on art and nature
portrait by JACOPO BENASSI
interview by ALEXIS DAHAN
At 69, Giuseppe Penone still works as intensely as he did when he started his artistic career in the late ’60s. Originally associated with his fellow Italian artists of this generation under the convenient label of Arte Povera, Penone has grown into a tireless sculptor who uses wood, brass, and marble to convey his obsessions with natural and human “imprints.” He has had as many exhibitions as there are leaves on the trees, and numerous publications have demonstrated why his work matters. So why are we doing one more interview? Why now? Perhaps because we believe that the wisdom of someone like Penone — who, for the past 40 years, has never stopped working for what he believes — will always have the potential to enlighten current and future generations.
ALEXIS DAHAN — As an Italian artist, you are coming from a culture of image and representation. However, except for the use of photography as a medium to document your interventions in the late ’60s, image as representation is nowhere to be found in your practice. Why this refusal of the image?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — It’s not a refusal of the image per se. It’s rather a reflection on the meaning of representation. In the ’60s and ’70s, my work was about language and materiality. What might be missing throughout my work as an artist is the image of mankind because I believe creating anthropomorphic images isn’t necessary. That said, there is humanity in most of my works through a tactile presence. And this presence mostly manifests itself with the image of the imprint. Imprints are an animal type of image, not an image produced by culture.
ALEXIS DAHAN — You’ve said, “Photography records images without creating them.” The technique of molding/casting that is at the center of your practice is kind of a way to record volumes, like photography records images. What links do you see between sculpture and photography?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Just like a photograph, by essence, a sculpture can be reproduced. You cannot reproduce a painting, but the potential of being reproduced belongs to the nature of sculpture as a means of expression. You may start with a mold, and then you make a cast with plaster. Traditionally, a model is being reproduced depending on the final medium you want to use. It’s very similar to the possibility of reproducing silver prints.
ALEXIS DAHAN — That said, as opposed to the photographic medium, it seems like the techniques you’re using aren’t affected by the evolution of technology.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — There is a technological evolution in sculpture, like the invention of 3-D printing. However, it isn’t really the same. If, for example, you’re molding an imprint on the floor, you’re conserving its freshness within the material you use. I believe it isn’t possible to achieve this freshness with a computer.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you mean it is more “alive”?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Molding records to the millimeter and saves the microfractures that make materials alive.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Looking at your work in the past decades, we learn that an artistic idea can be used and explored continuously without losing its aesthetic and intellectual potential. There’s something in your practice that seems impossible to exhaust.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — This is possible precisely because the reflection isn’t centered on images, but rather on language itself. If you work on sculpture’s language (and this is what I believe I have been doing since the beginning) and on sculpture’s capacity to translate sensations that belong to life itself, then there is something that can’t be exhausted. With sculpture, I’m communicating the perception I have of reality during my existence.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Are you influenced by the world?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — In which sense?
ALEXIS DAHAN — In a political sense. Because nature is eternal and its perception is the principal subject of your sculptures, your work doesn’t seem to be affected by what’s happening in the world of men. It’s difficult to see any political content.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — I disagree because my perception of reality changes depending on the political, economic, and social situation. My work doesn’t address directly the problems of the world because they may very well be addressed by the existing means of information. Today, the largest social tragedy is the political immigration of millions of people. Everybody is affected by it, and it could very well enter an indirect reflection using sculpture in a new way.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Has it ever interested you to include this political reality within your work?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — I believe I already do. If you’re interested in sculpture as language, you must consider the reality that surrounds you beyond conventions. I don’t directly translate a political or social subject in my works, but the position from which I work acknowledges this reality. Consider, for example, the political and social situation of the late 19th century. Consider the massive changes induced by industrial and technological evolutions. And now look at an artistic movement such as Impressionism, whose main subject was light — you could think that these artists were completely outside of the reality of their time. However, when one analyzes a painting, one must also consider its context. We have to go beyond the image and consider the reasons that produced this particular way of making a painting. It’s a question of reality awareness.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Nowadays, many confuse the evolution of technology with the evolution of art, and we find ourselves surrounded with artists who feel the necessity to include the latest technology in their medium or use the latest cultural trend as their subject.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Indeed, what we must understand is that technological evolution is always bound up with a need. Materials produced by men are bound up with the market. As soon as the market doesn’t need a particular thing anymore or needs to sell something else, it immediately abandons its production. Therefore, an artistic practice that is based on technological material inevitably becomes old. But if you use a sheet of paper and a pencil, you are doing something that has existed for thousands of years and will always be contemporary. There is an atemporal quality belonging to some mediums that technology will never allow.
ALEXIS DAHAN — What about the city? It’s very hard to understand your relationship with the urban phenomenon.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — What interests me above all are “imprints.” If I think of the city, I immediately think of it as a context where a large density of people is located in a limited space. And this must produce an enormous amount of imprints! If you just imagine the amount of imprints created in a city every day, it’s huge! It’s also stunning how erasing and cleaning these imprints are a constant worry. It’s as if we were cleaning out their identity in order to create free space for new ones. This kind of behavior is way less tangible in a rural context.
