusen. In 1970 I got allowed to participate in Informationthe important conceptual art exhibition at MoMA in New York.”

When you made the early works in the forest, were you aware of climate change or acid rain? The first reports from the Club of Rome had just appeared. Was that also a reason for making those pictures?

“We were certainly aware of those problems. Another factor was the great change that took place in Italy in the agricultural sector. Industrialization was on the rise. Many people left the country to work in factories in the cities. At the same time, automation meant that many factory workers were made redundant. There were major social problems which led to violent protests in the 1970s. You must also see my work in the light of that development. Together with the artists of Arte Povera, we fought against industrialization and dehumanization.”

Yet you do not make political art.

“I think that art by definition is political because it makes you look at the world differently. But art must not serve a political purpose. Being involved in a political process is not the best position to make art. That the German artist Joseph Beuys got involved in Grünen during these years was viewed with suspicion by many other artists. As far as we are concerned, he primarily used the media attention to promote himself.”

Have you seen the climate changes in your own area, the Italian Alps?

“Of course, the summers are much warmer, there are no more harsh winters. Last summer, two bodies were discovered in the mountains that had been under the ice for centuries and emerged from the melting glaciers. It is mainly humanity that will have problems, our survival is endangered. But our species is not a priority in nature. Just read Giacomo Leopardi’s books from the early nineteenth century. It becomes very clear that nature is not our mother. It does not matter to nature whether humanity survives, or the flies survive.”

The love of nature has been the common thread in Giuseppe Penone’s oeuvre for more than fifty years. He works with wood, but also with natural products such as marble, leather, tea leaves and potatoes. In the halls of Voorlinden you can smell the earth and feel the relief of the marble under your feet. By hand, Penone has exposed the veins of the tiles and chiseled them out with extreme precision. Just as he has planed on thick sleepers, ring by ring, until the original sapling emerged.

“When you make a sculpture,” says Penone, “you have to respect the material you’re working with. Not all materials can produce a good piece of work. For me, there must always be a relationship between the form and the material. Often the form is imposed on the material. I follow the material. It’s a different approach to sculpture.”

The way Penone dissects his trees is reminiscent of greats like Da Vinci and Michelangelo and their curiosity about the human body. Just as Da Vinci dissected cadavers and exposed veins and Michelangelo carved into a stone until he freed a human figure, Penone also has an almost scientific interest in his material. “I think these two greats are in every artist’s head,” replies Penone when asked if the Italian masters have influenced him. “The exchange between civilizations has existed for centuries. What matters is that in the Renaissance the power of the Church declined, a period began that was less dogmatic. That sense of freedom can be compared to what happened in the 1960s. Important structures in society were turned upside down and redefined.”

But growing up in Italy, surrounded by all the marble and all the sculptures, must have had an impact, right?

“It is of course important which materials are available. But Dutch or Norwegian artists can also come to Carrara to work with marble. What matters most to my imagination as an artist is the landscape and the seasons. There are places in the world, beautiful places, where there are almost no seasons. I find that less interesting. And Italy has the most beautiful landscapes in the world: there are plains that turn into high mountains, there are beautiful valleys.”

Was becoming an artist a logical choice for a farmer’s son who grew up in the mountains?

“I loved to draw as a child. But initially I took an accounting course. When I finished that, I went to the academy in Turin when I was twenty. I quickly found that the lessons were different from what I had expected. We had to keep copying the teacher’s works, repeating the same forms over and over again. When you imitate, you don’t add meaning. To find my own identity, I reasoned, I had to go back to the context I knew well myself.That’s why I went back to Garessio, to the forest and the rivers.

“In our village, each family had a piece of land for potatoes and grain and some fruit trees. So you had the village with all the pieces of land around it, where the villagers went every day to work, and behind the mountains. It was an economy meant for its own use. In the forest there were hazelnut trees, enough for every family. My father traded in these natural products, which changed every season. Sometimes the house was filled with cherries, sometimes with truffles, chestnuts or mushrooms. I still remember the smell. “

So the potatoes on display here in the exhibition, with the shapes of your face in them, also lead back to your childhood?

“I have always been fascinated by what goes on under our feet, in the ground where the truffles grow. There is also the realm of magical realism, a place that we cannot control. I wanted to make a sculpture without feeling or looking. For this purpose I made plaster of pieces of my face. I put that waste in the ground in a potato field. Five of the potatoes I harvested actually turned out to be shaped like my face: an ear, an eye, a mouth.”

It is almost a symbiotic work of art, made in collaboration with nature.

“It certainly doesn’t matter to the potatoes whether they have to grow in the shape of an egg or in the shape of a nose. I don’t force nature to do anything.”

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