Giuseppe Penone and I are peering into a sculpture in his spacious studio close to the Dora, a river in Turin. It is an early experiment for the Bloomberg commission, filled with gold and resin. "It is like a river of a blood," he says.
Penone was born in 1947 in Garessio, a village in the mountains 120 miles from Turin. Working in his twenties in the nearby woods, he started exploring many of the themes of man's relationship to nature that he continues to explore today. That is not to say that the work hasn't evolved – he is quick to correct this idea; it is just that "many of my ideas of man and nature happened at the start".
Penone was part of the Italian movement dubbed Arte Povera in the 1960s. The youngest in the group, his early work led to his acceptance by the more established artists. "I have relationships with other artists because they understood the thinking behind my work."
Like the other artists of Arte Povera, Penone has experimented with different materials. He recalls that his first bronze sculpture was when he took some potatoes and cast them in bronze. At the time, like marble, bronze was associated with old-fashioned sculpture but, he says, "It is a good material to work with on an idea: you can use an old material with a new idea and the work becomes new."
Spread over a number of floors in an old industrial building, Penone's studio has room for the display of many of his sculptures. Walking in to the "dirty area" – full of sawdust and power tools – I am confronted with works that are familiar, some versions of which have been around since the 1960s.
Maurizio, Penone's sole assistant, is working on one of the series in which a large tree is carved into to expose the inner "original" tree, the base left to show that it is real. The tree epitomises what is unique about Penone's work: in some ways his themes are unashamedly old fashioned, but the tension of the man-made and the natural that he introduces by his use of materials means it feels completely contemporary. "I hope that my work's universality will give it a longer shelf life than many contemporary works. Work that was done with irony has a life that is very short."
Going upstairs to a large balcony with work carefully arranged is like moving through a mini retrospective. Penone says that he needs to spend time with his work: "Sometimes the work tells me nothing for a long time, and then one day it tells me something."
The Bloomberg Commission: Giuseppe Penone – 'Spazio di Luce', Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888) to 11 August
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