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Interview with Bernar Venet in his studio in Paris

Bernar Venet, Marek Claassen

This is an interview with Bernar Venet. Bernar Venet is world wide known and appreciated for his large scale steel sculptures, especially the great arcs.

AfN: Hello Mr. Venet.

Bernar Venet: Hello.

AfN: Mr. Venet, it is a pleasure meeting you here in Paris. You live preferably in New York. Paris once used to be the artistic centre of the world. How do you consider Paris’ status nowadays?

Bernar Venet: Nowadays, people are not saying that Paris is the [artistic] centre of the world, and it is true that New York is really the big scene today. In Manhattan only, there are so many galleries and so many artists who come from all around the world - to make it! Let’s say it forthright. London is also a great place actually. New York is not alone in the first position anymore.

But we should not think too much in terms of “what is the best place” etc. There are also some great artists living in Paris. It is just that we do not have the support that should be required for the French art scene to be recognised as a great centre. We do not have the support from the collectors, mainly.

AfN: As a Berliner I am pretty used to one part of your work: the great arc. Since 20 years we have a quite impressing arc called "Arc 124.5 Degree" in public space. Can you tell us something about that work, and how it happened to be in the centre of West-Berlin?

Bernar Venet: It was actually a commission by the French government. On the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the city, the French government decided to offer it to the city of Berlin. They asked me to make a sculpture.
It is a sculpture I liked so much that I decided, a year after, to make a similar one in Nice. In Jardin Albert 1er in Nice, there is a piece that has pretty much the same shape, just one metre less, but it is in a very spectacular setting.

AfN: I really enjoy your great unfinished projects like the “Arc majeur de 185.4°”, a project for the Autoroute A6 in France and the lance (spear) leaning against the Arc de Triomphe or the free standing (detached) lances - I think it was in Shanghai. On pictures, they look like plotted into the sky. How important is size in your work?

Bernar Venet: The size is actually not very important, to tell you the truth. People think that I get a “kick” out of it when I make a very big sculpture. But in reality, I am more excited about making a small sculpture which is totally radical, totally different from anything I know in the history of sculpture. This is a real pleasure. It happens sometimes when I am in my studio. Of course, making a very big sculptures in a city is like affixing my own signature in that city, and I have quite a few all around the world. But I am still looking for challenges like making this sculpture at the highway or making that lance against the Arc de Triomphe. And by the way, I am working on it these days because President Sarkozy said that every year, he would like to have a special event happening for the 14th of July. So this will be a fabulous thing to do.

AfN: Can this be realised within a year?

Bernar Venet: Oh yes, if he tells me in a month that it’s possible, I can build the sculpture in two months. We already have all the studies, all the permissions from the architectes de France.

AfN: Recently I have seen one of your arcs incorporated into a building in Neu-Ulm in Germany. The building together with your sculptures - what is it for you: extension into architecture? Or a kind of "Kunst am Bau" (decoration)?

Bernar Venet: This was actually a real creation because I never thought about a sculpture like that. I thought about making arcs against buildings. In fact, I am working now on an arc which will be 60 metres high in New York City, against the building where I am living. But the one in Neu-Ulm is fairly 37 metres. It was a challenge: Mr Schneider, the owner of the building, came to see me, he showed me the plan, and said: “Mr Venet, would you do a sculpture like this?” And he showed me an idea which was totally wrong. So I said that it was not possible. I looked at the plan, and then after a while, I told him: “Look, this is what we’ll do!” The arc – as you know – comes out from the inside of the building, goes out on top of the sidewalk, then goes on top of the building, leaning against it, and then going beyond. So this was a proposition I have never thought about before, and I was very pleased to be able to realise it. And when I saw it installed, I was not disappointed because the proportions are really right - which is always the big challenge. It is very difficult to decide the square section in relationship to the height of the sculpture. That is the point where I can succeed or fail.

AfN: Normally your arcs are detached works, they are on their own.
This house, was it there before?

Bernar Venet: No, they just built it recently. It is a new house.
While they were building it, they also wanted to add something [artistic]. That is why we could incorporate the arc very easily.

AfN: The building is a company building and the scheme of the arc attached to the house has become the logo of the firm. Was this intended? And if yes, how is your relation to design, corporate identity and art?

Bernar Venet: No, it was not intended. I had no idea that they were going to use it. But I understand completely that they wanted to use it... They call the building “the Venet building”.
I said “yes” because I say “yes” to everything. It does not affect me, and if they are happy like this, I am happy for them.

AfN: Besides the arc, you've done it all: installation, performance, sound, video, light, design, drawing, printing, painting and diverse sculptures. Metal has become your favourite material. How important is the multidisciplinary approach of your work for your artistic expression?

