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Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon opens exhibition of 170 artworks by Bernar Venet
Bernar Venet operates by means of signs. He wants these signs to be precise and exact in such a way that they are transparent to their own form.

by Thierry Raspail


LYON.- From 21 September 2018 to 6 January 2019, this exhibition presents a remarkable and previously unseen ensemble of 170 artworks, including Venet’s early performances, drawings, diagrams, and paintings, as well as the photographs, sound works, films and sculptures that retrace 60 years of creation. This is the most ambitious retrospective ever devoted to the artist.

It aims to examine the different stages that led a certain young artist, of twenty years of age, at the beginning of the 1960s to seek to “remove any form of expression contained in the artwork in order to reduce it to a material fact”. He then went on to appropriate astrophysics, nuclear physics and mathematical logic, and took a break of 5 years before finally returning, albeit unexpectedly, to his easel. These paintings were followed by sound works, poetry, and later by indeterminate lines, accidents, random combinations, and dispersions, culminating in the indefinite and curved lines of the monumental sculptures in Corten steel, dedicated to the urban space.

But this retrospective also aims to show how reason and intuition have continuously and simultaneously converged in Bernar Venet, making his artwork, which feeds on instability, imbalance, entropy, unpredictability, uncertainty, turbulence, chance and incompleteness, a universe with forms that are as clear as they are poetic.

Bernar Venet operates by means of signs. He wants these signs to be precise and exact in such a way that they are transparent to their own form. “Thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs”, wrote L. Wittgenstein in The Blue Book, adding: “If again we talk about the locality where thinking takes place, we have a right to say that this locality is the piece of paper on which we write or the mouth which speaks”.

One of the first “localities” for Bernar Venet was paper, but very quickly in his work, the locality would become a multiple universe with unexpected geographies, unusual materials and territories freed from all constraints. In 1961, the locality inhabited by the artist was somewhere between the act, presence, performance and memory. All of this was incarnated by means of the following action: the artist was photographed lying down amongst what can only be referred to as rubbish. By means of the focal length, the shutter speed, the moment and film photography, this locality—but to what are we referring when we use this term? The photo that we see? The moment depicting the artist’s action? Or the memory that one discovers… —this locality or place therefore, is freed from the matter and these heavy materials. Thus, from the very beginning, the near and the distant, that is to say, the form here and its distant invisible metaphors: the elsewhere, the infinite, history… are all contiguous. That same year, another locality was incarnated in a sound track recording movements across gravel; later it would be the impact of the three-second Chinese inkjet drawings done on paper laid out in strips on the ground. In 1963, the formless—which would become the focus of attention five years later with Robert Morris’s work—could be seen in the hundreds of thousands of pieces of coal that made up a heap formed by a shovel, a combination of the force of gravity and the movements or actions of the digger. And indeed two years previously, tar had already been spread quietly on boards with titles such as Déchet (Scrap) when the panel beater, directed by the artist, covered cardboard reliefs with glycerophthalic paint using a paint gun. These boards were to be repainted by their owners depending on the latter’s tastes or else they ran the risk of not receiving a certificate of authenticity from the artist. Then, with a quick side-step, the artist moved from one place to another: from the mechanical covering over to the process itself. The year was 1963 and thirty areas of a painting were successively covered at the rate of one area per month according to a “filling procedure” that required minimal input and was intentionally devoid of expression. The implementation of these two actions heralded two types of future. The first, random and unknown, concerned the glycerophthalic cardboard reliefs whose colours could be altered beyond the artist’s control. The second, was that of inexorable determinism, linear and sequenced: the process whose completion corresponded to the complete covering of the canvas, a repetitive action, intentionally devoid of subjectivity (nothing is said about the back). This type of work will be reinterpreted in terms of its methodology of ‘inexpressivity’ during the retrospective.

