To Unroll One’s Skin

Deviating from conventional practice, Giuseppe Penone’s series To Unroll One’s Skin (1970-1971) re-conceptualizes the tradition of self-portraiture.  Superimposing a small glass slide against the flesh of his body, Penone’s maps his entire anatomy exhaustively inch-by-inch to produce a portrait that mimics a cylindrical projection. The unique aesthetic of this Italian artist was greatly shaped by the Arte Povera movement in Italy circa the nineteen-seventies. Radically challenging cultural convention, the artistic approach of those in the Arte Povera movement mark a critical shift towards postmodern discourse.  Their subversive avenues of artistic expression sought to unveil how consumer culture and the glut of commodities rendered life void of meaning. Awareness usurps illusions; Penone’s work doesn’t pretend to offer a window on the world which ultimately renders it more honest. The image’s fragmentation elicits a newfound understanding of portraiture that is stylistically hybrid- perhaps it could be coined as postmodern cubism. The absence of spatial depth exhibited in his series obscures the established artistic aspiration to create a sense of space within the confines of a two-dimensional framework.

The politics of meaning and the consequences of representation are juxtaposed with the traditional argument that photographs are merely pieces of life not vying to make a statement but merely expressing a point in time. Photography, unlike other art forms, is hinged on the dilapidated pretext that it is honest and true ‘window on the world’. Penone’s manipulation of the medium not only complicates the notions of spatial dynamics and the anatomical structure, but the image is also laced with an awareness that cripples its relationship to reality while remaining honest. As post-modernity cannibalizes authenticity, contemporary photography oscillates from being an “archival medium” to a self-aware one.  Whereas both forms lend a version of the truth- the disparity between them posits with the notion of “representation”. This begs the question of what is signification when laced with semiotics, how can awareness impoverish the notion of truth? Ultimately, these binaries confirm the complicities of the medium and dismiss the fragile argument that photography is merely a tool of mimesis. Giuseppe Penone’s work speaks to this discourse in every respect.

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