Over the past 45 years, Italian artist Giuseppe Penone has examined our relationship to nature. For the latest Bloomberg Commission, the Whitechapel Gallery unveils a twelve metre bronze cast of a tree, with a radiant gold-leaf interior, which will spread across the columned gallery.
The tree is carefully balanced on its branches and divided into sections to allow visitors to move between the separate elements. The work contrasts with the urban environment surrounding the Gallery, highlighting hidden nature within the city. It also references the Whitechapel Gallery’s Arts and Crafts architecture which features the Tree of Life motif on its façade. The installation is accompanied by a year-long programme of talks and events exploring the rich relationship between nature and the city.
Giuseppe Penone (b.1947) became the youngest artist to be admitted to the legendary Arte Povera group, an Italian movement coined by curator Germano Celant in 1967. Inspired by the radical politics of the late 1960s, these artists challenged the conventions of sculpture, often using everyday materials.
This new site-specific work for The Bloomberg Commission, Spazio di Luce (Space of Light) (2012), is made using the ancient technique of Lost Wax casting and the interior and exterior of the tree are deliberately reversed. Reflecting Penone’s interest in how we relate to the natural world by touch, the bronze exterior registers thousands of finger prints left by the foundry workers who covered the original tree in wax as part of the casting process. The inside of the sculpture is layered in gold leaf, creating a glowing contrast to the dark patina which assimilates the appearance of tree bark. A second sculpture Essere Fiume (Being River) (1998) will also be included in the gallery, consisting of an original stone shaped by the flow of a river in Tuscany and a sculpture of the stone, hand carved by Penone to mimic the original.
Giuseppe Penone carries out ‘actions’ within the landscape, which can lead to sculptural work, photographs or drawings. For one of his earliest works Alpi Marittime – Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto (Maritime Alps – It will continue to grow except at this point) (1968), he created a steel cast of a hand gripping the tender stem of a sapling so that the sculpture slowly became absorbed as the tree grew. Using traditional techniques such as casting or carving, and often working with bronze and other natural materials, he explores human interaction with the environment and the way we perceive our surroundings. He uses the tree as a model for his sculpture and a symbol of human life. In 1969, Penone made Gli anni dell’ albero più uno (The years of the tree plus one), placing a layer of wax on to the surface of a cut tree adding the equivalent width of one year’s growth.
Material from Penone’s archive will be included in a series of displays on show in an adjacent space. The material gathered will include writings, sketches and photographs focusing on his career-long interaction with trees.
The Bloomberg Commission invites an international artist to create an annual
site-specific artwork inspired by the rich history of the former library. Previous commissions were created by artists Goshka Macuga (2009), Claire Barclay (2010) and Josiah McElheny (2011). Bloomberg’s support reflects its commitment to innovation, and its ongoing efforts to expand access to art, science and the humanities.