Bernar Venet: Maquettes - Grafik; Fischerplatz Galerie Ulm, until 19.01.08

Bernar Venet: First of all, I would like to say that I do not consider myself exclusively as a sculptor. I want to be an artist with the possibility to express myself in many different fields. I started as a painter, and very early, I did performances, too. I call that a problem of équivalence. It is the same content just presented in a different way. For example, when I started in ‘61, ‘63, I was doing the black tar paintings. You can see a sort of monochrome paintings with black tar. Then at the same time, I could make a pile of charcoal which was black, which was also something without compositions. It is without specific shape. And I thought at that time: If I took a wheelbarrow and I set up a tape recorder, and just go around, recording the sound of it for two hours, it would be a monotone sound thing, very repetitive, and it would be the equivalent of that. I made a book which was totally black... So I was just presenting my work in different ways, just to extend the concept as widely as possible.

AfN: I'm also curious to know why you started to work with metal?

Bernar Venet: It came very naturally. When you look at my books, you will realise that, first of all, in the 60s, I was doing nothing but mathematical diagrams and scientific information. And in mathematical diagrams, very often, you have lines which are graphic representations of an equation. You have a straight line or you have a curve. I did not think about it in terms of line at that time but in 1976, after stopping for 6 years, when I started again to do my work, I started by using very simple mathematical information like angles, arcs, diagonal lines... and so I realised that the main subject of my work was becoming the line. And then the indeterminate line became a very natural thing to do because after doing a straight line, a broken line, and an arc, what else can you do than a variation? – You can only do a free, indeterminate line, something which is not mathematical anymore. That is how I started this new thing which actually enlarged my field of investigation a lot.

I started with the canvas, then I realised one day that I did not necessarily have to use the support of the canvas in order to make an angle – I could make an angle or an arc in wood, directly on the wall. Then I made the indeterminate lines like this. The indeterminate lines started to be presented on the wall, like spirals but going on top of each other. And then very naturally, they started to invade space, and it was with steel that I could find the best ways to make these new works.

AfN: On your homepage ( you have chosen a video of the
'accident' performance as a start animation. By looking at it I was wondering how important the sound in the 'accident' performance might be for you?

Bernar Venet: I started to work with some pieces very early on. In 1961, I was making some, and in ’63, and then in ’68, I made a CD in America and so on. Sound was just as important as visual work or all kinds of other disciplines or media. So it was very natural that, when I did this “Accident” piece, when I pushed the bar, and it fell on the floor, after doing one and two and three and four pieces here and there, in South America, in Los Angeles, in the South of France..., I just realised that all those variations were interesting, that they were unpredictable. Just like the sculptures were unpredictable. The result was not predictable, I could not predict the sound that I was going to get.

By the way, music has always been something very interesting to me. I made a ballet at the opera in Paris where I did the choreography. I also did the set and the costumes, and I did the music that was played by the National Orchestra for one week. I created a different way to write the music. I found a way to make sure that it was possible for the musicians to read what I wanted to do. The classical way to write music is only existing for the last five centuries, and only in occidental culture. In China or Africa or South America, they do not have that.

AfN: Speaking about sound, what about colour?

Bernar Venet: Colour is not something that interests me a lot. In general, I draw pretty well; colour is not something that I master very well. Although, when I did my cardboard pieces in the early 60s, when I painted one cardboard in red for example, and I would give it to someone – I don’t say “sell” because nobody was buying my work – I said to the new owner that he could change the colour. The idea was that he should change the colour without telling me the new colour. I did not impose a colour, let’s put it this way. And when I use colour today, sometimes I take the same equation: I make one blue, one yellow – it does not matter.

AfN: In a former discussion, you told me that, when we spoke about the great arc next to the highway in France, they wanted to paint it red, and you did not like it. You dropped the project.

Bernar Venet: I dropped the project. While the project was very much advanced, they decided that they wanted to have a sculpture in red. I said that it was impossible; that I could not do that. I wanted to make it with cord and steel or in black eventually but not with a red colour, bright like this – impossible.

AfN: So the colour is inherent in the material in this case.

Bernar Venet: Exactly. It has to be the colour of the real material.

AfN: In your work, you referred to Jacques Bertin who is one of the gurus of Information Visualisation. Can you tell us how this goes together with performance, indeterminate lines, coal piles and well constructed mathematical clear arcs?

Bernar Venet: His theories were interesting to me to justify the radicalness, the originality of the work of the 60s, all the pieces that I made, using scientific information. So it is only applying to that period, but not at all to the new things. The new things are completely depending on chance and predictability...

AfN: ...and subjectivity?

