In his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, poet William Blake eloquently illustrated the significance of memory and experience on one’s perception of the world by juxtaposing contrasting views of things from two different perspectives: through the lens of childlike innocence, and through the prism of experiential memory. It was Blake’s Songs that came to mind when I entered the architectural space that once housed the Byzantine frescoes on the Menil campus in Houston, as my view of the current installation was somewhat corrupted by my memory of the work for which the space was originally created. I’ll return to that notion a bit later.
Dominique de Menil’s son, François, designed and built the Byzantine Chapel for the express purpose of housing a group of 13th-century frescoes that had been looted from a small church near the Cypriot village of Lysi. After having been rescued and restored by Mme de Menil, the frescoes were installed in the exquisitely designed chapel in 1997, where they were on continuous display until being returned to Cyprus in early 2012. The space was then left vacant and unused, but after due deliberation, the Menil Collection decided to reuse the space for a series of yearlong site-specific installations.
The inaugural installation, The Infinity Machine, by renowned Canadian audiovisual artists Janet Cardiff and George Miller, opened on January 31. It is an immersive installation comprised of a monumentally scaled mobile, with associated lighting and a sound collage that fills the main interior space of the Chapel building. The word “mobile” conjures images of Calder’s graceful, colorful constructions floating passively in space, but The Infinity Machine is not of that ilk: it activates the otherwise inert interior space with motion, sound and light.
More than 150 antique mirrors and other objects rotate at a constant speed in the center of the space. Hung at varying heights and oriented in varying directions, they are illuminated from three sides, reflecting light in all directions, while otherworldly sound fills the space.
The soundtrack for the installation was created from NASA recordings of solar wind’s interaction with electromagnetic fields captured by the Voyager probes as they travelled past several planets of our solar system. It relates to Pythagoras’ Harmony of the Spheres theory. Pythagoras proposed that the orbits of the sun and other planets produce harmonious sounds in the same way a plucked string does, making a connection between mathematics and music. His theories built a mathematical foundation for music theory, and gave rise to the ratio-based system of proportions in Renaissance art and architecture.
To return to Blake’s Songs: the now-absent frescoes that once inhabited the space had a profound and lasting effect on me. They remain firmly present in the memories I carry with me when I enter the space today. It is fundamental to critical thinking to project our memories onto everything we see and experience; in my case, my memory does injury to the current installation. I can overcome it through conscious effort, but the silhouette of the previous installation on the floor makes this difficult. Imagine replacing Daniel Chester French’s giant sculpture of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC with a new work by a contemporary artist, but leaving the outline of the original piece on the floor. Surely the new work would suffer there in the same way.
I do not suggest the space should go unused; I relish the thought of seeing many interesting installations there over the coming years, but the situation could be ameliorated if the Menil would endeavor to erase all remnants of the Byzantine frescoes from the space. Perhaps the building could even be renamed something less specific than “Byzantine Chapel.” If one were to remove Rothko’s large canvases from his building, would it still be the “Rothko” Chapel?
For one who enters this repurposed space in a Blakean state of innocence, these cleansing steps may be unnecessary; but for those of us who view it through the prism of experience, it would facilitate an unimpeded interpretation of the work. I believe this would allow the space to be more authoritatively occupied by both the current and future installations.
The Infinity Machine is on view at the Menil Collection museum through January, 2016.