New lines on the horizon

French artist Bernar Venet creates a dramatic statement in steel on Alan Gibbs’ Kaipara farm. He talks to Dan Chappell about the project and his future plans.
Detail of Arc

Artist Paul Klee once said “Drawing is taking a line for a walk”. However, French sculptor Bernar Venet’s lines don’t look like they’re made for walking. They’re testosterone-fuelled, muscular ligaments of steel—arcs, curves, straight lines or indeterminate doodles—that are more inclined to speed the viewer down their own path of discovery.

Bernar Venet’s career has spanned 50 years—as a conceptual artist, painter, sculptor and musician—and his career highlights include participation in documenta VI in 1976, Venice Biennale in 2009 and being chosen as the guest artist at the Château de Versailles in 2011, where two clusters of his steel arcs stood in the forecourt, like giant hands, cradling the statue of Louis XIV on horseback. His distinctive steel sculptures are held in private and public collections worldwide, and recently he visited New Zealand for the opening of an exhibition of new work at Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery, and the completion of his latest commission—a towering 27-metre Corten steel sculpture in Alan Gibbs’ sculpture park on the Kaipara Harbour.

The work, 88.5° Arc x 8, is a monumental creation among spectacular artworks—commissioned works by Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy, Anish Kapoor, Neil Dawson and many others are sited elsewhere on Gibbs’ rural property—and comprises eight massive ochre-hued arcs standing tiptoe on a grassy crest, seemingly billowing in the wind howling across the tidal flats below.

Venet recalls how the project had its genesis. “In 1996 Gary Langsford brought Alan to my studio at Le Muy, in the south of France, and we talked about doing a work on his property. He mentioned he had hills on the farm, and could I make an arc between two of them, but it would have been a really big work, say 200–300 metres long, so it didn’t happen at the time. But he kept visiting me, in New York and Paris, and then came to the opening at Versailles last year. I also visited his property in New Zealand, and we talked about leaning an arc on a hill, or a straight line against a hill, but when he saw the works at Versailles, he decided on a vertical arc composition. I made up a maquette of an eight-arc configuration and a photomontage, which he liked, so we went into fabrication.”

installation in progress
Bernar Venet's sculpture being transported to Gibbs’ Farm; installation of sculpture on site. Photos: Stuart Page

Normally Venet carries out the fabrication of his sculptures at his factory in Hungary, but Gibbs had previously experienced problems while shipping the steel plates for a work by Richard Serra to New Zealand. The plates were incorrectly stowed on the ship, causing major damage and delaying the project by over a year. Gibbs was confident his local engineers and fabricators were up to the job, so Venet was happy to make an exception.

Peter Boardman of Structure Design Ltd had worked on several of Gibbs’ earlier projects, and produced drawings of the geometry from the maquette, and then the detailed engineering design of the steelwork and foundations. The steel was fabricated in Grayson Engineering’s workshops in Wiri, South Auckland, precut from plate, then the box sections were welded, incorporating stiffeners and gussets to keep the lengthy structures square.

Boardman explains how some of the unique problems were solved. “The work was one of the largest Bernar had designed, and with the windy hilltop site above the water, we had to factor in wind loads six times greater than his works would be exposed to in Europe. Square sections behave poorly in wind, and tend to vibrate, so our wind engineers employed a damping technique first developed by NASA engineers on their Saturn launch rockets. Inside the top of each of the sculpture’s arcs we’ve suspended a length of heavy steel chain that is tuned to swing at a rate that negates excessive wind-induced vibration.” The sculpture is made of Corten steel, which has a corrosion-retarding layer, so the work will retain its rusty-orange colour as it ages.

