Giuseppe Penone at The Whitechapel Gallery: Reviewed

Yesterday was my first venture to the Whitechapel Gallery. After receiving a National Art Pass for Christmas, I am determined to pack in as many new and exciting exhibitions in as I possibly can. A short tube ride away from Mile End (home of the boyfriend) and literally three steps from the entrance of Aldgate East, this charming small gallery exhibits contemporary art and sculpture in an intimate setting.

Giuseppe Penone’s ‘Spazio di Luce’ (‘Space of Light’) currently headlines the Whitechapel Gallery, and is the latest Bloomberg Commision.

spazio di luce

‘Spazio di Luce’ is quite simply breath-taking. Housed in a large bare room, it is essentially a giant twelve metre bronze cast of a tree, lined with a luminous gold-leaf interior. The sculpture is chopped into different sections, allowing the viewer to fully interact with it, and question Penone’s fundamental reasoning behind ‘Spazio di Luce’: what is the relationship between man and nature?

Such interaction continues as viewers gaze down the hollow interior of the sculpture, experiencing a divine concentric of bright gold. A level of compulsion lies in the air around the sculpture; its beauty and tangibility inviting the viewer to explore and become part of it.

Giuseppe Penone's artwork Spazio di Luce

‘The positive of the tree became an empty space, and in that case the light can go inside’ – Giuseppe Penone.

The sculpture is accompanied by an explanatory video (it is also on YouTube: is nature now interacting with the internet?) which is ironically subtitled to ease viewers through Penone’s heavy Italian accent. Penone explains how when he created the sculpture, he chopped the branches of the tree in such a way that it could stand up perfectly on its own, allowing it to be somewhere ‘between animal and vegetable’.

Another interesting tension Penone highlights is the relationship between the sculpture and the building of the Whitechapel Gallery itself. ‘Spazio di Luce’ represents a tree, whilst the gallery itself, once a library, has housed books. Such a dichotomy between trees, paper, nature and modern urban existence can really be felt in the quiet stillness of the exhibition. However, rather than condemn modern life, Penone celebrates it with the illuminated gold leaf exterior. Perhaps what he is asking of the viewer is to simply take a moment to reflect on the relationship between nature and the human city.

This acknowledgement of the fusion between human life and nature is quietly demonstrated by Penone in the fingerprints visible on the sculpture’s surface. A subtle, silent reminder of the inseparable bond between man and his environment.

Penone’s work reminded me a little of Andy Goldsworthy’s natural scupltures. A desire for mutual respect between ‘animal and vegetable’ is common to both artists, as is a focus on the void where natural life has been taken away.

andy goldsworthy

I highly recommend visiting the Whitechapel Gallery, and ‘Spazio di Luce’ is being exhibited until 11 August.

Images: The Whitechapel Gallery and The Guardian.

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