WHITECHAPEL GALLERY, LONDON
SEPTEMBER 4, 2012 – AUGUST 11, 2013
Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture “Spazio di Luce (Space of Light)” is a reconstitution of an older project, “Gli anni dell’albero piú uno (All the years of the tree plus one)” (1969), in which Penone coated a tree in a thin layer of wax, approximating a growth ring. Produced 44 years later as the 2012 Bloomberg Commission at the Whitechapel Gallery, “Spazio di Luce” is a cast bronze version of that original wax layer. The interior surface of the cylindrical bronze, leafed in gold, is a print taken from the infinitely complicated exterior surface of the bark; the bulbous outer surface of the bronze displays a record of the artist’s fingerprints as he applied wax to the tree. What was in 1969 a spontaneous, messy, cheap, and irreverent landmark of the Arte Povera movement has become a luxurious and static shining tunnel of light.
It feels a bit as if the roles in the Garden of Eden have been reversed. A yearning mortal being—longing to engage somehow the beauty of creation, the Tree of Life—has now become the deity; it is the same piece, inverted. Penone presents a solution to a common issue in the particular strain of experimental art that utilizes ephemeral media and then, almost as an afterthought, is required to address its historical significance. How can it be converted into something that lasts but still retain its meaning?
A similar artistic odyssey takes place on the façade of the Whitechapel building, which was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend in 1897 - 99. “Tree of Life” (2012), a fantasy inspired by the idealistic Arts and Crafts decoration of the building, is Rachel Whiteread’s first permanent public commission in the United Kingdom.
Until Whiteread’s intervention, the Whitechapel façade dangled in a state of edgy asymmetry. An off-center semi-circular entryway competes with a mirror pair of turrets separated by an expanse of blank wall originally intended to hold a mosaic, which was never produced. The two turrets rise out of an original relief of a neat forest, entitled by Townsend the “trees of life.” Whiteread has cast in bronze segments of the branches and leaves from the stone decoration, gilded them, and strewn these bits of foliage across the uncompleted portion of the edifice. Whiteread also centered within the once strangely empty rectangle four terra-cotta windows, inverted reproductions of the fenestration that spans the central stratum of the building.
This is both a utilitarian and a metaphysical work of art: Whiteread has tackled the deficiencies of the architecture and then has taken it beyond its original stilted intent. Traditionally Whiteread’s sculpture relies on referencing absence. Perhaps she found the dull billboard space of the building, which many artists would see as a golden opportunity for a mural, far too easy to address in such a conventional way. A cheesy readymade canvas within an Edwardian frame wasn’t going to work for her. Rather, she used the backdrop of legitimate architecture in order to develop her own themes.
Inside and outside the gallery, the arboreal obsession is on a grand scale. Both Whiteread and Penone tackle the baggage-laden symbolism of the tree, and both have decided to go all in. Here narrative steps in to replace the raw resourcefulness of Whiteread’s older casts, like “House” (1993) or “Untitled (One Hundred Spaces)” (1995), which rely on the amorphous and pure concepts of negative space and invisibility. Bronze, a material rarely used in her earlier work, presents a certain permanence—which is a subject Whiteread generally toys with rather than accepting as a fact. Penone has always imbued his work with a gorgeous craftsmanship that references the hand: the trees he excavated from beams and planks to create works such as “Albero di 12 metri (Tree of 12 meters)” (1980 - 82) were perfectly carved. Here his fingerprints are captured in bronze, so “Space of Light” is less of a departure for Penone. That both artists use gold leaf is a coincidence; in all its divine associations, the medium is unnerving and creates a disembodied quality similar to that lent to an illuminated manuscript or Byzantine basilica by the painted or mosaicked golden surroundings of saints and angels. Yet unlike Whiteread’s golden leaves, which drift up into the ether obvious in their optimism, Penone’s denuded tree sits in the gallery, sectioned into six. From the door of the space a viewer may look straight ahead, “up” through the hollow trunk, but this vantage ends in a glittering thud. The vista never breaks through the crown of the tree, ending instead in a finite shimmering pinpoint.
77-82 Whitechapel High St. // London, U.K.
William Corwin is a sculptor and journalist from New York.