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Menil Byzantine Chapel is reborn as Infinity Machine with dazzling mirrors & voices from the planets

Menil Chapel reborn as Infinity Machine with mirrors & planet voices

Stand on the Menil Collection campus and listen closely because you just might hear the symphony of the universe coming from the former Byzantine Fresco Chapel, now known as the BFC.

The chapel, designed and built to house the priceless Byzantine Frescos from Cyprus, has stood vacant in the three years since the frescos returned to their homeland. Now the space is finding new life as a home for innovative, site-specific contemporary art, starting with the visionary piece The Infinity Machine from married artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

 “I saw this space and thought: this is so meditative, so peaceful and such a release from the hot outside. I had this idea of hanging things because the ceiling is so high." 

The couple, who say their first date was also their first collaboration, were first approached about doing a installation for the Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence exhibition, but after a walk around the entirety of the Menil grounds, and after finding inspiration from the Rothko Chapel, Cardiff felt particularly drawn to the empty BFC.

“I saw this space and thought: this is so meditative, so peaceful and such a release from the hot outside. I had this idea of hanging things because the ceiling is so high,” she said.

Together Cardiff and Miller decided that for this once-consecrated space they wanted their installation to have a spiritual aspect but one that would also possess an “open narrative.” From there, they became intrigued with the concept of hanging mirrors, because “What’s more open than a mirror?” asked Miller.

Antique mirrors

The couple was particularly drawn to antique mirrors, so much so that Miller joked that there are no antique mirrors left in their native British Columbia. They bought them all to become components in this Infinity Machine. Some of the individual mirrors are 150 years old, and the artists love thinking about the century of people, now gone, who once looked into those mirrors.

 Some of the individual mirrors are 150 years old, and the artists love thinking about the century of people, now gone, who once looked into those mirrors. 

Mirrors revolving in silence within the chapel walls would certainly be a powerful image on its own, but the other integral part of The Infinity Machine is sound, specifically the music of the spheres, the melodies and dissonance of our solar system. Cardiff had spent time reading of the Pythagoras concept of the music of the sphere and that idea transformed into using sounds from space.

Yes, it’s true in space no one can hear you scream, but electromagnetic waves from planetary bodies and environments, can be converted into sound. As Voyager 1 and 2 set off across the solar system, they recorded the sounds of the celestial bodies, a.k.a the planets, and these converted recordings are the soundtracks of the Infinity Machine. Both Cardiff and Miller use the word “evocative” to describe the tracks, noting that one might remind listeners of a horror movie, the next of humans singing.

Each planetary track gets its own lighting that bounces off the mirrors, but the playback of this music of the spheres is randomized. “It never plays back in the same way ever again,” promises Miller.

Relationship to the past

Stepping into the Machine will certainly be a distinct experience for each individual. One person will doubtless feel great wonder, while freaked out might best describe the next viewer.

 “The fact the building was constructed for the Frescos, even though they’re not here, it’s still about the ideas of rescue, repair, healing, memory.” 

Yet, there’s no denying the relationship between the Infinity Machine and its setting. Along with the obvious Houston/NASA connection, the installation does feel natural to the space of the BFC.

Francois de Menil, the original architect of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, believes The Infinity Machine definitely has a relationship to what came before it, saying both this installation of the 21st century and 800-year-old art works the chapel was built to hold, put viewers in “a position to think about your place in the universe.”

“An idea doesn’t die,” says de Menil. “The fact the building was constructed for the Frescos, even though they’re not here, it’s still about the ideas of rescue, repair, healing, memory.”

Though the Frescos have left and in a year  The Infinity Machine will be gone as well, the space will remain to house more works of great art that help us contemplate the infinite.

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The Infinity Machine is on display at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel through December 31, 2015. The chapel is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Admission is free.

Infinite Machine Byzantine Fresco Chapel art
The Infinity Machine by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller installed at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. Photo by Joel Luks
Infinite Machine Byzantine Fresco Chapel art Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller Photo by Joel Luks
News_Byzantine Chapel_fresco
The Byzantine Fresco Chapel was designed by Francois de Menil to house as a home to 13th-century Greek Orthodox frescoes. Photo by Kevin Keim/Charles Moore Foundation
Infinite Machine Byzantine Fresco Chapel art
The artists used antique mirrors to create a meditative environment that responds to the building's past. Photo by Joel Luks
Infinite Machine Byzantine Fresco Chapel art
Infinite Machine Byzantine Fresco Chapel art Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
News_Byzantine Chapel_fresco
Infinite Machine Byzantine Fresco Chapel art