Bernar Venet has always proclaimed, “It’s not art if it doesn’t change the history of art.” Throughout his 60-year career, from his foundation and sculpture park in Le Muy in the south of France on seven hectares of land crossed by a river – a project of a lifetime inaugurated in 2014 that gathers his own monumental creations and his minimal and conceptual art collection by seminal artists who encouraged him when he was starting out – to his acclaimed 2011 Chateau de Versailles exhibition and his 60-meter-high masterpiece, Arc Majeur, embracing a Belgian motorway and deemed the world’s tallest public artwork, each of his projects is an adventure and an exploit.
This summer, the Venet Foundation pays tribute to American composer of experimental music, David Tudor, via an exhibition offering visitors the opportunity to discover the film Sea Tails created in collaboration with French artist Jackie Matisse (Henri Matisse’s granddaughter) and American filmmaker Molly Davies, which had been presented for the first time in 1983 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. As a pianist, Tudor was known for his ability to interpret the complex compositions of avant-garde composers such as John Cage, La Monte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman or Earle Brown. He premiered Cage’s iconic silent piece “4’33”” in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, and they went on to collaborate numerous times until Cage’s death in 1992. Employing sound as a raw material, he overturned the traditional use of instruments and focused on improvisation and electronic music to produce interdisciplinary works uniting performance, objets d’art and installation. In the early 1980s, Jackie Matisse, fascinated by kites, approached her two friends Davies and Tudor, and together, they conceived an installation experimenting with space through sound, movement, color and light. Kite tails crafted and flown underwater by Jackie Matisse were filmed by Davies, while the soundtracks were imagined by Tudor from noises recorded during the shooting such as shrimp, fish, coral, splashes and wind. Repeated indefinitely, the sounds and images create a visual and sound environment playing on memory and perception, and are accompanied by hanging displays of the long kite tails fashioned by Jackie Matisse.
In parallel with the exhibition running until September 30, 2022, the Foundation’s sculpture park offers a walk through the multitude of works of minimal art scattered throughout the exceptional site, including those of artists Arman, César, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long, Larry Bell, Tony Cragg, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Richard Deacon, Frank Stella or James Turrell. New this year is the circular structure “Environnement de Transchromie Circulaire” by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, previously exhibited at Frieze Sculpture Park in London in 2021. A participative and shimmering work, the transparent multicolored slats transform the external reality and invite spectators to rediscover their natural or urban environment. It’s a unique journey through a “total work of art” conceived by Venet, as much artist as collector, in the heart of luxuriant nature. Next door, an exhibition of his latest works feature in the factory building he rehabilitated, while the book Bernar Venet. Toute une Vie pour l’Art by Catherine Francblin has just been published by Gallimard, which offers a dive into the archives kept at the Venet Foundation and the countless letters the artist sent to his mother, recounting the developments of his career and his meetings with Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol or Christo.
Now at the age of 81, Venet shows no signs of slowing down, seemingly impervious to the effects of time, which holds no power over him either physically or mentally. With his sense of perfectionism and perseverance intact, he’s a man in constant action and reinvention, firmly turned towards the future. From one gargantuan work to another, his instantly-recognizable bars of Corten steel invaded the Lens outpost of the Louvre Museum last fall and winter. He describes this ultimate recognition, “More than any other museum in the world, the Louvre embodies the idealized image of this paradise, where all the greatest artists in history meet forever. The Louvre is the image of a dream. To enter it is the fulfillment of that dream.” Weighing one ton each, 110 beams – composed of signature “Arcs”, “Straight Lines” and “Angles” made in a Hungarian foundry – lay strewn on the ground in the museum’s 1,000-sqm Glass Pavilion, which appeared to have collapsed on top of one another. But far from having fallen randomly, they were arranged in a purposely disorganized manner, though without full control. Based on a scale model conceived in 1994, Venet had displayed smaller versions of these “Collapses” in various venues over the years and also 200 tons of “Arcs” in Le Muy – his most voluminous installation – but this was the first time it was “large enough that you can’t comprehend it with a single glance and it becomes possible to move around inside,” he notes. Walking amidst the beams, visitors were immediately immersed in his art, able to penetrate within the sculpture itself in a very physical encounter of space.
Entitled “The Hypothesis of Gravity”, the artwork is a continuation of Venet’s explorations of disorder, entropy, gravity, instability and uncertainty, central to his oeuvre. “My Louvre-Lens installation can be seen as the most characteristic demonstration of the works that I have created in recent years,” he comments. “By scattering a pile of steel bars in an uncontrolled and irreversible disorder, I am creating a work that is a demonstration of the non-proportional, the unconstructed and the non-pre-established.” In contrast with his towering sculptures that stretch vertically into the sky, “The Hypothesis of Gravity” is an exercise in horizontality, in harmony with the long flat lines of the museum built by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architectural agency, Sanaa. It finds echoes with the first performance of his career where he laid down in trash and his “Pile of Coal” inspired by a heap of gravel mixed with tar he saw in the streets of Nice. A sculpture with no base and no specific form, it was one of the first instances of non-composition in his oeuvre. Executed for the first time in 1963, it was most recently presented at the exhibition “Bernar Venet, 1961-2021. 60 Years of Performance, Paintings and Sculptures” at Kunsthalle Berlin in two hangars of Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport. Having ended last May, it showcased over 150 of his works in his largest and most comprehensive retrospective to date.
“I already accepted gravity,” Venet recalls. “It was the opposite of Yves Klein who, in a slightly utopian, transcendental impulse, flung himself into space. I thought that reality wasn’t there; the truth was instead in natural physical forces. With “Pile of Coal”, I realized that I can push the sculpture in front of me or make it a little more compact; there are many possibilities. I can call the local coal merchant and tell him to lend me 10 tons of coal and to collect it after. Another interesting parameter is that normally, when a sculpture is here, it isn’t elsewhere, but I can exhibit “Pile of Coal” here, as well as in Tokyo, New York, Nice or anywhere else. All I have to do is order some coal, whose volume will obey the space to which it is assigned, and then each pile is a Bernar Venet pile wherever it is and will disappear afterwards. We’re in a concept, in something that is ephemeral.” Giving new meaning to sculpture, his work can be repeatedly reconstituted in the future and in different and multiple locations simultaneously, thereby ensuring that his name will live on forever.