It is a humid June afternoon in Turin; the Alps are shrouded in a tarpaulin of cloud and the river Po is the colour of a dirty spoon. My dress sticking to my back, I scurry through the streets to arrive promptly for my appointment with artist Giuseppe Penone.
Yet, on arriving at his studio in an industrial complex near the river, I find the heavy metal doors shuttered. A phone call tracks the artist down at lunch in a nearby trattoria. “Come and join us,” he tells me with an exemplary courtesy that nevertheless brooks little dissent.
The restaurant’s decor looks like it hasn’t changed for decades: everything shouts old-school cucina, high on flavour, low on grandiosity. When I murmur that I am looking for “the artist”, the lady proprietor sweeps me into the back room where Penone, clearly a regular, is tucking into a plate of seafood pasta in the company of some friends.
In his navy shirt and dark trousers, salt-and-pepper hair flopping into kind, brown eyes, Penone, at 65, still boasts the Felliniesque charm that saw Tate choose him as their poster-boy for the 2001 retrospective on Arte Povera, the Italian conceptual art movement of which he is a member.
Arte Povera erupted out of the heady tensions of 1960s Italy. As the country boomed out of acute postwar poverty, it stamped itself on the map as the premier manufacturer of glossy desirables from Vespa to Gucci. Based in Turin, home to Fiat and a hub of leftwing politics, the 14-strong band of artists, which included Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz and Michelangelo Pistoletto, championed the use of materials that transcended commerce. Kounellis tethered live horses in a Roman gallery; Pino Pascali made sculptures out of the wool used for Brillo pads; Pistoletto proffered old rags as counterpoint to classical sculptures.
Just 21 in 1968, Penone was the baby of the group when he made the piece that catapulted him to attention. Entitled “Maritime Alps: it will continue to grow except at this point”, it consisted of a sapling whose trunk was gripped by a steel hand.
“I had great innocence, or perhaps great ambition,” he chuckles, coiling pasta around his fork, as he remembers the chilling image that marked out the rapport between man and nature as his territory. “What I saw when I began was that the distinction between man and nature is false. Man is part of nature; it is our desire to conserve distinctions that has kept us separate.”
That intuition was the rock on which he founded a career. Although he has worked with other materials, including stone, water and vegetables, trees have been his most constant canvas. He has carved them, cast them, written on them, stripped manufactured beams back to their original saplings, and made exquisite drawings from frottages of barks. Often he gestures at an elemental merging with the human body, mapping prints of his hands and limbs on to the trunk, or transposing the patterns of brain matter on to images of leaves.
Today, a panoply of international exhibitions and an acclaimed installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale means his position as a grandee of European art is assured. Right now, his most pressing challenge is the Bloomberg Commission for London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Since its inception in 2009, the commission has invited one artist every year to produce a site-specific work for the space that was the Whitechapel Library before the art centre’s £13.5m expansion.
Lunch over, Penone shepherds us back to the studio to see his Bloomberg work in progress. For someone whose art celebrates landscape, Penone is pretty tough on his subject. Under a ceiling criss-crossed with steel girders lie dozens of trees in parlous states: gouged, dissected, chopped, clamped in vices, sealed in coffin-like wooden crates, even reduced to forlorn heaps of sawdust.
Penone perceives that we are both in thrall to nature and terrified of it; organically bound to its rhythms yet constantly struggling to escape them. “We worry about nature because we are frightened of being overcome by it ... Look what happens if you don’t cut the grass regularly; within two or three years it’s suffocating the house!” Although he delivers his opinions in considered, quasi-scientific tones, his sentiments gesture at a neo-romantic awe that summons the ghosts of Friedrich and Turner.
His blend of pragmatism and poetry stems from a childhood rooted in such contradictions. He grew up in the Maritime Alps, just above Liguria; his father, an agricultural products salesman, came from a peasant family, while his mother, who owned a shop, was the daughter of a sculptor. “So when I showed an interest in art, she was very happy.”
The lack of a nearby liceo artistico (high school specialising in arts) compelled him instead to attend an institution focused on economics, which proved surprisingly useful when he arrived at art school in Turin. There, he struggled with a culture that fostered imitation rather than innovation. What rescued him was the economic theory of the perfect product. “The imperfect product fulfils an existing demand,” he explains, grinning. “The perfect product creates it.”
Arte Povera created a demand for art that gestured towards a new way of living: free of materialism, respectful of humanity, rooted in the everyday yet vibrating with strangeness. Although its heirs – who include many of the Young British Artist movement – may not always have honoured its idealism, Penone and his companions had no doubt that they “were making things that changed the way the world was seen.”
They played hard too. “Sure, we had a lot of fun,” Penone admits, his eyes softening as he remembers lunches in Turin with Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio and Alighiero Boetti. “We met every day to eat at the Birreria Mazzini; it was the communists’ place and you could have goulash and vodka.”
His Whitechapel commission is a little more opulent. He has cast the hollow trunk of a 12-metre tree in bronze and painted the interior in gold. Entitled “Space of Light”, it is divided into sections that balance on their own branches. It uses the ancient practice of lost-wax casting. “That is the work,” he says, gesturing at the tunnel down whose glittering depths I am peering. Thanks to the positive-to-negative transformation effected by the casting, the interior surface bears the imprint of the tree’s bark.
The work chimes, as the Bloomberg Commission requires, with the history of the Whitechapel building, which bears a Tree of Life frieze on its facade. But what compels is the idea of art as alchemy. An element of nature has been conjured into a sylvan icon that makes pagans of us all.
Penone’s reverence for landscape is balanced with his burning faith in the artist’s duty to change and create, the antithesis of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made. In this spirit, he chose to leave the fingerprints of the foundry workers on the bronze surface. “I work with material in the function of sculpture, the language of sculpture,” he says, and for the first time his voice surrenders to real intensity. When Turner wished to experience the power of nature, he lashed himself to the mast of a storm-rocked ship. In his own way, Penone shows equal devotion to the cause.
The Bloomberg Commission: Giuseppe Penone: ‘Spazio di Luce’ (Space of Light), Whitechapel Gallery, London. Sept 5 2012 to September 2013. www.whitechapelgallery.org