Seeing the Light
Heinz Mack on his sculptural work The Sky Over Nine Columns that will be installed in Venice this summer
A few years ago, at a small private dinner during the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht, I met an Italian art lover with the lovely name Sigifredo di Canossa. I asked him if his family owned the fortress at Canossa where in 1077, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had to wait outside the gates wearing a hairshirt before being allowed to ask Pope Gregory VII to revoke his excommunication. Yes, the Count of Canossa told me, the fortress had indeed once belonged to his family. The House of Canossa is over 1000 years old and formerly ruled half of Lombardy.
Our talk then turned to light as an artistic medium – a subject that has pursued me for 60 years – and to my Sahara Project, formulated in 1958 and partially realized in the Tunisian desert in 1968. There, I exposed reflective metal sculptures to the blazing light of the sun. They were meant to shine so brightly that they dematerialized before the viewer – like a mirage. My Italian acquaintance was fascinated by this, saying: ‘it would be great if you could make something like that in Venice!’ It is to him that I owe the opportunity to realize my sculptural ensemble The Sky Over Nine Columns on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore this summer. It would also have been impossible without the support of my Dusseldorf gallery Beck & Eggeling. The organization responsible for the island, Fondazione Cini, also made an indispensable commitment to the project.
I will erect nine columns diagonally in front of the basilica – designed by Palladio in 1565 – from which the island takes its name. The columns are seven and a half metres tall and covered with golden mosaic tiles. I chose the height intuitively, or rather from experience. In 1984, for example, on Roncalli Platz beside Cologne Cathedral, I erected a granite stele titled Columne pro Caelo (Sky Column). It weighs 36 tonnes and is around ten metres tall. And in the sculpture garden outside my house in Mönchengladbach there is a pillar that stands six and a half metres tall. I remember that as a young man, although the sculptures I was working on in the studio were large, when I set them up outside under the sky they immediately vanished. Open space swallows things up! When I complained about this to my sculpture teacher at the academy in Dusseldorf – no less a figure than Ewald Mataré (1887–1965) – he commented dryly: ‘what you make outdoors must always be twice as big as what you make indoors.’
Art in public spaces is a topic in its own right, of course. In the art world it is widely scorned, but it’s not for nothing that I have spent a large part of my life’s energy on monumental sculptures in public spaces. And Venice is not just any old public space! The city’s tourism minister told me that if my ensemble is installed there from June to November, it will be seen by many millions of people. Whoever comes to the architecture biennial in the summer – with which my project has no direct link – is sure to cast a glance in this direction from the Palazzo Ducale. A sensational opportunity!
The amount of work and the difficulties involved has been and still is huge. Beginning with the site: nothing can be placed directly in front of the basilica, where there is a plaza with a marble mosaic designed by Andrea Palladio. But I have been granted permission to use the adjoining paved square. The maximum load per square metre is 300 kilogrammes, which put paid to my idea that the columns would be cast in bronze. The island is anchored in the lagoon with wooden piles, and solid bronze would likely have caused part of it to collapse. So now the columns are made of high-quality fibreglass panels that are welded together. This is being done in Dubai, in the workshops of the German company SL Rasch from Leinfelden-Echterdingen, who specialize in lightweight construction.
The mosaic tiles, on the other hand, come from Venice. I’ve been working for over 30 years with the Venetian firm Orsoni, the world’s oldest producer of mosaic glass. They also supplied the silver mosaic tiles for the fountains I had built as part of my design for Jürgen-Ponto-Platz in Frankfurt in 1980. Orsoni is now part of the Italian firm Trend that produced the 800,000 glass tiles for my nine columns. The company also helped sponsor the project.
The tiles contain gold leaf roughly a nanometre thick. The gold is placed between two thin plates of glass, a sandwich that is then melted together at around 500 degrees Celcius. But Trend cannot attach the tiles to the columns in Venice. This is due to architectural and engineering issues: how to make the column as lightweight and robust as possible? How to make it resist all kinds of weather? So the mosaic tiles are being attached in Dubai at the SL Rasch workshop. Today, it’s not unusual to have such a global operation as things often can’t all be done in the same place. From Dubai, the finished columns will be shipped to Venice in containers and lifted into place using a floating crane. They will create a ballet-esque or a military formation: three, three, three, in a rectangle, generating a rhythm.
A few more words on the colour gold – and on sunlight: when artists use gold, they are immediately suspected of showiness and decoration. But Constantin Brâncusi polished golden sculptures to a high shine – what’s wrong with that? Besides, gold is a material that has played a major role in Venetian history. One only need think of the overwhelming golden mosaics in St. Mark’s. In the 14th century, Venice was the world’s largest exporter of gold! Added to which, gold simply is the colour that best reflects sunlight.
Concerning sunlight, I once had an experience I will never forget: in 1943, aged 12, I witnessed a night of bombing in Krefeld. In the space of three hours, 80 percent of the city was destroyed. I stood in front of the house, which was reckless, of course, but I was fascinated by the show of light: from the incendiary bombs called ‘Christmas trees’ which were dropped to help bombers target the city better, as well as searchlights and flashes from the explosions. It was one massive concert of light – an infernal concert, sadly. The next day there was bright sunshine. And I thought to myself: No, I prefer the sunlight.
Today, sunlight reminds me that ultimately, nothing that happens in this world can be preserved, that everything is merely a manifestation that can give us pleasure for a time before taking its leave. I do not belong to any religion, but this quality of manifestation is always important to me. I hope it will also apply to my project in Venice. The columns as a symbolic connection between heaven and earth will reflect the sunlight so strongly that the whole thing explodes as a crown of light. And so that when people go home, they’ll say: I was in Venice, there was an island, something happened there, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before!
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Sculptor and painter Heinz Mack was born in 1931 in Lollar, in the German state of Hesse. He lives in Mönchengladbach. In 1957, he co-founded the artist group ZERO with Otto Piene. In 1970, with Günther Uecker, Thomas Lenk and Georg Karl Pfahler, he represented Germany at the 35th Venice Biennale. In October, the survey ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s –60s, will open at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, before travelling to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, Germany.
First published in Issue 15