On Wednesday evening, for the debut of its Fall 2022 menswear collection in Venice, French fashion house Saint Laurent trotted out more than just brand-new clothes—it also debuted a new installation by artist Doug Aitken. Titled Green Lens (2021), it was commissioned by the label’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello, and used to present the runway show. Overlooking the Venetian lagoon on a former military installation that has been untouched since the 1960s, the 10-pronged arched structure has an exterior made of aluminum-paneled mirrors.
Inside the massive sculpture is a botanic matrix, host to a medley of mist and greenery indigenous to Venice and the surrounding region. After the work is de-installed at the end of the month, the vegetation will be re-planted around the island. “It’s not erected and then disposed of—it kind of seeps back into the earth,” Aitken said in an interview, calling Green Lens a “living artwork.” Set next to brick ruins, the installation overlooks a rustic terrain that Aitken said is reminiscent of the settings seen in Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamy sci-fi films.
Vaccarello told ARTnews that the work relates to the new Saint Laurent collection’s “desire to look to the future without forgetting the past,” with its combination of Victorian elements and the label’s modern all-black androgynous aesthetic. It’s not the first time Vaccarello has tapped an artist to undertake such a grand project, however—Vanessa Beecroft, Daido Moriyama, Helmut Lang, and others have been enlisted by Vacarello in the past. (Long before the Beligan designer joined the house in 2016, the label’s French founder pioneered a tradition of doing tributes to artists, among them Andy Warhol and Piet Mondrian.) “Those projects are enabling me to work with artists whose vision is similar to mine, but in different fields,” Vacarello of the artworks he has overseen.
Among those who attended the runway show on Wednesday were Kering owner and art collector Francois Pinault, designer Rick Owens, and Vogue editor Hamish Bowles. Set to an ethereal soundtrack, the show saw black-clad models circling Aitken’s pavilion, which was tinged rose via lighting effects.
Aitken has gained a following for his large-scale sculptural installations, many of which involve reflective surfaces and consider modern society’s embattled relationship with nature. When scouting locations for the site, Aitken was struck by the location of La Certosa, the remote island where the Saint Laurent show was held. With an area of 54 acres, the island sits just across the channel from the high-traffic hub where the Venice Biennale takes place.
“Venice has this incredible cultural identity, this cultural capital,” said Aitken, who began work on the project two years ago after being approached by Vaccarello. “This was kind of a dead site. The architecture fell into ruin.” His goal was to make the space come alive, in an attempt “to leverage a post-Covid dialogue.” Each entry point is left open and easily accessible with the aim of making a more democratic piece, without hierarchy embedded in the architecture.
Long an art-world attraction for its biennial series, Venice has recently seen a raft of luxury fashion houses bring their offerings there, now that the pandemic has disrupted the industry’s calendar. Rick Owens and Valentino were among those who staged runway shows in Venice this week. Saint Laurent’s event was its first in-person show since February 2020. The brand announced that it wouldn’t return to Paris Fashion Week this year but would instead set its own schedule of virtual showcases.
Coinciding with, though not officially a part of, this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Aitken’s ecologically minded installation is in keeping with the expo’s long-running focus on future-oriented design. It will remain on view to the public through July 30. It comes as the city continues to grapple with the debilitating effects of climate change. On Wednesday morning, just hours before the Aitken work was unveiled, the Italian government passed a decree banning large cruise ships from entering Venice via the Giudecca canal beginning on August 1. The provision follows a recent report released by UNESCO earlier this month that warned that the city could be at high risk for being placed on the United Nation’s official list of endangered cultural heritage sites.
Aitken seems keenly aware of these circumstances. “Venice is one of the cities in the world where the ocean and land are completely connected. It’s like a neurological space,” he remarked. After the pandemic, he continued, there exists greater need for an understanding of “the complete synergy between the land and the ocean—that they’re not distinctly separate things.”