One of the famous pleasures of the Venice Biennale is exploring the various national pavilions and collateral events outside the main venues at the Giardini and Arsenale. Free of the hype, you follow your map through the crooked calli and, if you’re lucky, discover one or two ancient buildings that have been ingeniously transformed by architecturally inspired projects.
For me, at the last Biennale, it was the Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas’s tunnel constructed of long strips of magnetic tape, at the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, that provided the hoped-for shock. I rushed over to the site on my way out of town on a bit of good advice, and I didn’t regret it. Kempinas had stretched his ethereal tunnel nearly the entire length of the enormous space, creating a shimmering mirage within the building’s solid masonry.
This Biennale’s site-specific gem is the Luxembourg pavilion, located in the nation’s permanent space, Ca’del Duca, on the edge of the Grand Canal. A fairly nondescript building, it was planned in the 15th century as a grand residence for Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan; just a single column survives of that original construction. With their installation, the Luxembourg-based artist couple Martine Feipel (b. 1975) and Jean Bechameil (b. 1964) have restored a certain authenticity to the structure—though their take on it is decidedly surreal. The two have been collaborating since 2008. In addition, Bechameil has designed décor for a number of films by Lars van Trier, among them Antichrist (2009), Dogville (2003) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).
The installation comprises a sequence of entirely white rooms. Leaving the entryway, one follows a narrow, undulating corridor into spaces in which curving walls disgorge cartoonishly flaccid drawers, mirrors make half-size doors whole, stairways climb to nowhere and white chairs look as though they are melting on a rubbery, semi-translucent floor. Presiding over the chairs is a chandelier that swings back and forth. Especially disorienting is a colonnaded room in which off-kilter columns and mirrors create a dizzying ambience.
There are few right angles in Le Cercle Fermé (The Closed Circle). Although standing on terra firma, the viewer feels as though floating adrift on a boat in the adjacent canal.
A.i.A. spoke to the artists during the preview, when few visitors had as yet made their way to this somewhat hidden place.
FAYE HIRSCH: Could you talk a bit about your intentions at this site?
MARTINE FEIPEL: We wanted to do an installation specifically for this space-with the architecture of this building, but also with Venice-so it’s working within the context. This building is a private house and it is also completely asymmetrical. There are no right angles. And you have to go from one room to another in order to exit the building from the same room where you entered. That’s where the title comes from—The Closed Circle. But for us it also has the meaning of a closed society. And that brings in Venice as well—because you feel in this city as though you never see behind the scenes. The idea was to get the visitor closed in the space and also get him to feel disoriented.
HIRSCH: Your installation is also quite ethereal and light. It’s quite a contrast with, say, Mike Nelson’s British pavilion, which is also rather mazelike.
JEAN BECHAMEIL: We work with line and view, and with the architecture itself, rather than with props and furniture. We want the viewer to build his own history out of what he is experiencing.
FEIPEL: There’s also something about being covered entirely with the same color—it makes it surreal and dreamlike. We wanted to return a mystery and magic to the space.
HIRSCH: Could you talk a little about your materials and methodology?
BECHAMEIL: We used plaster, silicone and polyurethane. And we always try to work with the shapes that already exist. The room where you enter-that really exists, and we left it as is.
FEIPEL: But we borrowed the existing elements. For the undulating hallway, we took casts of the walls in that first room, and then rebuilt those walls in another shape. That material is called polycrystalline—it’s something like a mixture of polyester and plaster. And the floor in the room with the chandelier is silicone.
BECHAMEIL: We wanted to create a milky, nonexistent floor…
FEIPEL: Abstract, and frozen in time.
HIRSCH: What about the room with the columns? Did you make them all?
BECHAMEIL: Yes, all of them. There was one originally in the room, of concrete [dating back to the time of the Duke of Sforza]. It was square.
FEIPEL: So we hid it beneath one of our own columns.
HIRSCH: Did you fabricate all this in Luxembourg?
FEIPEL: Yes. We built all the parts there, and came here with them, working for six weeks to install the piece.
HIRSCH: What about the moving chandelier? Do you think of this as a haunted space?
BECHAMEIL: No, it’s more a rhythmic way to show that time is passing.
HIRSCH: Like a pendulum?
FEIPEL: A little bit. But, yes, also creating some kind of presence. And the chairs—this is more speaking about time, too: that these are elements that perhaps were once there and with time just melted away. But where they are frozen, the lamp just moves quietly, to show that time goes on.