From a little village
In a little village in the Alpes de Haute Provence called Château-Arnoux, the ten-year-old son of a school teacher once had the wild dream of becoming the pope.
Tens of tonnes of steel
Fast-forward 69 years and Bernar Venet (Bernard without the ‘d’) still hasn’t been made pope, but the conceptual sculptor whose ambition can be measured in tens of tonnes of steel is returning to his roots with a project on a more modest scale than usual. In 2011 he created a work transformed into a gigantic “Effondrement” (Collapse) sculpture for the park at the Château de Versailles composed of corten steel girders weighing 160 tonnes, arranged as though they’d been thrown haphazardly on the ground (1), and in October 2019 he produced a 60-metre tall sculpture weighing 250 tonnes called “Arc Majeur” (2).
17th century chapel
Yet in August 2020 he is finishing decorating a small 17th-century chapel celebrating Saint John the Baptist on the mountain overlooking the village where he was born. What is miraculous is that the painting which will adorn the central wall in this place of worship has been blessed by the pope.
A huge corten steel cross
An extraordinarily rare occurrence. The modest church had been left derelict before Venet was asked to intervene. He designed minimal metal furnishings for the site, placed a huge corten steel cross against the side of the altar and installed black and white stained glass windows shaped in his famous stylised circular arcs.
The river Jordan
But most significantly, he travelled to Israel and collected soil and water from near Jordan. Using these raw materials of biblical origin, he wrote out a line from the Gospel: “Jean n’était pas la lumière mais le témoin de la lumière” (John was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light).
With Pope Francis
The rest of the story included a reception with the supreme pontiff at the Vatican in 2019, where Pope Francis blessed the work and had a surprising request for Venet. “You are an artist, pray for me.”
Sol LeWitt once said: “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” As this tale demonstrates. Venet doesn’t strike us as a devout Catholic at all.
The return of the prodigal son
And yet the project of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, which is due to be inaugurated on 30 August 2020, is a good illustration of the parable Jesus told about the return of the prodigal son.
For Venet isn’t just leaving his mark on the village of his birth – he’s also returning to live permanently in France after 54 years in New York.
He now lives close to his foundation in Le Muy on the Côte d’Azur, which features a remarkable display of minimal and conceptual artworks, most of them made by artists he has come into contact with.
Conceptual art collection
It is probably the most significant array of international conceptual art in private hands in France.
The globetrotters of contemporary art may recall certain striking artworks by the American artist James Turrell, which could be admired at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, at the Margulies Collection in Miami, or on Benesse Island at Naoshima. The Venet Foundation is exhibiting two important works of his, including a “Skyspace” which presents a view of the sky through a large opening in the ceiling within an enclosed space.
When it comes to churches, the one that Venet tends to frequent is non-denominational. Located in the foundation’s park, it’s a chapel designed by Frank Stella in 2016 made up of six monumental reliefs placed in a circle within a space measuring 15 metres in diameter.
This year Lawrence Weiner has produced a monumental “statement” for the foundation, which addresses nature, floating debris, and tar.
Elsewhere at the foundation we also find pieces by Dan Flavin (5 works), Donald Judd (7works) Sol LeWitt (7 works) or Larry Bell (see the interview with Larry Bell here): “I have friends who are making extraordinary things. Each of them individually wouldn’t have existed without the others,” explains Bernar Venet, who is happy to talk about the heyday of the legendary New York avant-garde at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City during the 1970s.
Conceptual artists are mystics
But today, far removed from those smoke-filled establishments of the past, the artist has a close-up image on his mobile phone screen background showing his hands meeting those of Pope Francis. Sol LeWitt might well conclude, “conceptual artists are mystics.”
The Saint John Chapel in Château Arnoux is opening on 30 August 2020 and can be visited by appointment only : email@example.com
The Venet Foundation can be visited by appointment until 16 October.https://www.venetfoundation.org/fr/
(1) This “effondrement” is on view today at the Venet Foundation in Le Muy.
(2) This artwork is considered to be the largest public sculpture in Europe and is situated at the 99th kilometre on the E411 highway in Belgium.
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