For centuries the desire to leave a mark—whether personal, cultural, or historical—has been one of the distinct qualities shared by many artists. Even among his Arte Povera contemporaries, who all shared an interest in using simple materials, traces found in nature or everyday life, or even bodily movement and mundane experiences as their major sources of inspiration, Penone was known for his strict adherence to these tenets, spending his entire career leaving simple messages via seemingly ubiquitous and uneventful arboreal themes. Through trees (large and small, natural and artificial) and his own experience with them, the artist was able to ask an array of self-reflexive questions, including what it means to complete a work, who the real artist is, and why artists desire to make at all.
To better contextualize this particular tree on campus, one would need to take a panoramic view of Penone’s entire career and his half-century love affair with many other trees. At times, it seems to emerge from both an ongoing personal obsession and a collective amnesia shared by the generation of postwar Italian artists who were burdened with the pride of experiencing Italy’s rich history as well as its tarnished, recent fascist past. In one prominent example of Penone’s early career, the artist cast a bronze model of his hand and had it grasp the trunk of a live tree—as the tree grew, it wrapped around the model exactly as if the hand was gripping into the bark, and the sculpture became part of the environment that intervened and conditioned the tree’s growth. The work, surviving now only in photographs, was probably the best example of Penone’s interpretation of sculpting as well as the epitome of the Arte Povera ideal. It was ephemeral, introspective, and lacking formal grandeur or high-reaching political statements of any sort, yet it engaged with particular experiences man could have in nature—experiences that are often palpable rather than visual, phenomenological rather than material.
A closer look at Ideas of Stone, then, suggests just how different it is from the artist’s early experiments, despite their seeming thematic similarity. Critics naturally questioned Penone's later productions (roughly starting from the 1980s) as they became increasingly grander and refined, more permanent, more visually tangible, and no longer discernible as “poor art.” The criticism also extended to his closer connection with major institutions, museums, and galleries, including the prestigious Guggenheim and Versailles Palace, which was seen as part of a growing predilection for blockbuster aesthetics in his work.
One of Penone’s later works, Essere Fiume ("Being River," 1981-1995), provides a key answer to the two seemingly disjointed modes of art-making in his career. With Essere Fiume, one encounters two large rocks lying juxtaposed on the gallery floor: gray, solemn, and almost identical. Nothing dramatic at first glance. What strikes the viewers later is the revelation that only one rock was directly collected from the riverbed near the artist’s home, worn by the natural stream of water—Penone found the other in a quarry and meticulously carved it to resemble the natural one. The paradox forces the viewer to wonder why on earth he would bother to spend so much time and money, and undertake such an arduous process, to create a rock or a tree from scratch when he can easily find such things that are just as grand and beautiful.
It is said that one of the driving forces that motivates the artists’ creation is the desire to “make things special,” whereas the rest of the world seems to function better with the “least effort principle”: an instinctual tendency shared by human beings, animals, and even inorganic mechanisms to search for the solution that offers the least resistance and thus requires the least amount of effort. By adopting self-imposed, excessively painstaking “endeavors to make things ordinary,” Ideas of Stone rejects both ways of thinking and subverts viewers’ expectations, thus attaining a sort of beauty in abstraction. Penone chose to show us a vision through bodily expression rather than words or visual cues. By looking through his lens, we might be able to understand not only what an adventure in the woods can be like, but more importantly how it feels to be a rock-sculpting river, or what might exist in the whispers among trees.