(Versailles.) I like Penone. Honestly. For the past forty years, the Italian artist has created Arte Povera's least pauper bronzes, magnificent artworks that question the concepts of human and natural creation. But whenever I see one of his works today, two images emerge from the subconscious, threatening to spoil the pleasure. And only one of them is worthy of an intellectual, sophisticated, highbrow, art critic: Paul McCarthy's motorized installation of a man performing unnatural acts on a tree (The Garden, 1992). The other one is South Park's Eric Cartman saying, "It's all a bunch of tree-hugging hippie crap".
We arrived at Versailles on a hot and sticky mid-June day shortly after the show's inauguration, which could explain some of the obstacles we should meet that day.
After 4pm, tickets for the Chateau are reduced to €6 instead of €15. This special offer is not available at the automatic ticket machines, which means some serious queuing at the cash desk. Once the tickets in hand, visitors have earned the right to wait for another hour at least in a line outside, before the entrance. And once entering the Chateau, the queuing seamlessly continues. You never get the impression of having reached the end of the line, all you see, feel, and smell is a giant body of people from all corners of the earth pushing forward. Caught in midst of this mass one ugly thought cannot be easily suppressed: Versailles was better before the revolution.
A very young, very pretty guide at an info counter can't help us with a map, to find Giuseppe Penone's works, we'll just need to keep our eyes open. Not that easy with sweat-soaked T-Shirts glued to overweight tourist bodies slapping your face on every other step. Oxygen, my kingdom for oxygen.
After the Hall of Mirrors, after the king's chamber, after the queen's chamber, there finally is a first Penone hidden next to a staircase. The stampede passes by, not wasting a single gaze. Breathing the Shadow (1998) is an owl-like form from bronze leaves with oversized golden lungs on its chest. In the adjoining room we find an installation Giuseppe Penone has created in several variations (one on show in Monaco last year: click). The one here is called Breathing the Shadow: Tea Leaves (2013), and that’s exactly what you get: Walls plastered with bundles of tealeaves. Any Palin Party associations are purely coincidental though, no politics involved.
Two little bronze roses extend from one wall, our lungs are the organs that most directly connect us to the vegetal. In a way, human life is the opposite of photosynthesis: Breathe to make the world a darker place.
Let your thoughts wander about, bringing owls to Athens, life and breath is Atman, and a cup of tea would be nice right now...
Nature is life, a basic fact that is too easily forgotten in a city like Paris that entertains a neurotic relationship with nature. The City of Light is grey, and wherever something green shows, it has to be fenced in, tamed, cultivated; free it could be dangerous - today's Paris is the crushing triumph of Voltaire over Rousseau. And even here, in Versailles, nature is not natural, but more to this later.
The nice and helpful warden claims there would be a third work somewhere around the Hall of Mirrors. Struggling back against the stream, one of his colleagues tries to stop us - this is a one-way track -, but quickly succumbs to our charms and the password Penone. Through guided groups of Russians yelling abuse, we reached the Mirrors once again but neither here nor in the surroundings find any Penone. Unless that wood in the fireplace...? Or that wooden box behind a building site fence....? No, none of them.
One more warden, undergraduate student intern, has never heard about any Penone in his short acne-plagued life. Of course he would never admit this, fantasizing instead about "some works in rooms only accessible to groups on reservation". We decide to go back forward. The woman, who had let us pass before, now asks if we found what we were looking for. It dawns on me, she has no clue either, what or who this Penone might be. "It is a painting?", she asks, then nods very knowingly upon our insisting, "No, Giuseppe Penone, the exhibition."
We finally managed to reach the exit. If we had had asked one more warden we might still be in there today.
On days of Musical Gardens, the additional entry fee for the park is €7.50. Musical Gardens means they install a sound system playing classical music like in a supermarket, where you get it for free and it is less annoying. After 6:30 pm it is possible to enter the park for free. If you find the hole in the fence, even before.
The monumental works out here are beyond any criticism, Giuseppe Penone in his prime again. A rolled up marble carpet, marble blocks with carved-in plant fossils, fifteen meters high bronze trees.
One of these trees is split open as by lightning, and its wounds are gilded. The gold color Penone occasionally applies to his sculptures might be a metaphor for artistic perfection, for artificial refinement and "value" equaling the inner forces of nature.
Another bronze tree is put upside down with an actual one sprouting on top (which is the bottom). Giuseppe Penone gives life to dead matter. Birth and death, and two forms of immortality: the individual immortality of a stone compared to the specific immortality of a biological entity, persistence vs. reproduction. These are different concepts of identity too, but we don`t need to go down all that way.
Kind of hidden in the park lies a lawn with six more sculptures. If you are a Tolkien fanatic, your first thought might be: "Whoa - an Entmoot!" These artificial trees balancing boulders on their branches appear like frozen in movement.
Penone mixes biological creation with human art; an artist can never surpass, but at the best equal nature and the forces that sculpted it. Here, a tree that looks "natural" is made of bronze, while the rocks are left in their natural state. Living nature, biology, becomes artificial, whilst the dead matter that artists usually treat to create sculptures remains as it is. The play on meanings seems to lie at the heart of Penone's oeuvre.
Accordingly, the connection between Giuseppe Penone and the Chateau de Versailles is not a factual, but a spiritual one.
Giuseppe Penone's works are neither site-specific art, nor does the Chateau in the background alter their appearance in an essential way. A lawn is a lawn is a lawn, anywhere in the world. They would not look different on a collector's garden party. (Which is a good thing for Marian Goodman who currently shows a parallel exhibition in her Parisian gallery space, with works a bit less monumental, and even some drawings and a canvas with thorns forming an abstract "painting").
But Versailles' park is a work of art itself.
André LeNôtre's creation has few to do with Mother Nature having her way, French gardening is and has always been a science, the meticulous creation of geometrical installations. What appears "natural" is the outcome of art, once again. Hardly any European landscape has not been actively altered by man at one point or another in history, but if classical French architects (early land artists) had had the technical means of today, probably there would not stand a single "real" tree on the ground of Chateau de Versailles. What does "natural" mean, and what is "man-made", and if there is only creation, is life an art?
Unlike Takashi Murakami in 2010, Giuseppe Penone's sculptures do not create a visual dialogue between two eras, between two esthetics and two cultures. Instead, the artist offers an alternative reading of his works as the continuation of a tradition.
The art itself is top. The circumstances of the visit are less so. It is hard to imagine a reason to organize contemporary art exhibitions at Chateau de Versailles in summer.
The tourist hordes come here anyway, and they don't give a fuss on contemporary art. For interested visitors on the other hand, the experience is often annoying. Winter exhibitions would make more sense even from an economic point of view, as their visitors could compensate for the lack of tourists off-season. Maybe this could become subject of a petition to the modern rulers of Versailles, surely they do not want to appear headless.
Giuseppe Pennone, Châeau de Versailles, 11 June-31 October 2013