A Universal Moment

BY Anna Brady / Apr 16 2017 / 22:10 PM

Approaching the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi later this year, commissioned artist Giuseppe Penone discusses his relationship with the Middle East and the monumental installation he has designed to befit both the museum’s aims and Jean Nouvel’s architecture

A Universal Moment

Jenny Holzer. Engraved stone Cuneiform wall with excerpts from Creation Myth tablet from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. Rendering Factum Arte. Image courtesy Louvre Abu Dhabi ©2015

The Middle East, and indeed the world, awaits the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (LAD) this year with baited breath. Now, it’s in the final phases of construction and, though a specific opening date has yet to be declared, at the end of 2016 the museum announced it had commissioned two internationally renowned artists, Giuseppe Penone and Jenny Holzer, to create site-specific artworks.

Giuseppe Penone. Photography by Nando Lanfranco

For both artists, now in their late sixties, 2016 was rather a moment; Penone’s work appearing repeatedly at art fairs the world over and Holzer’s large-scale installations seen everywhere from Ibiza to New York. Their Louvre Abu Dhabi works will be installed underneath the ‘rain of light’ filtering through the dome of architect Jean Nouvel’s ‘museum city’, a network of streets, plazas and waterways that with artworks both inside and out as part of an ongoing program of commissions.

Rana Al Hammadi, Senior Researcher at Louvre Abu Dhabi, said key to selecting both artists was that their ideas echoed the museum’s spirit. “With Holzer the public aspect has always been essential to her work, and we were eager to work with her as she is able to conceive of large-scale projects that convey complex ideas in such an elegant and accessible way. Penone’s work often addresses universal questions about the human condition, which we feel reflects the ambition of what we are doing with Louvre Abu Dhabi, creating a museum reflective of all cultures and taking a new approach to museography.”

Giuseppe Penone and Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Leaves of Light © 

Using her beloved medium of stone, Ohio-born Holzer has created three engraved walls of texts, taken from historical sources from around the world. The Italian Penone has created a four-part installation titled Germination, displaying the artist’s fascination with using organic materials and drawing links between man, nature and art. At its heart is Leaves of Light, a huge bronze tree with mirrored branches to reflect the light filtering through the dome, and intended as a symbol of life. Penone also collaborated with the French porcelain manufacturer Sèvres for several other works including Propagation. This, says Al Hammadi, “is a wall of porcelain tiles representing concentric circles drawn by hands. The lines of the drawing germinate from Sheikh Zayed’s fingerprint to show how a simple action can create an infinite space.”

Though there were curatorial discussions and the artists were briefed on the concept behind the museum, they were otherwise left to their own devices. “The Middle East is a part of the world that’s always interested me because of its culture and its nature. The nature is extreme and it’s punctuated with the jewels of life and culture that exist in the oases and the cities,” said Penone. Though not a regular visitor to the region, he has always “been struck by the dignity and generosity of the people as well as the magnificence of the place.” For him, the central premise of the new museum, to bring together artistic cultures of the world and create a dialogue crossing centuries and continents, felt fitting for his work. “A work of art is made to be shared and experienced by people who inhabit different spaces and also different time periods. To be able to create a piece for a museum with aspirations like this is enormously motivating for me.” The cultural legacy of the Middle East, its influence on the evolution of both Eastern and Western traditions, has long intrigued Penone. The development of Greek and European culture is, he thinks, unthinkable without the input of the Middle East.

Giuseppe Penone at the Louvre Abu Dhabi © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel 

“The synthesis of the image in visual culture has led to an elaborate and sophisticated output of forms linked to containers, vessels, perhaps partially due to the sacred nature and the respect inspired by water in this part of the world,” he adds. “This is one of the aspects which inspired me the most in producing my own works, not only these latest pieces but previous ones, too.” The unique light of the Middle East he also finds captivating: “the light present in the starry sky arching over the light of sand crystals in the desert, and then humans, who carry on their hands the lines moulded by the wind on the dunes. A bronze tree with steel inserts that reflect the light, a vase made with clay from many different countries and a drawing based on the fingerprint of Sheikh Al Zayed which spreads over the surface of a porcelain wall: these are the works I conceived.”

Did the region influence the conception? He says elusively “Place and context can stimulate the work, which is valid only if it’s truthful. Only in this case can it integrate and dialogue with audiences.”

Ensuring a work has physical longevity, through working with hardwearing material, is also important to Penone, alongside exploring the idea of monumental sculpture, in part through using the traditional materials long employed for such things, bronze, stone and terracotta. But central for him is the link between humans and nature. “The subject of my work is the process of sculpture and its relationship with substance” he sums up. Penone’s artistic method of “finding similarities between seemingly unrelated entities or materials” is a direct echo of the spirit of Louvre Abu Dhabi as a “universal museum,” says Al Hammadi. And the curation of its eclectic collection will, she hopes, “reveal what are perhaps previously unnoticed similarities that existed in artistic expression in different cultures around the world.”

Jenny Holzer and Guiseppe Penone’s installations will be on view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi when it opens to the public later this year. For more information see Louvreabudhabi.ae