Fabrication took three months, then the individual components were trucked to The Farm, as Gibbs’ property is known, and hoisted onto the foundations—a 350-tonne, 100-square-metre concrete slab that is over one metre thick and buried 400mm below ground level. The result is staggering—the arcs seem to teeter on their corners on the hilltop, soaring weightlessly into the sky. Art critic Hamish Keith was humbled by his first sight of the work, writing in his Listener column, “Throwing all caution away, I have to say the piece is simply the most beautiful thing I have ever seen”.

fabricating workshop
Bernar Venet's arcs being fabricated at Grayson Engineering

And Venet’s reaction when he first saw the work installed? “I feel the design comes out perfectly,” he says. However, he continues, “I prefer my works inside a room—that way you aren’t distracted by the surrounding landscape, but here you have only the blue sky, so I don’t see any better solution. But to me, a work of art has its own identity, just like you and I have our own identity. This piece works very well where it is now, but I believe that if a piece is powerful enough, if the design is right, and the proportions are good, it can also be installed somewhere else, and work just as well.”

Throughout his career Venet has avoided symbolism and expressionism in his works. He adopted the theory of monosemy during his early conceptual period in the 1960s, and adheres to this approach today. Initially proposed in writings by semiologist Jacques Bertin, monosemic works possess just one level of meaning—they simply exist, independent of linguistic interpretations. Venet explained in a 2010 publication, “Words have a multiplicity of meanings, dependent on context, which often produces a poetic aspect.

In contrast, the signs I was using, which were deliberately drawn from the sphere of mathematics, tended to avoid a multiplicity of interpretations by imposing their monosemic nature.” He was speaking of his installations in the 1970s—wall-mounted diagrams of angles, arcs, circles and lines that are unambiguous, emphatic and each titled accordingly with mathematical precision.

These early works on canvas and panels then morphed into representations of the lines alone, first graphite on wood, then, around 1980, when his formal arcs and lines expanded to include his ‘indeterminate lines’—doodles, squiggles and random, gestural patterns—he began experimenting with steel as a sculptural medium. He bent cold bars of steel, up to eight metres long, into random shapes, often letting the strength and resistance of the metal determine the final outcome.

Today Venet’s commissions stand tall in many cities worldwide—Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Seoul and Strasbourg, to mention a few. His work is held in many collections, including the Pompidou Centre, MCA Chicago, MOCA Los Angeles, MOMA and Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, and he was recently awarded the Julio Gonzalez Prize by the Government of Valencia, Spain, for his contribution to modern art. He joins an illustrious group of previous recipients, including Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Georg Baselitz.

Arcs at the Arsenale Novissimo
Installation of Bernar Venet's Arcs at the Arsenale Novissimo, during the Venice Biennale 2009. Photo: Pat Verbruggen

And what of the future? Venet shows no signs of slowing down, with many projects in the pipeline, some with an even longer gestation period than the 16 years the Gibbs project took to realise. One such proposed work arose to celebrate the millennium in 2000. He explains, “I’ve designed a 64-metre steel bar to lean against the façade of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It works perfectly, reflecting the angle of the Champs Élysées. I’ve called it Le repos de l’arme (The weapon at rest), as it symbolises a spear leaning against the Arc, or the slope of the rifle on a soldier’s shoulder—and I’m saying to the world, ‘Why don’t we stop wars?’ It’s one of my few works to have symbolism, but I’m happy to make an exception here.”

Another equally bold project is his concept of ‘global diagonals’, titled Global Art – Global Communication – Global Humanity. He first developed the idea in 1989 when asked to commemorate the bicentennial of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. His plan was to have a hypothetical straight line angling through the Earth and linking two cities, with the two ends of the line protruding from the ground. “Each end would be a steel column protruding about 100 metres out of the ground, and around the sculpture would be a light table with giant screens on which you would see the people looking at the other end of the ‘line’. They are looking at you from the other side of the world, all in real time.

The idea is to bring people from different cultures and different countries together. Imagine a link between New York and Shanghai, or Paris and Rio de Janiero. We have someone in Australia who wants to be involved but it’s a very ambitious project and needs a lot of cities to participate to make it work. It puts the whole world within our reach—it’s more than just a sculpture.”

Though New Zealand may be down the list when it comes to linking into one of Venet’s proposed global diagonals, Aucklanders will be able to enjoy experiencing some of Venet’s more human-sized sculptures in the near future. Gow Langsford has liaised with Auckland Council to site two Venet sculptures in public spaces around the inner city—likely to be in Britomart and the Wynyard Quarter—until August 2012

Header image: Bernar Venet, 88.5° Arc x 8 (detail), 2011 at Gibbs’ farm

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