Bernar Venet’s work “217.5 Arc x 13” is a permanent piece of public art in Vancouver, commissioned by the Biennale Legacy program. Now situated on Sunset Beach – it was formerly located on the corner of Denman and Davie, and only later booted to the sand by Yue Min Jun’s “Laughing Figures” – it is a large steel sculpture composed of large partial rings.
Bernar Venet is one of the most important French sculptors of the 20th century with much of his work being described as “conceptualist.” This means that the art lies in the idea rather than the construction or finished visual product. As such, “217.5 Arc x 13” is a work that is intended to present mathematical and scientific information as art. The title is definitely a hint as to the nature of the piece, acting as a formula for the work with each arc representing 217.5 degrees of 13 circles’ circumferences.
Venet’s interest in mathematics is in its ability to provide unambiguous meaning. By creating these visual mathematical formulas, Venet is working to remove any confusion or personality from the artwork. Yet it is interesting, perhaps even ironic, to note that this goal is to some extent impossible. When an individual viewer experiences the work, personality and ambiguity is unavoidably restored. Another member of our class noted that the work reminded her of a whale’s ribcage, while I first thought that the work represented the ruin of a shipwreck. These diverging first impressions show that each individual’s history and relationship to the location of the work will shape his or her interpretation of this or any other piece of public art.
Ultimately, I enjoy this piece on the Vancouver artscape even if the artist’s intention and my own interpretation don’t mesh. Despite my knowledge of the creator’s intention, my own narrative helps me to see this piece as something that belongs in the space. But it is interesting that, in the artist’s mind, this piece had no connection to its site at all, which raises several questions. If there is no site specificity, why situate the piece outside a gallery at all? Should public art purposefully engage its location? Or is the engagement the viewer creates enough?