Quite an extraordinary thing has just set up in Venice’s Campo San Vio, a sight visible from all over the city. Towering over the Grand Canal, vaporettos and gondolas gliding past, is the late James Lee Byars’ (1932-1997) truly over the top The Golden Tower. Standing at over 20 metres high and entirely covered in gold gilt, The Golden Tower was first envisaged by the American artist in 1976 as an enormous, glowing totem. Although the work was first exhibited in 1990 at the GegenwartEwigkeit exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, and in 2004 at Byars’ retrospective Life, Love and Death at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, this is the first time it has been realised as originally intended; in a public space.
Wendy Dunaway, the artist’s widow, said her husband “conceived of ‘The Golden Tower’ as a monument to humanity,” adding, “Venice was both his home and a metaphor for East meeting West. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute in these times.” Byars had a deep connection to the city; he lived there on and off from 1982 and, in 1989, worked with master glass-blowers of Murano to create a major sculpture, The Angel. Alongside enacting numerous performances around the city between 1975 and 1993, Byars participated in four previous editions of the Biennale since 1980, with performance pieces and sculptures.
“The Tower gives shape to a symbol of ascension, taking metaphorical aim towards the sacred mountain – a gilded machine to honour the gods,” says curator Alberto Salvadori of the work. “The splendour of gold hints at the symbol of the sun but also becomes a symbol of inner illumination, of intellectual knowledge and spiritual experience. A concept of divinity. That's the deeper motivation in James Lee Byars’s use of gold … it is the ultimate symbol of greatness and the infinite.”
No cheap undertaking, all 21 metres of the tower is gilded, and it took months of construction. Little wonder it is guarded round the clock.
James Lee Byars’ The Golden Tower is at the Campo San Vio, Venice, until 26 November 2017. For mor information see michaelwerner.com