Bernar Venet: Subjectivity is something that I have been accepting since 1976, but before that, I was trying to fight against it, and of course, I realised that there is nothing totally objective; that when I decide to be objective, I am making a subjective statement.

AfN: Your first printed formulas were monosemic. They spoke for themselves. As an work of art they did not represent any practise guideline or use. Nowadays you over-paint many formulas and colours. Can this be seen as a kind of baroque exaggeration over your former clear and definitive style?

Bernar Venet: No, I think it is a completely different proposition. Yes, I am still using mathematical information or diagrams but in the early days, I was choosing those mathematical diagrams for theoretical reasons. First of all, I was not even choosing them. Someone was choosing them for me, with criteria that were supposed to be very important. Now I choose them myself, looking for images that are very different from anything I know in the history of painting. And there is so much to do that I find very exciting, to show all those new images. So I started by presenting them, just pure like this as a new proposition, and it is only four years ago that I decided to make those saturation paintings where I overlap images on top of each other.

You know, people talk about abstraction, and we know very well the history of abstract art, but what is interesting, is when you see those mathematical equations – I am not talking about saturation but regular equations – it is interesting to think that if you want to talk about abstraction, these are definitely the most abstract paintings that can be seen. It is a pure mathematical formula. There is nothing more abstract; there is nothing more independent for anything around us. There is no symbolism. There is no relationship to anything. It is the maximum abstraction that a painting can attain.

AfN: I’m interested in your current work process. What are you working on?

Bernar Venet: I work on several things at the same time. I work on the straight line, I work on the arcs, I work on indeterminate lines – all that at the same time. If I have a new idea, I just go in that direction. I am developing much more the arcs right now, rather than other things – except the indeterminate line that are much more brut, much more improvised, less controlled than they were in the past. But it is definitely with the arcs that I am making the most different propositions compared to what I have been doing in the past.

AfN: Before this interview I was talking with you a little bit about the market and the fair development, and you told me that you are directly represented by Sotheby’s now, and that they make a big show for you. Can you tell us a little bit about this show?

Bernar Venet: This is how it happened: For the last four years, Sotheby’s has been organising exhibitions - very historical exhibitions, they call them “prestige”-exhibitions and “private sales” also, they do not sell these works at auctions – and they were organising those exhibitions by using sculptures by Rodin, Picasso, Calder, Max Ernst, Miró – from all those big historical people to today’s classical artists in America.

And last year, they invited me to present two sculptures. I was very flattered. They called me one week after the show had opened, and they told me that the two pieces were already sold by probably the two biggest collectors in Germany and in America. And they asked if I had other pieces as people were asking, and I said: “No, because I have a big retrospective in Korea; I have a show in the city of Bordeaux, and one big show also in the city of Metz – and that makes 25 pieces altogether.” It was impossible to provide with more sculptures.

Then, they wanted to talk to me, and we met in early March 2007. During lunch, they told me that they had a meeting with all the top people at Sotheby’s, and they said that they would like to, for the first time, organise a one-man-show at this very precise place where they had group shows until now; and they said that they would like to do it with me. I thought it was a good idea, it is an adventurous thing on my part and also on their part. It is not easy to do a French artist in America and to try to make it an event. But they are very confident.

AfN: But there is not always an easy relationship between artists and auction houses because the auctions houses take over your work, and it is sold to other people, for the other people’s sake...

Bernar Venet: When you make a show at Pace Gallery or Gagosian, everything is for sale, too. The difference is not really big – except that, in this case, they have definitely an extreme power in the art world, and they know all the greatest collectors who could eventually buy a sculpture. I thought about that problem that is going to make some gallery people nervous, but I thought also that, with the promotion, it is going to help all the other galleries in the future. It is going to extend so much.

AfN: Because it creates attention, and attention creates market.

Bernar Venet: Exactly. But the market is not the most important thing for an artist; the market is just something secondary. The most important activity of an artist is to create art. But it is true that today, the art world is such that we have to sell our work. I always say that art should not be sold, it should be given, offered to those who deserve it. But unfortunately, it does not really work like that.

AfN: But in this case, the prophet comes to the people who deserve it. So it is a relationship that could be worked on. Other contemporary artists could directly work with auction houses.

Bernar Venet: It is the intention of Sotheby’s to do a show next year, perhaps with a painter, perhaps with a sculptor, I don’t know. But they will try to do that again, once a year like a statement at a very high level.

AfN: We are looking forward to that. Where exactly is this exhibition taking place?

Bernar Venet: It is taking place in Florida, near Orlando, in a place called Isleworth.

AfN: Mr. Venet, thank you for the interview.

Bernar Venet: A pleasure!


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