Earthly Connections

In around 450 BC, Greek philosopher Empedocles stated that all matter was composed of four elements: fire, air, water and earth. The theory was later expanded by Aristotle in his book On the Heavens (350 BC), moving beyond the terrestrial to link nature to the “aether”, or space. Swiss-born, New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone (b. 1964) draws on these five facets in The water is a poem / unwritten by the air / no. the earth is a poem / unwritten by the fire at Petit Palais, Paris.

The three-part exhibition sees the human body rendered in a series of materials, formations and positions, embracing the powerful fluidity of matter. At the steps of the museum, three anthropomorphic towers loom over the outside world. The stacks of pink, yellow, orange, green and blue continue on from Rondinone’s instantly recognisable visual language, seen in previous land art installations. Yet, unlike Liverpool Mountain at Tate Liverpool or Seven Magic Mountains in Nevada, these sculptures reference the stature of religious devotees. Monk and Nuns (2020-2022) instantly connects the act of stacking stones to spirituality, drawing on the myriad of invisible histories and stories embedded in physical matter.

Inside the gallery, there is a clear emphasis on cyclical pattern of life. The artist explains: “The initial inspiration came from a poem by John Giorno titled You must burn to shine: a Buddhist proverb about the coexistence of life and death, reminiscent of the much older Greek myth of the phoenix, the immortal bird that regenerates cyclically or is reborn in a different way.” Humansky, for example, features seven suspended figures, “camouflaged” by an ethereal blue sky print. The acrobatically positioned bodies appear to float towards Albert Besnard’s (1849-1934) murals above, caught between the earthly and heavenly realms.

These frozen poses come alive in Rondinone’s video installation burn to shine, which premieres at the Parisian exhibition. Visitors are drawn down a path and inside a giant dark rotunda of charred wood, the backdrop of the six screen installation. In the film, a group of dancers and percussionists circle around a fire in the desert, moving to the beat of drums as the sun slowly rises and falls in the distance. The ritualistic gestures, choreographed by Fouad Boussouf, heighten the connection between the movement of the human body and nature. The whole presentation builds to this dramatic audio visual crescendo, leaving viewers to reflect on their own place in the cycle of life.

Words: Saffron Ward and Nikita Dmitriev

Petit Palais | Until 6 January

Image Credits: © Ugo Rondinone / Petit Palais Photo: Stefan Altenburger. Ugo Rondinone, the water is a poem unwritten by the air no. the earth is a poem unwritten by the fire (installation view), 2022, Petit Palais, Paris Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Sadie Coles HQ, London; Gladstone, New York; kamel mennour, Paris and Kukje Gallery, Seoul.