Wearing a black suit and black gloves, 81-year-old French conceptual artist Bernar Venet carefully adjusted four of 25 flat-rolled steel bars leaning against the back wall before lunging and pushing the one furthest left. The domino effect created a clanging that left only two bars erect as the others toppled. Each bar weighs roughly between 110-198 pounds.
Venet‘s performance of Accident (1995–2022) kicked off the opening of Gravity, featuring major large-scale works on view at Kasmin in New York’s Chelsea art district until December 23.
The performance was conceived in Le Muy in Southeastern France in 1995 and most recently performed at the Kunsthalle Berlin in 2022. Building on the legacies of Dada, Fluxus, and Minimalism, the performance underscores Venet‘s re-imagining of the environment through art.
The wall text framing Accident reads: “ENTROPY IS THE FUNCTIONAL QUALITY THAT MEASURES THE DEGREE OF DISORDER OF A PHYSICAL SYSTEM; THE MORE ‘DISORGANIZED’ THE SYSTEM, THE GREATER THE ENTROPY OF A SYSTEM.”
Years ago, Venet assembled a lexicon of words central to his creative process: “Disorder / Instability / Rupture / Dissipation / Imbalance / Antagonism / Entropy / Disorganization / Disturbance / Unpredictable / Deviance / Uncertainty / Randomness / Disintegration / Transition / Unexpected / Turbulence / Chance / Collision / Irreversible.”
To simplify physics, entropy is the measure of a system’s thermal energy per unit temperature that is unavailable for doing useful work. It also more loosely means a lack of order or predictability, or a gradual decline into disorder.
“Venet has been able to translate through words what he has done in his visual body of work. His bilingual anthology called Poetic?Poétique? is full of texts that confirm his commitment as an artist and faithfully reproduce what he has undertaken elsewhere,” art historian and curator Maurice Fréchuret explains in the first English version of his essay Bernar Venet: The Hypothesis of Gravity translated by John O’Toole and published in The Kasmin Review to support the exhibition.
The site-specific nature of Venet’s work lends to the disorder, each iteration building on and deviating from the last.
We stop to gaze downward as we encounter the first New York presentation of Pile of Coal (1963), Venet’s first sculptural work, in the center of the gallery floor. This seminal work, Fréchuret says, “admits the double principle of the gestural and gravity.” Venet was inspired when he saw a mound of gravel and tar from road work near Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, according to Fréchuret.
We think about the sound of coal being dumped into a heap, the slightly earthy smell, the feel of hard rock which can be burned as a fossil fuel. Within the gallery space, the composition of shiny jet-black rocks evokes a painterly play of flickering light.
Around the same time in 1963, New Realist Ben (a French artist born Ben Vautier who goes by only his first name) observed a pile of gravel, and interpreted it through the Duchampian readymade, Fréchuret writes. Venet eschewed what was already formed and chose a constructive approach by creating his own pile.
“What the artist wants to highlight isn’t some artistic feat or the virtuosity of the sculptural gesture, but the ability of the material – coal – to find a form as soon as it is subjected to the force of gravity alone,” Fréchuret explains.
Each of Venet’s sculptures illustrates its myriad compositional possibilities and he utilizes his body in his creations and performances as an act of determination.
Rejecting symbolism and allegory, Venet borrows from the coded language of mathematics and scientific data and theory.
Each iteration, each performance, builds on Venet’s early embrace of chaos theory.
The exhibition draws us into Venet’s singular practice, interpreting his monumental, trailblazing sculpture without a specific shape alongside works on paper and documentation of his earliest artistic gestures from the 1960s. In a world encumbered with routine and pressure to succumb to order, Venet beckons us to embrace randomness, disorder, and unpredictability.