John Pawson doesn’t waste time on minor things. The godfather of minimalist architecture designs ascetic country houses, boutiques for Calvin Klein, and even entire monasteries. So at the 55th Venice Art Biennale, his latest installation, "Perspectives," is naturally showing in a rather prominent venue: Palladio's Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore. uncube correspondent Norman Kietzmann caught up with John Pawson in Venice for a conversation about visual meditation, strange visitor reactions and the art-appreciation of monks.
Mr. Pawson, you are showing your installation "Perspectives" as a collateral event at the 55th Venice Art Biennale: a 40-centimeter wide Swarovski-manufactured meniscus lens – the largest that has ever been made. Can you tell us about the project?
The lens is an instrument that enables people to experience spaces in a more intensive way. It’s important for me to consider the work not as art. It’s just a piece that serves to relax the eye and meditate in a visual manner. It's funny how differently people use it. Some visitors have this on their list to see when they enter the church, they walk straight to the object, but then they go around the corner and are gone. Others don‘t know anything about the piece and remain standing in front of it. They may not understand why it’s there, but it’s enjoyable because it’s a very easy device to understand. You look in it and you immediately get a reaction. The more you use it the more you get out of it.
The lens was shown for the first time in London’s St Paul's Cathedral in 2011 and is now presented under the dome of Palladio's famous Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore. How does the place affect the perception of the piece?
Here in Venice, we have much more space. So you see the lens more as an object: it rests on a mirror hemisphere, which can be seen from a greater distance. In London, because the piece was shown in a very narrow staircase, you couldn‘t stand back. I like having the woman here to stop people. Actually, this happens for security reasons, because even a single fingerprint would destroy the effect. But it makes people look into the lens.
How did the monks react to the piece?
For the monks, the Art Biennale is a big problem. Because art is an intellectual thing, not about making people feel closer to God – at least not contemporary art. People in the Church usually like art which make them focus on God like the Cross, Jesus, Madonna and so on. Nevertheless, the monks were very pleased with the installation, because it makes you understand the lightness and beauty of the Palladian building. That is the whole point: people should not come and say: “This is a nice John Pawson piece.” They should say: “Wow, this church is even more beautiful than I thought.”
Every architect dreams of exhibiting inside a building by Palladio. How did you manage to secure this place as a venue?
I also didn‘t necessarily think it would be possible. But then we were in Vicenza and I gave a lecture at Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico. We thought about the Villa Rotonda but that didn’t work out. Then someone said he knew the monks of Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, so we asked them and they agreed to it. It was great coincidence.
- Interview by Norman Kietzman
Read more about Pawson's installation on Swarovski Perspectives.