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Beirut Art Center is presenting a solo exhibition by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone. The title of the show, Breath Is a Sculpture, emphasizes breath as the matrix for a visual practice, as well as an articulation between body, space, and form. Breath, an index of the body, is measured, depicted, and embodied, in Penone’s work in sculpture, sound, and representation. Most of the pieces exhibited make the artist’s body, and by extension, the spectator’s body, the theme as well as the subject of the work and simultaneously a tool for measuring and investigating the world. The works on display acknowledge the body as a means and as a measuring instrument. Exploring breath, in Italian soffio, that constitutes the most elemental proof to life’s continuity, has occupied the artist since the seventies.
The exhibition at Beirut Art Center makes his artistic process visible. Performances, installations, as well as their documentation inform the production of newer versions of emblematic works realized in different contexts.
Giuseppe Penone started his artistic trajectory in 1968 by working with vegetation and minerals through his own body. A principal figure in the Arte Povera movement (1967- 71), he was the youngest of this group in the wake of Lucio Fontana’s and Piero Manzoni’s works. Essentially anti-formal, Arte Povera began as an action-based art and as a transgressive practice. The Italian art historian, curator, and critic Germano Celant named the movement during a period of political upheavals in the late sixties in Italy. He was inspired by the title of Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski’s seminal essay Towards a Poor Theatre (1965). Celant aspired to the emergence of an experimental and politically engaged, Italian art movement that resists the increasing reification and commodification of art by uniting 12 artists including Giovanni Anselmo, Jannis Kounellis, Alighiero Boetti, Mario Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Giuseppe Penone. Soon enough Arte Povera became strongly poetic . These artists were inclined to employ instability within natural elements in order to produce rather abstract or enigmatic, and in large part, ephemeral works that deal with time, nature, language, and space.
Soffi (1975) is a series of 19 black and white photographs of clouds of dust hovering in a forest. The calm, repetitive, to and fro, but ever advancing movement evokes permanently recurrent cycles found in nature, in the beating of a heart and the rhythm of a breath. These clouds of breath are traces of presence, absence, and vulnerability. Respirare l’ombra (2000), one of Penone’s most important installations, is conceived as an autonomous space. It consists of laurel leaves stacked in wire cages. The visitors are invited to experience the work with their own bodies both visually and by breathing. In Soffio di foglie, first performed in 1979, Penone lies face downward on a pile of myrtle leaves and breathes into them. The indexical relation between the body and breath forms an actual impression that unfolds twice: the artist’s body creates an imprint on the leaves, and his breath causes them to move and creates another trace.
Breath Is a Sculpture will also feature early works by Penone; these blurred the boundary between performance, body art, and land art. Alpi Marittime (1968) is a widely known series of six action-performances conceived and executed over five days in December 1968 before a professional photographer. Presented at BAC in the form of documentary photographs, these early performances clearly convey how the artist merges with nature, leaving traces of this contact that persisted through the passage of time. In Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto (It Will Continue to Grow, Except at That Point), one of these action-performances, Penone carves into a tree, placing a bronze cast of his hand. Years later, x-ray scans show how the tree adapted to the presence of “his” hand, continuing to grow—but, around it.
As an artist, Penone explores perception to become a subject “in touch” with nature and the world around him. In Rovesciare i propri occhi (To Reverse One’s Eyes, 1970), perhaps considered his most famous performance preserved in the form of a slideshow, Penone gives full reign to tactile sense and intuition. The sequence of slides depicts the artist walking in a tree-lined avenue near Garessio, the small town where he was born. At the end, a close-up of his face reveals the custom-made, opaque mirrored contact lenses he is wearing. Blinded, Penone looks inwards, “reversing his own eyes,” to experience his body in the surrounding nature. Thus, he refutes the belief that ‘eyes are the mirrors to the soul’ or the eighteenth-century notion that knowledge is acquired through sight, observation, and objectivity. The depository of knowledge for Penone is the haptic dimension; it is a form of communication involving the skin’s sensitivity and intuition that guides him on his walk.
An important work in this show is Nel legno (2008). It is a sculpture that attests to Penone’s concern with matter’s memory which led him to carve into a block of timber to reveal and retrieve, ring after ring, its earlier state. Another manifestation of invisibility is expressed in sound. Transcription musicale de la structure des arbres (2011) is an experiment that was led by Penone in which he recorded the sounds that emanate from specific trees. BAC will also re-enact Propagazione (1997- 2014) an in situ drawing that spreads his fingerprint on one of the walls of the center. Essere fiume 6 (1998) plays on the invisible difference between a natural object and its replica made by the artist. The œuvre of Penone restores the centrality of nature to life and art, and seeks to re-situate the body in nature. But other ideas also make their way into his works. For instance, in addition to poetically representing the passage of time, Penone raises important questions vis-à-vis art making and the notion of mimicry and authenticity. Essere fiume is a challenge against natural forces and a contribution to the dialogue that his work invoked between nature and artefact.