The Whitechapel Gallery is something of a miracle: a public funded Modern Art gallery whose exhibitions are, for the most part, what the public’s caricaturish idea of Modern Art is. I don’t mean this as a slur on either the public or the Whitechapel Gallery. “The Public” seem to be proved right by the annual use of “Good British Common Sense” to bash the Turner-Prize; the Whitechapel Gallery are proved right by always picking the best of a necessarily mixed bag. (There are always as many good artists as bad, and history seems to work like an occasionally over-zealous sieve for them).
So when I went into the Whitechapel Gallery to see Giuseppe Penone’s Bloomberg Commission “Spazio di Luce” (“Space of Light”) there was a mixed exhibition next door featuring things like reply mail received in response to mailing cryptic one-sentence letters to various heads of state, plastic fixtures coming out of the wall, an autodialer working its autonomous way through a “phonebook of imaginary numbers”; and upstairs was a history of the cult 60s magazine “Aspen”, with so much scattered on the walls and every available table it was like walking into a paranoid schizophrenic’s brain. So now we get to the standout feature of the Whitechapel gallery’s exhibitions over most other Modern Art spaces: they provoke an inquisitiveness that can border on the wonderfully childish, rather than the normal scared nervousness of being “out of my depth”. It’s a gallery you feel like you can play in, rather than one where you feel like you have to walk around as if you are balancing an invisible ball on your chin, which is why it is such a brilliant gallery.
“Spazio di Luce” is well chosen and well placed here. It takes the form of a 12 meter long tree shape in bronze, laid flat in sections, standing on its leg-like branches, hollowed out and the inside covered with gold leaf. Walking into the columned ex-school building and seeing this is not like seeing a monument. It does not really awe with scale, despite its scale. It is, rather, a large curiosity. Watching people look at objects in galleries can be as interesting as the piece itself, and as I stood against one of the walls watching both “Spazio di Luce” and people come in I noticed that a lot of people do exactly what I did.
Immediately you register a tree, cut into about 6-foot sections, standing on its branches. If you have ever been to a kept forest this is nothing unusual really. In fact, Penone himself found the tree in a mountain park cut into sections, just like we do. But then you see it is hollow, and start thinking “is it really hollow all the way down?” You start looking through the space, through the empty branch-sockets, at the gold interior and the space, casting your eyes right through the trunk of the tree. Around this point you notice that it is not a tree, but a tree shape. What you assumed was bark you now see is wax-like and pocked with thumb- and fingerprints. The inside takes the inverse of the tree’s bark patterns. There is no tree here at all- actually it is the exact opposite- the opposite of tree being no-tree, not nothing. Penone leads us down the garden path from tree to a specific empty space.
If I use the words “there is a space with no trees”, it is not the same as saying “there is an empty space”. Words can make a finely and precisely shaped absence. “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,/Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends/Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.” Eliot’s London is empty of specific things, but this scene is unpaintable as Eliot describes it. The painting of this portion of “The Waste Land” would just be a clean river with no nymphs. Penone has solved this problem. The original tree is there still, the form and shape are noticeable and tangible, but the volume of the tree and the space where it stood is now a precisely sculpted column of air and light.
“Spazio di luce” is related to some earlier work of Penone’s. In 1969 he came up with the idea of adding a ring of wax to a young tree to simulate an extra year of growth, and called it “Gli anni dell’albero più uno” (years of a tree plus one). This piece was destroyed soon after, in-keeping with the “Arte Povera” ethos. “Spazio di luce” is the same idea, but in bronze.
Penone’s art has always been about an interaction between humans and nature, but I think here we have something slightly different from his previous work. His ongoing series “Trees”, where he looks for the shape of a young tree in industrially cut wooden beams using a knowledge of wood and knot marks, is to do with a kind of reciprocal relationship. Tree, handled by man, then re-handled by Penone to become tree-like again. I almost want to say that he “liberates” the tree from its beam, but I think that’s just sentimentalism. “Spazio di luce”, although it has the wax marks that still show the human hand in making it, has something more mystical.