ALEXIS DAHAN — I believe there’s an action of sedimentation inside cities as well. Successive layers of urbanization exist on top of each other, like in nature, and are often hidden by the most recent one.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Yes, absolutely. In my researches, I find that cleaning or covering imprints is in contradiction with mankind because that is what represents our identity in the most direct way.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Is there an autobiographical intention when you use your own imprints in your sculptures?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — No, my work is a reflection on what is an imprint in general, and the fact that you can identify my own person through my fingerprints isn’t central to the work.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Tell us about the Cedar of Versailles.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — When the great storm of 1999 occurred, I was preparing the piece L’Arbre des Voyelles (The Tree of Vowels) for the Tuileries Garden in Paris. Someone who worked with the domain of Versailles told me about an auction organized by Les Amis de Versailles to sell the trees knocked down by the heavy winds in order to finance the garden’s repairs. So I went and bought two specimens and used one that was over 200 years old to create the sculpture Cedar of Versailles.
ALEXIS DAHAN — How long did it take?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — About a year.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you usually do the work yourself?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Yes, I do. I also have one assistant.
ALEXIS DAHAN — It sounds like slow and tedious work. What part does pleasure play in that process?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — An essential part! When you work with wood, there’s a perfume, a physicality. It’s an action that relaxes me and that I associate with meditation. It’s actually quite pleasant! I have to be very focused because I’m not creating a shape, but rather uncovering a shape that preexists inside the material, wood.
ALEXIS DAHAN — This way of making art seems foreign to the acceleration in contemporary society.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — There is a time for everything. Technology has brought us speed that allows us to do many things at the same time. However, the physical time of our body still remains the same. If the possibility of communication and travel has accelerated and gives us the illusion of living more, we still have to eat and sleep at certain times. I believe these experiences of speed are very superficial and do not deeply affect who we are.
ALEXIS DAHAN — The limits of the body is also a theme inherent to artworks such as Spazio di Luce (Space of Light). It feels like your sculptures have their own body.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — If an artwork doesn’t have a physical autonomy, if it doesn’t have its own body and necessitates a definition and the defense of its author, then it is a bad artwork, and its life is very limited. However, if an artwork becomes something else than what we had imagined, if an artwork acquires its own identity, that means that it is alive, that it has the possibility and the capacity to survive, that is a better artwork. I’m always delighted to discover an artwork I just made because it allows me to do something else.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Do you believe in a kind of creative dialectic between the artwork and the artist?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Yes, especially with drawings. You start a drawing with a feeling, an intention, and an idea, but then the drawing becomes something else. It suggests a different interpretation of itself. And in this possibility of another interpretation of what you’ve done, there is room for reflection and for creation of a new artwork.
ALEXIS DAHAN — A little bit like a writer reading himself.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — We write, and then we read ourselves. Within the moment of reading, we have feelings and a different understanding of what we wrote. It’s within the space created by the moment of this experience that resides the possibility to create new things. Sometimes you write or make something that you don’t like, but a few years later, you realize that the work was right as it became thoroughly autonomous.
ALEXIS DAHAN — To go back to the bodily quality of your sculptures, there is an undeniable sensuality there. They have their own skin, and one wants to touch them. Would you qualify them as sexual or sensual?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Yes. I believe sculpture as a medium is entirely based on sensuality and sexuality. Look at wet clay, for example. This type of material is so much like flesh. It’s not an accident if God created man with earth and water! And regarding the sexual aspect, it is even more obvious because of the negative and the positive. The action of sculpting is necessarily an action of either positive on negative, or negative on positive. We spoke about the Cedar of Versailles. In this case, the material was fixed, and my action came to reveal it. My work is the negative of the tree shape. This shape is brought to light through numerous gestures, and the sum of all these actions becomes the negative of the actual sculpture.
ALEXIS DAHAN — It sounds like the classical concept of sculpture since Michelangelo, where the artist frees a form that preexisted in the material. Have you had actions that would work the other way around — actions where the positive is predominant?
GIUSEPPE PENONE — Yes, I made the sculptures Gesti Vegetali (Vegetation Gestures) with an anthropomorphic gesture in the early ’80s, for example. In that case, it was the material that grew inside a bronze bark. My action was fixed, and it was the plant that grew and filled the emptiness of the sculpture with its own material.
ALEXIS DAHAN — Let’s end with the presence or absence of love in your work.
GIUSEPPE PENONE — If love is respect for the loved one, then in sculpture it is respect for the material, which means working the material without violence. I knew an old blacksmith who would go through serious drama each time he saw a worker hit the iron with a hammer. He told me that one has to “follow” and “understand” the iron when it’s red and taken out of the fire. The love between an individual and the material (that he or she works with) is the type of love I have in my practice
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