Inside the entrance of the HangarBiccoca’s vast exhibition space in Milan stands a shimmering golden pillar that rises 21 metres. Like an industrial chimney given an alchemically glamorous makeover of gold leaf, and so tall it seems almost to disappear into the building’s lofty black ceiling, this sight brings other sensational monuments to mind. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, perhaps; the Colossus of Rhodes; the Tower of Babel — where man endeavours to move closer to heaven.
Called “The Golden Tower”, this one was created by the late American artist James Lee Byars in 1990 for an exhibition at the Gropius Bau in Berlin. “He wanted to place it on the border between East and West Berlin,” says Gordon VeneKlasen, director of Michael Werner gallery, which looks after the artist’s estate. “He believed in unification through beauty.” Here it marks the start of a journey through the work of an artist who sought sublime perfection, who posed rather than answered questions (he collected all manner of interrogative phrases, not declarative statements) and deliberated on death.