Daniel Buren

French Pavilion, Biennale

An international art biennial, a city like Venice, summertime, a pavilion in a park—this was the setting into which Daniel Buren placed his work. This context played a major role in the festive character of the work, and functioned as a background against which the intellectual concepts behind the work could materialize into sensual form. It was like a frame into which Buren put his "pictures,” using as his visual tool alternating stripes in various colors and materials. These in turn drew their own contextual web over the given setting, for Buren’s stripes, which he has been using for over 20 years, have become autonomous image-signs in their own right, gradually accruing a meaning and a connotative potential of their own that refer to their previous use and the original idea behind them. Put simply, two discrete structural principles, the stripes and the architectonics of the site, are brought together in Buren’s works, setting a dialectical process in motion, a process that, as the controversy surrounding Buren’s new work in the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris has shown, continues to have the power of unleashing strong emotions.

This was not what happened at the Venice Biennale. Here, Buren used the French Pavilion as a vehicle for his compositional principles in such a way as to unite the two structures into a harmonious whole: a measured, formal, yet celebratory architecture that was all light and space. In the semicircular space of the portico the entrance wall was laced with vertical mirrored stripes that greeted visitors with a broken, bizarre image of themselves and their surroundings. This opalescent image visually resolved the stripe structure, while the eye began to take in the clear architectonic forms of the interior space beyond. A quadratic segmentation of the floor, proportioned to the ground plan of the central room and the width of its four doorways, divided the pavilion into two sections along its central axis, thus emphasizing the symmetry of the architecture.

What still appeared to be a whole from the vantage point of the entranceway was now shown to be subdivided. Buren restricted his interventions (with one exception) to one half of each room: black stripes in the first; blue stripes in the narrow room leading off to the right, which was the only one of the rooms in which all four walls were treated; and alternating stripes of plaster and exposed masonry in the transverse room opposite the entrance. Beneath the pavilion’s skylights were yellow-and-white-striped awnings. In a certain sense the stripe principle had been transferred to the architectural structure as a whole, so that the “empty” walls were endowed with a presence nearly equal to that of the treated walls.

Buren’s installation was founded on subtle differences that could suddenly appear to be correspondences, so that the tension in the work at first remained hidden under the harmonious esthetic impression the installation made. But logic and intuition came more and more into conflict, unleashing a slight sense of irritation: the ordered surfaces began to oscillate, which put us in a state hovering between clarity and confusion, allowing us to experience these spaces in a truly bodily way.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.