“Inexpressivity”, “neutrality”, “depersonalization”, are the words used at the time to designate this type of place or locality by forgetting, or pretending to forget, how the threads of a carpet woven according to the future of the story will transform everything into a radical singularity. There is neither objectivity nor “depersonalization” unless the words are frozen in the narrow-mindedness of their time so as to compel them not to fill themselves with configurations of the future. A future that Bernar Venet actually implements in his two “actions”.

Following this attempt at depersonalization naturally came the desire to attain the Objet Absolu (Absolute Object), whose form refers solely to it (and to itself). It is this self-referential attitude of modernism that Bernar Venet transforms into monosemy by borrowing the term from linguist Jacques Bertin. He traces one of the possible itineraries between the technical drawing of a tube on graph paper and the presence of the tube itself. One is on the wall, the other is on the floor, horizontal and vertical, plan and volume. They consist of two distinct signs, two obvious forms for a single projected object, and the attempt to reunite one and the other, and one to the other, in absolute circularity, whatever the meaning. To ultimately create a form circumscribed by what it is and nothing else, unanswered, isolated and collapsed in on itself in the manner of a black hole.

This elementary particle of the visual arts, discovered in two stages by Bernar Venet in 1966, is to art what the electron is to the observer: both wave and particle. The observer will never know both the speed and the position, the electron abandons the trappings of one to borrow that of the other. This probabilistic monosemy that evokes Niels Bohrest, is in fact, something like a Janus with two complementary faces. It is endowed with great intuition in the manner of Schrödinger’s cat, half dead and half alive. And to continue with the scientific metaphor, we can say of this monosemy that it “cannot be decided” in tribute to the most magical theorem of the twentieth century, elaborated by Kurt Gödel, to whom Bernar Venet paid tribute in a diptych from 2010.

Then, of course there are the equations, diagrams, blow-up enlargements, the simultaneous artistic/scientific performances (or the reverse), dense proposals that rely heavily on multi-media devices (sound, set design, image, duration, superposition, etc.). At the time, the interpretation of all these localities, between polyphony and polysemy, was often recapitulated in expressions or statements declaring Bernar Venet to be “a pioneer of conceptual art”. While this is true, we should put such statements to one side because this kind of formula is much too reductive in the sense that it imposes on conceptual art a territory and a particular domain, whereas concept and idea have evolved through art since its creation a few centuries ago up until today’s post-media works. Bernar Venet traverses this “conceptual” moment, reinstates it, and contributes to changing its attributes and the obligatory stages, but continues his path towards other places. It is within this spirit that the indeterminate line appeared in 1979 both as “free” and “conceptual”. This form of continuity between reason and intuition gives Bernar Venet’s work its unique irreducible presence, its Planck’s constant dimension, in a way, between that which is near (places, signs, object) and the infinitely poetic (the far away). This itinerary of places and displacements is expressed through terms such as: Position of, Connected to, Calculation of, Improvised Unfinished, Indeterminate, Disorder, Accident, Collapse, Saturation... Encapsulating space, time, the imagination, form and the formless…

Bernar Venet’s Orages magnétiques et autres phénomènes associés, his Paysages météorologiques like the series Déchet, Lignes droites and Arcs en désordre may be said to be more or less equidistant between chance and necessity. Another aim of this retrospective is to verify in what way a Ligne indéterminée from 1984 may be distinguished from another from 1995, and to what extent a Surface indéterminée or two, or a Surface hachurée are the result of a choice, while a work like the Effondrement de 5 lignes indéterminées is the result of an act.

In France Bernar Venet’s protean work remains little known today, partly because it is partially exhibited, in certain ‘periods’ or selected in terms of a specific medium (his works made using tar, and steel sculptures, etc.). Today, it deserves to be seen in its entirety so that the public can gain an insight into the scale, ambition, complexity, poetry and simplicity of his work.

This exhibition covers 60 years of artistic creation. It is spread over three floors of the Museum and is best visited from the ground to the top floor, according to a reversed chronological order. This is the reason why the retrospective is called Bernar Venet 2019–1959. The artworks have been primarily chosen from the artist’s personal collection, but are complemented with various works on loan from private and public collections in the US and Europe.





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