After a 35-year wait, Arc Majeur, a monumental 200-ton and 60-meter-tall sculpture in rusted Corten steel by Bernar Venet, one of France’s greatest living artists, has been unveiled. Spanning 75 meters in diameter with a side section of 2.25 meters and nearly 500 meters of combined welded lengths, it required over 12,000 hours of welding and assembly work and the collaboration of 15 partners, not to mention countless meetings, technical drawings and studies by experts in numerous fields. Towering over the E411 highway near Lavaux-Sainte-Anne in Belgium, between the cities of Namur and Luxembourg, the €3 million sculpture is a gift to the Wallonia Region and has now become the largest public artwork in Europe with its twin gargantuan arcs that resemble two arms stretching towards the sky, disrupting the horizon of one of Europe’s busiest highways. A mix of art and engineering, it’s something of a trompe l’oeil, as a section of the complete arc with a 205.5-degree curve appears to be buried in the ground, only to emerge on either side of the road. In fact, the majestic yet minimalist structure is composed of two parts: a large arc formed from three sections measuring 20 meters each and standing 60 meters high on one side of the road, while on the other side is a smaller arc rising to 20 meters. It’s twice as high as the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and taller than the Statue of Liberty without its pedestal; it’s so high that you wonder how it doesn’t topple over, balancing on a modest base.
Travelers approaching the new unmissable landmark will be able to spot it from 3 kilometers away and have the impression of penetrating the sculpture before moving away from it, with only moments to grasp its true nature from their cars once they’re near. They will drive through the discontinuous semi-circle in either direction and only see it while in movement. “This is a different experience, one experience among others in my work, but a rare or even unknown experience in the history of sculpture, with such self-evidence,” Venet explains. “The particularity of this sculpture is that you discover it while you are moving. Normally, you stop by a sculpture, look at it, turn around it; you have time. Here, you have a relatively short time to discover it and, as you get closer to it, you discover it, pass into it and then lose it, so it’s a different approach in comparison to what sculptures are in general.”
Venet had selected the site for its unobstructed views and lack of buildings and lampposts, thereby allowing him to fully impose his personal artistic vision on the natural surroundings. “I spotted an ideal location on the motorway to Luxembourg,” he notes. “It is important to have a lot of distance so as to see the sculpture from far away and to get closer to it – unless it is the sculpture that comes nearer to us. I reworked the dimensions and the work’s integration into the landscape. I particularly like the fact that the road’s verges embrace the arc’s curve. I am happy to donate it to all motorists, workers or tourists who travel this road.” He labels it the world’s tallest public artwork for although there may be taller monuments paying tribute to historical figures such as the 182-meter-high statue of Sardar Patel in India, Arc Majeur, as a purely creative sculpture made by an artist, is the tallest of its kind on the face of the globe. He describes what he likes about conceiving public artworks, “In the art world, the market system is such that one makes works for the private sector. Creating a work of art does not mean that the aim is for it to be sold. Artworks are primarily created for cultural reasons. Their goal is to question, not to be sold. But there are art lovers who want to surround themselves with important objects artistically. Making works for the public space is to remove the artwork from closed, private spaces and the property of rare privileged people.”
After three unsuccessful attempts to install Arc Majeur in France, it seemed like the sculpture would never be built, a test of the patience and determination of the 78-year-old conceptual artist celebrated for his versatility in multiple mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture and installation, whose contemporaries include the likes of Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, and whose works are in the permanent collections of the most beloved artistic institutions in the world. He is best known for his Corten steel sculptures – Straight Lines, Indeterminate Lines, Arcs, Angles, Diagonals and Collapses – and his representations of mathematical equations and scientific texts, where the line in all its variants and physical manifestations form a major part of his vocabulary and alter the way people contemplate their environments. “It’s a strange feeling because now I can believe that it really exists,” Venet says of Arc Majeur. Originally due to be erected in 1984 near the city of Auxerre along the A6 highway leading to Paris as part of plans to beautify the country’s highways and to bring art out of the museum space and into the public space, only to be vetoed by the local mayor for personal reasons despite the backing of the late French President, François Mitterrand, and former French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, it was subsequently planned for a road in Burgundy in the mid-2000s, which Venet then called off after the president of the French highway department insisted he paint the Corten steel structure bright red. A third attempt to install the artwork near Metz in Moselle was abandoned when the president of the region failed to understand the sculpture and refused the proposal.
It was only in 2014 after the inauguration of two new artworks by Venet commissioned by the John Cockerill Group, the Belgian mechanical engineering conglomerate based in Seraing, Belgium, that the project was given fresh impetus. One of the Group’s subsidiaries, Usinor, had initially carried out feasibility studies for the project in France, and its Welding Center of Expertise had manufactured a sculpture for the artist a few years earlier: 37.5° Arc, a 38-meter-tall steel arc leaning against the façade of a building in Seoul (Venet’s largest piece until now). The decision was made with the Group’s chairman, Bernard Serin, in 2016 to turn Arc Majeur into reality in Belgium. Venet discloses, “There are moments when you don’t believe in it anymore, but of course you wait for the opportunity. The opportunity was Mr Serin.” The construction of the arc was largely funded by the John Cockerill Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the John Cockerill Group, and produced in the company workshops with the assistance of semi-automated welding carriages, in collaboration with engineering consultancy Greisch (with whom Venet has worked since 2005), which ensured stability, resistance to the effects of earthquakes and winds up to 200 km/h, and overall coherence of the structure contributing to its durability.
An engineering tour de force that called for approximately 60 people working in unison, Arc Majeur brought together various expert technical service providers: cutting out metal sheets ranging in length from eight to 12 meters and of varying thicknesses, bending, welding, mounting in the workshop, positioning a shock absorber at the summit of the large arc to greatly reduce vibrations and the risk of fatigue of the steel, sanding to erase all traces of manufacture or welding for a smooth surface, transport by special road convoy by night, assembly on the highway and finally earthworks to restore the site. An experienced team of four to eight welders and three fitters took turns over several months to build the monumental sculpture. The preliminary ground tests took place in November 2018 and the laying of foundations (10 x 16 meters for the large arc) began last spring, requiring the prior excavation of around 1,000 m³ in the rock and the pouring of 2,800 tons of concrete, while the installation was carried out in record time over three days in August, with the highway closed entirely to traffic over a 36-hour period and remaining partially closed for over a month. The assembly was conducted over several phases, including welding together the three elements of the great arc, which were raised using a 750-ton crane – the largest in Europe – and put together thanks to flanges dissimulated inside them. A peripheral weld was then carried out at the junctions to definitively assemble them. The small arc was transported in a single piece, fully finished. At each stage, weld quality was monitored by specialists from Vinçotte using an advanced non-destructive testing technique called Phased Array Ultrasonic Testing.
So what’s next for Venet after making his dream of Arc Majeur come true and the opening in 2014 of his own foundation in Le Muy in the south of France, the project of a lifetime? Without being certain of its possible construction, he’s currently working on an 80-meter-tall Straight Line sculpture symbolizing a conductor’s baton to honor Herbert von Karajan in celebration of the centenary of Salzburg’s popular music and drama festival, which will incline against one of the city’s cliffs. He also hopes to achieve Grandes Diagonales one day, by far his most ambitious project. It comprises several Straight Line sculptures traversing the planet by virtually linking the main capitals of the five continents. To the physical work measuring 100 meters in length would be added underground several spaces for the public, who could communicate directly with the inhabitants of the cities with which they are connected. He concludes, “The goal of any artist remains the same: to continue to create, not by repeating oneself (which is no longer creating, but rather the production of decorative objects). The artist must constantly push the limits of what is conceivable.”