Looking out of the train window on my way to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it was obvious how timely these exhibitions about nature are.
Network Rail is under fire for levelling thousands of trees near rail tracks—making sure no leaves reach the line so trains can run fast.
A large campaign has forced Sheffield City Council to put on hold the felling of thousands of trees to fulfil a PFI privatisation contract.
The brutal and short-sighted onslaught for profit is the backdrop of these shows.
Sculptor Giuseppe Penone’s art is surprisingly intimate, given its scale and materials. The huge work, Matrice, stretches over three galleries.
It is a mature pine tree, cut down the middle and splayed open. The cut branches face down so it looks livid, like a giant centipede.
The interior has been delicately carved to a particular ring of the trees growth, and a section is cast in bronze.
You can see how hands have worked to form the interior of the mould, and these are the elements of Penone’s work—people, nature, time and touch.
He began working in 1968 and was attached to the Arte Povera movement, rejecting traditional ways of producing art.
He lived in rural Piedmont in Italy among families that farmed their own produce to eat, not to sell.
This experience gave Penone a more natural relationship to the land.
His first and most exciting pieces are the Alpi Marittime series which he made in the woods around his childhood home.
It Will Continue to Grow Except at this Point is a steel cast of Penone’s hand attached to a young tree.
This was an act of remembering the experience of touching a living tree, but also a kind of throttling of the tree that grows around the cast.
It’s unsettling, but also beautiful. In this piece the tree becomes like syrup flowing around a hand. It’s similar to what Penone talks about in his poetry—the idea of turning a solid into a liquid.
Penone believes in a parity between the maker, the material and nature. This may seem idealistic, but I see it as a call for a life less alienated from nature.
A separate exhibition—Common Ground—is a more engaged take on how we can hold on to our relationship with the natural world.
Set up in 1983, Common Ground is a charity which works with local communities and artists to celebrate the natural character and history of their neighbourhoods.
They have hosted a superb range of work in every medium you can imagine.
It is strange to see the bronze trees of Penone next to the living woodland of Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
But then, the whole landscape was fabricated by generations of wealthy landowners so it’s not entirely natural anyway. It’s free to visit now, and definitely worth a trip.
Common Ground Until 2 September.
Both at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Free. More details at ysp.org.uk