The Simplicity of Giuseppe Penone

In rehearsals today we had a bit of a breakthrough. It has been hard work so far, a lot of tough thinking and scratching around. As usual the breakthrough came when we were able to make everything much simpler than it was before.

Making something simple sounds like it should be easy but it rarely is. Even when you are experienced enough to know the answer will be found close at hand and that it will be elegant not complicated, it is still often tough identify. We have all experienced the apparently insoluble problem, whose solution only becomes blindingly obvious once it has been pointed out to us. It is then difficult to imagine being in the position of not knowing the answer.

It is possibly important to risk stating the obvious: that simple and simplistic solutions are two very different things. We were finding two of three simplistic solutions to our problems each day but being simplistic answers they were only partial. We had to push on to find the simple solution that was comprehensive.

Simplicity can usher in complexity and can be very easily found. Of All The People In All The World is our prime example. It wasn’t a struggle to imagine, it’s power arises from the extraordinary simplicity of it’s central premise and yet it is flexible enough to develop complexity from this central premise.

I was drawn back to thinking about simplicity when yesterday I turned out a guide to the Giuseppe Penone retrospective we visited briefly at the CaixaForum in Barcelona. The image from this exhibition that will haunt me for ever is of a clump of trees carved out of their older selves. Repeating the Wood (which we hope is a ropey translation) is the collective title of a cluster of sculptures Penone has been making since 1969. The basic premise is he takes an old tree, or even a large beam of wood chooses a growth ring and cuts away, following that ring, like a contour line through the wood. Leaving perhaps half the starting piece of wood undisturbed, usually lengthways, the effect is extraordinary and moving. The idea – thought not the craftsmanship – is beautifully simple.

I have probably not described this piece very well. Maybe this is a good thing. I wouldn’t want anyone to think they didn’t have to see it because they ‘got the idea’, You have to see it to believe it but you will still be incredulous.


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