Magical mountains, rainbows and suns: Like few other artists, Ugo Rondinone somehow manages to bring everyday life to a halt with his simple, yet poetic sculptures. An encounter with his most iconic bodies of works in the public realm.
Art has shaped public life in various forms for centuries, whether in the form of architectural elements, sculpture or specially conceived works. Since the 1990s, Rondinone has been creating sculptures for the public realm, aiming to reach as many viewers as possible: as art-for-all, “from toddlers to grandmothers”. Contrary to the blurring of the boundaries between art and life proclaimed in the 1990s by Fluxus, Land Art, or Conceptual Art, it is precisely this dualism between the two that Rondinone emphasizes. His work focuses on fundamental issues relating to the human condition, nature and culture, but also on the inherent contradictions of life. In the process Rondinone works in recurring series that he then advances as time goes by. This is also the case with the following sculptures, located in the big cities and deserts of this world.
In the middle of the rotunda of the Frankfurt SCHIRN, directly in front of its entrance, something that looks like a white, gnarled tree rises up over six meters into the air. “flower moon” (2011) is the mold of a 2000-year-old olive tree from Basilicata, a region in southern Italy from where Rondinone's father comes. Cast in aluminum and covered with white enamel it makes the weight of meaning and lightness of eternal existence seem truly tangible. In addition to challenging our temporal imagination, Rondinone uses art to defy nature here: the assumed eternity of the tree from Basilicata is ensured by its exact artificial representation in aluminum.
Always On – 24 hours a day, words in rainbow colors have already shone above the rooftops of cities such as Brussels, Zurich, London, Rome, New York or Sydney: In addition to “life time” (2022), which can now be seen in Frankfurt, short phrases such as “cry me a river” (1997), “where do we go from here” (1999) or “hell, yes!” (2001) are part of the “rainbow” work group.
Connecting heaven and earth and shining colorfully, the neon lettering directs the gaze upwards for all the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life and provides an incentive to pause for a moment. As a natural phenomenon with both cultural and mystical connotations, or as a sign of inclusion, tolerance, and the LGBTQI+ community, the rainbow is a prominent motif in Rondinone's visual cosmos, especially with these multiple interpretations.
To coincide with this year’s Biennale, “sun II” (2021), a huge gold ring, adorns the courtyard of the Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice. Set in gold, based on imprints of branches, the radiant bronze sculpture is reminiscent of a ring of fire.
In the sacred context, associations with the crown of thorns are also evoked. However, the title and the artist himself clearly refer to that star which is arguably the most elementary heavenly body in our cosmos with the greatest influence on our existence. The first version of the “sun” series was created back in 2017 – fittingly for the Garden of Versailles, the former residence of Louis XIV, who was also known as the Sun King.
Magic rocks in the middle of the desert: Since 2016, the stone totems of “seven magic mountains” (2016) from the “mountain” series have been rising up in neon colors like a surreal apparition in front of the barren Nevada desert. Consisting of three to six limestone rocks, the former natural element is transformed into an artificial installation. Rondinone’s reference to Land Art is clearly discernible in the earth-colored setting just outside Las Vegas. Robert Smithson, Nancy Holten, Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria made these monumental, empty landscapes the subject of their work in the 1960s.
However, in keeping with his own artistic philosophy, Rondinone inverts the usually integrating formal language of Land Art and introduces us to the contrast between the artificial intervention and natural surroundings. The fascination of the seven-part installation has already attracted over 16 million visitors* and is one of Rondinone’s best-known works. The duration of the „seven magic mountains“ project has been extended by several years until 2025.
Colossal stone sculptures („stone figure“) tower above the heads of the viewers and seem strangely out of place, as if from another age. Roughly hewn, the megalithic stilts of natural stone support the chunky torso and the oversized head. As peaceful giants, the sculptures recall mystical emissaries from a distant time, located somewhere between Stonehenge and the Easter Islands. In 2013, Rondinone first juxtaposed these archaic giants to “human nature”, namely to New York's “epicenter of modern urbanism” at Rockefeller Plaza.
From summer 2023, twelve strange creatures will be installed in the Städel-Garten in Frankfurt: The silver sculptural heads are part of the “sunrise.east.” series. As outsized heads on concrete pedestals, they already looked out at the public with simplified cartoon-like faces in the garden of the Louvre in Paris (2009), in the garden of the Garage Museum in Moscow (2017) or at the “frieze” in London (2016). At the same time, Rondinone assigns a month to each of the figures. With their mask-like, ritualistic appearance, they open up a confrontation with the cyclical passing of time and all our emotions and expectations attached to it, grinning disturbingly, gazing eerily, or simply smiling naively.
Be it with stone giants or luminous rainbows, Rondinone’s sculptures, with their clarity and openness to interpretation, invite us to turn our gaze inwards. In his cosmos, Rondinone shows us the small things and fleeting moments in life and makes us realize that they are actually the big, meaningful ones.