Italian artist Giuseppe Penone unveils his new sculptural installation in Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran

Giuseppe Penone. Courtesy of King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture
Giuseppe Penone. Courtesy of King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture

Giuseppe Penone has devoted his life to a most fascinating exploration: the link between nature and man. The revered Italian artist, who is best known for his monumental tree sculptures, was a major figure of Arte Povera, the artistic movement that flourished in Italy during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Notable for its use of simple materials, Arte Povera (“impoverished art”) rejected American minimalism, Italian abstract painting and scientific rationalism while seeking to emphasize the pre-industrial age by using materials such as earth, rocks, clothing, paper and rope.

Employing those materials and others, in a career that now spans more than half a century, Penone created his first trees (Alberi) in 1969, by selecting aged timbers and carving the outer growth to reveal the beauty of the trunk’s core. In 1970, he merged sculpture and performance by carving a tree in front of an audience, and beginning in 1977, he initiated a series of sculptures based on photographs he took of light powder he had blown into the air. For his 1981 Essere Fiume artwork, Penone looked into rivers, extracting chunks of stone and marble and carving them into small and smoother stones, mirroring the water’s natural impact on the rocks.

Giuseppe Penone, Source of Light. Courtesy of King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture
Giuseppe Penone, Source of Light. Courtesy of King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture

With the dawn of the 21st century, Penone further developed his artistic oeuvre with Idee di Pietra, sculptures in which he juxtaposed rocks and trees to reflect the power of gravity and growth and how they interact with one another. With these sculptures and others, Penone has continually posed questions about the very act of sculpting and questioned its deeper meaning.

In Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Penone unveiled a most breathtaking new sculpture that was years in the making. Set at Ithra, The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, the art piece was conceived during Penone’s first visit to Dhahran, when the center was still being constructed. “I came to this place three times,” said Penone during a press conference held in Dhahran to unveil his sculpture, “the first time just to see the building that was in construction.” Entitled Source of Light, the new 90-foot-tall commission encompasses three towering trees that rise from the symbolic location where Saudi Arabia first discovered oil in 1938. The trees are supported by a fourth, larger tree that is made from stainless steel and divided into hollow sections. The fourth tree creates an open interior space, encouraging visitors to turn their gaze upward. “I try to work with the elements that I usually lose from my work,” Penone added during the press conference. “I don’t use technology – I don’t feel technology is interesting for a very long time. It’s good for a short time and can be astonishing, but it disappears very quickly. Materials like clay, bronze, stone will still be there.”

After the press conference, Penone sat with Selections magazine, discussing his new sculpture and explaining how his own identity is linked with that of the artwork and with the distinctive Saudi Arabian setting.

Giuseppe Penone, Source of Light. Courtesy of King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture
Giuseppe Penone, Source of Light. Courtesy of King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture

Q: Can you tell us about your artistic identity in the region?
A: I’m always thinking that a stone is a stone in a country, in a village, in a big town – it is always a stone and the value of a stone is the same everywhere. So the value of a person must be the same if he’s in a village or if he’s in a bigger town. My identity is related to the place where I was born. I was born in the mountains of Italy, in a village, and my identity was related to the nature of this village.

Q: How is it related to the region?
A: If you have an identity, and your identity is clear for you and for other people, then your identity can be transmitted into other contexts.

Q: You have a massive sculpture in the Louvre Abu Dhabi and now in Saudi Arabia. Are they connected?
A: They’re different In Abu Dhabi, the sculpture is related to the concept of the museum and to the architecture of the museum. In Saudi Arabia, the work is related to the idea of installing a tree that is living, adding life and a sculpture inside a building that is like a stone. It is a dialogue between an architecture of stone and a tree sculpture.

Q: Can you tell us more about your relationship with the tree?
A: I started working with the tree because the tree is an element that is fluid. It feels like a solid element but in reality it grows and becomes fluid material like water. This was something that impressed me. And inside the body of the tree, in the wood, you can find the form of the tree at different times, different ages, so it memorizes its life inside of its body. This is fantastic because you have a sculpture that carries life within it. Each branch, each leaf has this life memorized inside of it.

Q: You chose to put the sculpture atop the place where they found the oil. Why?
A: It was the place where I was told to do the work. It wasn’t a choice. Oil, like a tree, is also organic. This element is especially important because it is related to many of the problems we have in the world. This contrast between technology, pollution and the environment can be a kind of reflection about this subject. This kind of place is also symbolic, because you have to think about preserving nature, preserving the tree, but we also cannot stop our lives.

Q: What is your conversation with the tree?
A: Touch and contact. Contact is what we do in life: we touch things, we touch objects, but each time we touch something we leave something of us and we receive something. It can be an impression, it can be material. You scratch your hand and touch an object, you leave your image imprinted everywhere.

Q: The use of material can sometimes be limiting. How do you constantly engage in a conversation with it?
A: When using material in a sculpture, I try to understand what the material is and to follow the material. You cannot create a good sculpture if you do not consider the material. I remember a fabric maker who once told me that when he creates something, he follows the material, he follows the nature of it.

Q: Describe the process you have with some of the commissioners
A: I suggested the work three or four years ago, when I was working on this type of art, and they were open to the idea. It was perfect.

Q: The local aspect of the story vs. the universality of your work. Can you tell us more about this?
A: If you have an honest relationship between work and reality, you have the possibility to connect the two. If not, you cannot relate to other things.




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