The Eastcastle Haunch of Venison’s show, a small collection of his drawings, go some way to showcasing this. The key illustrative work in many ways is “Un anno di cera ricopre lo spazio di luce” (2009), which is a cross-section of a hollow tree trunk with an extra layer built up by a series of thumb prints. Like in the sculpture/performances on real trees, man interacts with the growth process. But there are also ways in which man and tree are alike here: “Senza titolo” (2009) and “L’uomo scompare nella terra che nutre” (2009)- “man vanishes in the earth that nourishes”- draw attention to the similarity between the sections of tree that make up “Spazio di luce” and the proportions of a man in height and limbs. A thumbprint becomes the centre for a series of tree-ring like expansions in “Propagazione- marzo” (2009). Connections are drawn between living things in their imprints and methods of growth. But there is also a piece called “Trappole di Luce” (1993), from an older exhibition that concentrated on the similarities between eyes and leaves, both shot through by light.
The tree in “Spazio di luce” too is shot through with light. Actually, it is all light. The title, however, is somewhat ambiguous to a non-native Italian speaker (like myself). “Space of Light” sounds to an English speaker as the space where light goes, like a car goes into a car parking space. The function of the space is to hold light, and Haunch of Venison translate “Spazio di luce” as “space for light”. The tree has been carved out to let light in where it wasn’t before. But grammatically, “Spazio di luce” could also be genitive, the space belonging to light, and so “Light’s space”. In this case, the shape and space a tree takes up belongs to light anyway, perhaps in the way light relates to leaves and eyes in “Trappole di Luce”.
There is also another way of sorting out the Italian grammar. In Italian, in order to convey that a table is made of wood, you have to say “il tavolo di legno”- “table of wood”. This opens up a third possibility: “Spazio di luce” indicates that the space is made of light, formed from it, like a table is made from wood. The gold leaf in the hollow middle adds to this effect: the centre-shaft of the tree holds light, belongs to light, but is also made of light.
Things being made either partly or wholly of light is an idea that has been largely rejected (I assume) in scientific communities, but used to be both the height of intellectual thought and the bedrock on which an understanding of the cosmos was built. Bishop Grosseteste (ca. 1170-1253) wrote in his most famous treatise “On Light, or The Beginning of Forms” that “the first corporeal form which some call corporeity is in my opinion light”- and that light, radiating out from somewhere, gives space and dimensions and form to matter. Scotus Eriugena wrote that “all things that are, are lights”, and the final level of Dante’s Paradiso, in line with thinking at the time, is the Empyrean- a place made wholly of light and where God resides- from which light radiates out and down getting less and less pure. The exact processes by which things being made from light were a source of long philosophical and theological argument, but the assumption that God is light, and that light made us (“Let there be light”), and that His light filters down to us in one way or another was a cornerstone of myth and religion.
To lump Penone in with mediaeval mystics is somewhat longwinded, and to say that Penone is Dante’s man because he is Italian is like saying that Francis Bacon was influenced by Chaucer (i.e. perhaps quite enlightening and fanciful). Nevertheless, there is something of all of them in using a hand-wrought shell to replace a tree with the light it uses to grow. This isn’t about making Penone into a kind of hippie character in sympathy with trees- Penone has a carpenter’s or woodsman’s respect for trees, not an activist’s- it is about his suggestion that in all materials there is a kind of Dantean animism that lives and grows, shining. All things that are, are lights: “Spazio di luce” is one exposition of one case of that proposition. Although we walk into the Whitechapel gallery space thinking we see a tree in bronze, we develop ourselves into seeing that it is actually an outer form, a pock-marked shell of a specific pillar of light in space. What is just beneath the bark of any tree? Or, for that matter, is bark just a dividing line between trees and light air, like a frame divides a picture from the wall?
All this is poetic rather than scientific. Trees are not made of light, they’re wood. But to point out that by artifice you can show something living luminously and elegantly in harmony with everything else, and show that that harmony is because of luminosity and elegance, is the constant wish of Penone’s art.
Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012