June in Paris: a time to visit greening gardens filled with teeming trees and lush shrubs. Pierre Jardin is here, looking to learn from his French ancestors. Walking in the Jardin des Tuileries one fine afternoon, Jardin wandered off into the side gardens known as le Grande Couvert, where works by contemporary artists (Roy Lichtenstein, Magdelena Abakanowicz, Daniel Deleuze) sprang into view, making dramatic entrances in the classically designed landscape.
But the most anomalous sight proved to be a large, uprooted tree trunk lying prone, suspended off the ground by short stubs of branches sticking out, that seemed somehow to have been ignored or overlooked by the ubiquitous gardeners. How could a 50-foot long rotting timber, a bleak blight of a sight, a dour note of doom, be permitted to persist in this verdant place?
Then, when he went to marvel at the tangle of roots left suspended perpendicular to the ground, Pierre Jardin received another shock: a sign marked it as another contemporary sculpture, “L’Arbre de Voyelles” by Giuseppe Penone (1999). But since it looked exactly like a fallen tree, and there was no support or stand on which the work was displayed, Jardin wondered whether he was looking at nature or art, a tree or a sculpture. Rereading the sign, he realized that Penone had cast the trunk in bronze. The molded material arrested decay in a restful repose, preserving it a frozen pose. This wasn’t a decaying tree but an arboreal fossil, something simultaneously newly born and oddly archaic, a mass around which a strange sort of anomaly in spacetime coalesced. Jardin found himself stupefied and petrified, his cerebral hemispheres regressing to the lithosphere, mute thought mingling with brute material.
Pondering Penone’s enigmatic title set Pierre Jardin wondering about the tree all over again. The “vowels” referenced turned out to be five oak trees planted among the trunk’s broken branches, creating a seasonal swing and growth process in direct dialogue with the work’s insistent inertia. Penone collaborated with Tuileries landscape designed Pascal Cribier in situating the tree parallel to the Seine, opening a different dialogue of forking structures between branching tree and the river and its tributaries. The Seine in turn affects the perception of the sculpture, serving as a reminder that the work was created as a molten metallic flow molding itself to the receptive surfaces of the tree.
Taking a turn in the Tuileries, looking for more Art amid manicured Nature, Pierre Jardin had been barking up the wrong tree. Penone’s rust-proof rustic sculpture, his bronze bucolic petrified poem, broke down distinctions and busted Pierre Jardin’s brain. L’Arbre des Voyelles left him lingering, laughing loudly, and meekly weeping…. The feeling only deepened on revisiting the site in the dead of winter.