Giuseppe Penone’s Garden of Fluid Sculptures

by Catherine Craft / Associate Curator / Nasher Sculpture Center
Between 2003 and 2007, the sculptor Giuseppe Penone created Il Giardino delle Sculture Fluide (The Garden of Fluid Sculptures) for La Venaria Reale near Turin, Italy. Born in nearby Garessio in 1947, Penone is widely regarded as one of Italy’s leading contemporary artists. 
A younger member of the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s and 70s, he has long been involved with establishing connections between humanity and nature, and this series of outdoor environmental installations represents one of the most ambitious realizations of his engagement with sculpture.

Covering an area equivalent to several acres, Penone’s Garden of Fluid Sculptures brings to life one of the formerly long-neglected areas of a magnificent European estate. In the mid-seventeenth century, Duke Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy commissioned the architect Amedeo di Castellamonte to design a grand house with grounds to be used for hunting and leisure. The grand project included the palace and grounds, woods, and a small village; its Italianate gardens featured fountains, spectacular staircases, and terraced parks on different levels. In the eighteenth century, the estate was redesigned, and the gardens were rebuilt in the French style, with all-encompassing vistas in the style of Versailles. By the following century, however, the Reggia had been converted to military barracks, and the estate entered a long decline. In 1999, an ambitious restoration project was undertaken with support from local authorities as well as the European Union, and in 2007 La Venaria Reale opened to the public, becoming one of Italy’s five most-visited historical sites.

The unique layout of the Parco Basso, or Lower Park, and the centuries-old history of its gardens were the prime inspiration for Penone’s Garden of Fluid Sculptures. Dismantled in the early eighteenth century when the gardens were redesigned, the Lower Park was bordered by Castellamonte’s retaining wall for the palace and the Peschiara, or fishpond. Based on a seventeenth-century checkered pattern, The Garden of Fluid Sculptures runs some 1,500 feet in length. There, artistic and natural elements – trees, bronze, marble, stone, granite, and water – mark the passage from one sculpture to the next, creating an uninterrupted experience of the mineral, vegetal, and human realms. Like rooms in a museum, the Garden sections are organized in a sequence, with rows of lime trees and birches delimiting the spaces of the artworks against the backdrop of Castellamonte’s architecture and, in the distance, the towering peaks of the Alps. In Penone’s garden, ancient history and contemporary vision coexist also in the combination of materials used to make artworks with aspects of nature.

This was not the first time Penone embarked on an environmental installation project. Most notably, the artist placed a large bronze sculpture recalling the form of a fallen tree in Paris’s famous Tuileries Gardens, and in 2000 he also worked in Turin on Albero Giardino (Tree Garden), a project for a garden on the Underground Railway Link, where vegetation expands out, recalling the branches of a tree. Discussing this work, he wrote: “The structure of fluids is the same in each element. A river, a growing tree, a path, they all have similar forms.” In this open-air project, human action – and therefore culture – resonates with the power of natural elements and finds its expression in a path where the vegetation is laid out according to a tree-like pattern. As with these earlier projects, Penone’s Garden of Fluid Sculptures was inspired by the artist’s response to a specific site, the concept of integrating sculpture and nature, and the changing nature of matter over time. In the Lower Park, he reshaped the section of the Gardens extending between Castellamonte’s wall and the fishpond with environmental works where vegetal elements – trees, hedges, tree trunks – and the materials that are typical of sculpture – bronze, stone and marble – merge in harmony. The arrangement of elements creates a lively tempo that leads the visitor to the discovery of the beauty of nature and art and of the dialogue between the ancient and the contemporary.

Instead of reproducing the ponds and decorative structures that characterized the seventeenth-century garden, Penone preserved their rhythm and proportions while working to define the garden’s shape. The completed environment consists of 14 works in a sequence that provides an original reinterpretation of the baroque garden. At one end, Between Bark and Bark consists of two halves of the bark of a bronze tree that shelters a lime tree planted  between them. In The Light of the Steps, the artist marked the boundaries of the area with a grove where bronze elements emerge from the ground as if they were roots; by walking on them, visitors unearth their presence and make the bronze gleam, a sign of the life and energy pulsating underneath. Next, in Water Sketch a fingerprint appears and disappears at regular intervals on the water’s surface in a large, shallow pool made of black granite; the image is formed by tiny air bubbles floating to the surface, suggestive of a point of contact between different states of being. The Colors of Storms is a lime grove, cutting across the path and providing an unadulterated immersion in nature and color, before giving way to two adjacent works: the enormous installation Marble Skin, a 400 - square – meter surface made of Carrera marble, whose veins suggest the flow of the human lymphatic system, creating a connection between the mineral and human realms; and the marble sculpture Anatomy, where one unfinished side brings out the character of the material while the other three are sculpted by Penone to show the pattern of the stone’s inner substance.
 
Like The Colors of Storms, Chiaroscuro is a small forest of trees, Himalayan birches in this case, planted in a square section arranged in a symmetrical pattern. Here, the perfectly white bark of the trees is also reminiscent of the marble surfaces of other works. Sharing another section, Brain of Stones represents the image of a brain drawn in the ground using large river pebbles, with a tree planted between the two “lobes,” connecting them, while Bifurcation is a fountain shaped like a bronze tree, extending from the ground and reaching out to the surrounding landscape. On the end side of the trunk, a handprint can be seen, from which water drips down and returns to the ground, bearing witness to the circular flowing of the elements. Similarly paired, Bones of the Earth and Direction “towards the light” respectively show a tree tethered to the ground by a heavy stone that impairs movement and growth and a monumental bronze tree positioned at the garden’s center. Likewise, Ideas of Stone’s bronze tree with a stone stuck between its branches is paired with Vegetal Gesture, an unfinished human silhouette of bronze, completed by the branches of a tree planted in its midst. At the garden’s edge, Direction “towards the centre of the earth” consists of a bronze tree trunk resting on the ground and pointing to the depths of the earth. An exedra of copper beech trees delimits this section, mirroring the one at the entrance surrounding Between Bark and Bark.

The Garden of Fluid Sculptures springs from Penone’s long meditation on the relation between nature and culture. Of landscaped and cultivated spaces in particular, he has commented: “The garden begins when a man treads on the ground and ventures into the vegetal, the mineral space. The action is fixed into the ground and the miniscule realities his step has encountered memorize his presence. The shrubs displaced by something other than the wind, the fallen leaves, the broken twigs, the bent and trampled grass, and the miniscule, invisible animal life perturbed by the steps, all bear witness to the passage and remember the man’s path. The perception of these countless small events, the reflection, the observation, the wonder accompanying the steps of those who walk with their eyes to the ground and their thoughts suspended, soaked up in the sky, harmonize the senses….Since that moment, the memory of his presence is fixed to that place. The systematic organization of this memory, its structuring, a will to ritualize the path, its repetition, this is what generates the garden.”

Visitors to Penone’s Garden of Fluid Sculptures can complement their visit with an exploration of the estate’s grounds. The palace, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, includes some of the finest examples of European baroque design: the enchanting scenario of Castellamonte’s Hall of Diana, the solemnity of the Great Gallery and the Church of St. Hubert, and the eighteenth-century stables designed by Filippo Juvarra, not to mention imaginative contemporary decorations and installations concerning life at court by filmmaker Peter Greenaway.

For information about visiting Giuseppe Penone’s The Garden of Fluid Sculptures at La Venaria Reale, visit: www.lavenaria.it