Shouting it from the Rooftop

The many dimensions of Felice Varini

During his three-decade-long career, Felice Varini has made spatial paintings on buildings designed by Hiroshi Hara, Mario Botta, Rem Koolhaas, and Atelier Bow- Wow. Now, after being invited by French designer Ora-ïto to create an ephemeral artwork on the rooftop of La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, the Swiss-born, Paris-based artist can add Le Corbusier to his list. He paints on architectural and urban surfaces, including walls and streets. These paintings are characterised by a single vantage point from which the viewer can behold the complete painting (usually a simple geometric form such as circle, square, or line), while from all other angles one sees fragmented shapes. Cunningly, the work exists as a whole, as a complete shape and as fragments.

Anna Sansom October 2016
“When Ora-ïto called me, I was surprised yet not surprised, because I’d already thought that MAMO was somewhere I’d like to do something”, explains Varini. “So when I arrived, I felt a great deal of emotion, finally discovering the place that I’d only known through the media.” MAMO was named after Le Corbusier’s invention of the Modulor, a measurement concept devised for his Unité d'Habitation, or ‘machine for living in’, based on a 6-foot-tall male. La Cité Radieuse (Radiant City), finished in 1952, is Le Corbusier’s first Unité d'Habitation project and one of the most influential Brutalist buildings. Unconsciously echoing the structure’s primary colours, Varini used red and yellow in his artwork whilst imagining that the blueness of the Mediterranean sky would complete the mental picture.

Like Le Corbusier, Varini applies a specific human measurement – he uses his eye-level (5 feet, 3 inch- es) to determine the ideal vantage point for his work. This is the place where it creates an optical illusion, like an anamorphosis, as if a two-dimensional drawing has been layered onto the architecture with a trompe l'oeil effect. From any other viewpoint, the kaleidoscopic lines of adhesive strips appear less coherent. Moving through the space, the work be- comes an intermingling of shifting forms. “When I visit a site, I try to understand the light, its volumes and materials, and what the architect felt”, explains Varini. “Then I try to see how I can make it play with the painting I’m going to propose. The vantage point I decide on is arbitrary. It’s a point of departure that makes an explosion of all sorts of fragments in perpetual evolution.” At MAMO, he has devised two exterior pieces with opposing viewing angles that touch the extremities of the architecture through sweeping diagonal lines. His aim was to convey the architectural details, enhancing the proportions of the space. He also created an interior piece of rhythmic, concentric circles that seem to dance and vibrate in the former gymnasium.
Varini, who grew up in Locarno – an Italian-speaking city in southern Switzerland near the Alps, has been making works at built locations since 1979. His quest for three-dimensionality, liberated from the two-dimensionality of the canvas, is partly indebted to Italian artist Lucio Fontana. Fontana’s slashed canvases, Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept), impressed the 12-year-old Varini, who marvelled at the perceptual impact of the incisions. “Discovering his work was a big shock, a novelty that changed my thoughts.” In 1978/79, he began making in-situ interventions inside an apartment in Paris, where he painted a yellow diagonal cutting through the space and a yellow circle in a corner. The result of the latter bore an uncanny resemblance to a James Turrell light projection. By 1983, Varini was making geometric paintings in churches and on rocks in the countryside, working intuitively in his “field of action”. The in-situ nature of his work aligns him with artists such as Buren, while his geometric, ar- chitectural concern finds an affinity with François Morellet. Varini cites Niele Toroni, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Krijn de Koning, Dan Graham, and James Turrell, artists he feels are “in the same family”. Varini always visits a site beforehand, strolling round, reflecting on what kind of intervention he could make. He works with a team of 8-30 assistants, de- pending on the size and complexity of the project. For an outdoor piece, he uses light projectors at night in order to beam his drawing onto the surfaces. Early in his career he made preparatory drawings by hand but now makes them on his computer.

Commissions have poured in from galleries, museums, private collectors, and municipalities. His large scale projects have seen discs hopping over roofs and façades in Provence (2013) and ellipses looping over the rooftops of Hasselt, Belgium (2014). While most projects have been temporary, there have been permanent ones too. Among these are such diverse places as Cardiff Bay in Wales; a square in Paris; a plaza in New Haven, USA; Aichi Commemorative Park in Nagoya, and Sapporo Dome, both in Japan. The largest project is a suite of zigzagging triangles spanning a horizontal line 2km in length, along the Saint Nazaire port in Nantes, France. Does Varini ever feel any nostalgia when he returns to a place where one of his works used to be? “My works aren’t less ephemeral than a painting, even if they’re taken away after two months, because the certificate remains”, he says. “It’s comparable to a piece of music or a play – the work can be reactivated in the same place or in a different place, but the details of my certificate must be respected.” Rather than looking backwards, Varini is forward-looking. In September he is going to Perth, Australia to find ideas for a project in Fremantle Port that will be realised next year. Another project is planned for a 12th-century abbey in Ardèche, south-central France. He also has a private commission in San Francisco and an exhibition planned for an art centre in Beauvais, near Paris. “I defined my working rule in 1978, and what interested me was finding an independence”, Varini recalls. “Today, I still construct by this rule.” Isn’t there an inherent paradox in how independence is demarcated by architecture? “Reality is always paradoxical, but the architecture is more of a reality than a constraint”, he replies. In the case of MAMO, Le Corbusier’s architecture is a heritage-reality upon which Varini’s joyful work sings to the heavens. À ciel ouvert was at MAMO in Marseille until 02 October 2016. An exhibition on Felice Varini will take place at the Quadrilatère, Beauvais, France, 21 January – 02 April 2017. Felice Varini: Place by Place is published by Lars Müller Publishers.
This article appeared in DAM58. Order your personal copy.

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Anna Sansom

Anna Sansom is a British-born, Paris-based journalist who writes about art, design, and architecture for DAMN°, Frame, Mark, The Art Newspaper, Whitewall, Art Now and Noblesse (China).

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