Visual Art

Menil's Byzantine Fresco Chapel Reopens, Minus the Frescoes

The now-deconsecrated space will host a series of site-specific installations.

By Michael Hardy January 30, 2015

The Infinity Machine

Image: Michael Hardy

Infinity Machine
Opens Jan 31
Byzantine Fresco Chapel
Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross St.

In 2012, a Greek Orthodox priest named Demosthenis Demosthenous looked on as a construction crane slowly lifted a set of 13th-century frescoes through an opening in the roof of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel. Under the priest’s supervision, the fresco panels were then carefully packed in crates and shipped back to their home on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The frescoes originally adorned the walls of a small church near the town of Lysi, on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In the wake of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island, looters had ransacked the church, cutting out the frescoes with chainsaws and selling them on the black market.

The frescos were returning to Cyprus under an agreement signed in 1987 between Dominique de Menil and the Church of Cyprus, under which the Church retained ownership of the frescoes but Dominique de Menil—who bought them from a Turkish art dealer—would have the right to restore them and display them in a purpose-built Greek Orthodox chapel in Houston. After 20 years, they would be returned to Cyprus. To build the chapel, Dominique turned to her son Francois, who designed a stark concrete bunker with dim lighting and a domed metal frame that held the restored paintings. The site became a destination for art pilgrims from around the world, as well as an actual chapel where Greek Orthodox services were held.

Cardiff/Miller, “The Infinity Machine” 2015, installation in progress, Byzantine Fresco Chapel, The Menil Collection, Houston

The question facing the Menil after the frescoes’ removal in 2012 was what to do with Francois’s chapel. The answer arrives this weekend in the form of The Infinity Machine, a site-specific installation by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, the first in a series of rotating contemporary art installations in the now-deconsecrated space. In the chapel’s largest room, where the 800-year-old dome fresco of Christ Pantokrator once looked down on awed visitors, Cardiff and Miller have installed a massive, rotating mobile (powered by a 600-pound motor) that holds about 150 antique mirrors, spotlighted on three sides by pairs of lights and accompanied by deep, rumbling music that sounds like a cross between crashing waves and a passing subway train. 

The music is actually eight four-minute tracks, each representing a different planet in the solar system, and each created from recordings of the planet’s electromagnetic pulses taken by NASA’s Voyager space probe. The concept realizes Pythagoras’s famous theory that the movement of celestial bodies creates harmonies—the so-called “music of the spheres.” The music combines with the light reflecting off the dozens of rotating mirrors to create a truly uncanny effect.

“It’s funny, you keep thinking you’re going to see your own reflection, but you almost never do,” said Cardiff, who was taking a break from installing the work. “You see other people sometimes, but you rarely see yourself. It’s like you’re a non-entity, which is appropriate given that it’s about the universe.” Cardiff and Miller have created their signature audiovisual installations all over the world, including a documenta XII in Kassel, Germany; the Park Avenue Armory in New York City; and, perhaps most appropriately given their current installation, a 12th-century Spanish chapel at the Cloisters in New York—the first work of contemporary art every to be shown there.

“It’s all an experiment,” Cardiff explained. “We like to see how far we can push the limits.” 

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