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Ugo Rondinone

Between the natural and the artificial

Like a diarist, I record the living universe: this season, this day, this hour, this sound in the grass, this crashing wave, this sunset, this end of the day, this silence.

Ugo Rondinone is a Swiss contemporary artist working in mixed-media installations that include - but are not limited to - sculpture, painting, video, sound, and photography. His elaborate practice utilizes metaphoric and iconographic images and co-opts the language of advertising, thus adding a poetic dimension to everyday objects and phenomena. His signature works in vibrant colors, such as his rainbow-hued neon sign pieces that light up the night sky, turn cultural clichés into material for a form of contemporary Arte Povera.

In his practice, the artist recycles not only catchphrases, but also repurposed cement, or cast-off clothes, creating atmospheric installations of minimalistic arrangements that take on new meaning by way of re-contextualization, repetition, reduction, and isolation. He also transforms everyday objects by casting them in bronze, thus giving them a certain unnatural permanence and blurring the distinction between the real and artificial.

Ugo Rondinone was born in 1964 in Brunne, Switzerland. After moving to Zürich to work with the Austrian multi-media artist Hermann Nitsch, Rondinone went on to study at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunste in Vienna. In 1998, the artist moved to New York, where he still runs his studio today. Rondinone gained international acclaim in the early 1990s with work that aims to avoid overly intellectual themes, choosing to utilize instantly and internationally recognizable symbolism to encourage engagement rather than conceptual understanding.  The artist himself says:

I prefer to work with very basic raw symbols, something that everyone can relate to, from a child to an old person, from the East to the West.

The rainbow, for example, is one of the most recurrent motifs in his artwork. A symbol that evokes not only a sense of magic and the fantastical by appealing to our inner child but is also a commonly known emblem of the LGBTQ+ community. For over 20 years, Rondinone had a relationship with well-known poet John Giorno, who passed away in 2019, a union that had a profound influence on his work.

Ugo Rondinone’s use of rainbow colors extends to many of his other works. One key sculptural piece is the public artwork Seven Magic Mountains in Nevada, which consists of seven tall totems comprised of locally sourced boulders, painted in a special highly artificial-looking coat of weather resilient day-glo hues, as well as black, white and silver. Visible across the desert landscape along Interstate 15, Seven Magic Mountains forms a symbolic mid-way between the natural and the artificial: the natural being encapsulated by the mountain ranges and desert backdrop, while the artificial is represented by the highway with its constant flow of traffic between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In a press release for the installation, Rondinone stated that he sees this combination of artificial color and natural rock formations as a continuum

(…) between human and nature, artificial and natural, then and now.

Nature and culture, day and night, reality and fiction, are contradictions that Rondinone continually aims to address in his works, consciously looking to create a field of tension that attracts the viewer, but simultaneously makes them question their perception. Within the context of a gallery, the artist is known for creating highly immersive multimedia installations; meticulously planned environments that offer a holistic experience to invite the viewer in and transport them to another place where nothing is quite what it seems.

In these settings, the artist establishes complex relations between different works, altering or enhancing their effect through the layout, color scheme, and architecture of the space itself. In the installations, he brings together different works and motifs developed over his career to generate different meanings. For example: his lackluster life-sized clown sculptures might sit against a backdrop of his glowing rainbow installation, while another room is filled with strategically placed blue translucent miniature horses. This way, each exhibition becomes a work unto itself - a total aesthetic and perceptive experience of separate works that enter into a dialogue to convey a larger narrative.

Not all of Rondinone’s work is brightly colored though. Other recurrent themes consist of simple primitive figures, composed of rough stone blocks evocative of Stonehenge, or aluminum cast mask-like sculptures inspired by indigenous Alaskan Yup’ik masks, and ghostly olive trees, coated in white enamel. Whichever form his work takes on, an enduring interest in our collective romantic relationship with the natural world remains one of its central themes. In an interview for Mousse Magazine the artist stated:

The natural world is my first source of inspiration. It started with the large ink landscapes at the end of the 1980s. In the middle of the AIDS crisis in 1989, I turned away from grief and found in nature a spiritual road map for solace, regeneration, and inspiration. In nature, one enters a space where the sacred and the profane, the mystical and the mundane, vibrate against one another.

Rondinone’s totem-like figures have been installed all over the world, from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris (2009) to the Yokohama Triennale (2011). In 2013, he exhibited an installation called Human Nature at Rockefeller Center, a group of nine monumental figures made of rough-hewn slabs of bluestone from a quarry in Northern Pennsylvania, resembling rudimentary rock totems. Similarly, Soul (2013) is a group of 37 figures from bluestone found in upstate New York, while Vocabulary of Solitude (2016), involves 45 sculptures of clowns named after and positioned doing everyday tasks such as ‘wake, sit, walk and shower’.

The artists himself divides his work into two seemingly contradictory categories: night and day, which echo many of the contradictory themes that underpin the majority of his works. The artist repeatedly refers to the iconography of Romanticism as well as Pop culture as sources of inspiration and manages to establish a complex relationship between the two influences over the span of his entire oeuvre.

Apart from his extremely varied artistic practice, Rondinone is also known as a poet, collector and curator. His work is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, New York; ICA, Boston; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Bass Museum, Miami; Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh; New Museum New York; Des Moines Art Center and the Dallas Museum of Art.


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Sources:, Wikipedia, Artsy, Boijmans van Beuningen, Artnet, Schirn, Seven Magic Mountains, Mousse Magazine