TOTALLY CONNECTED WITH NATURE. Jean-Michel Othoniel is a French artist who works with the idea of emotional geometry. Using glass bricks or his signature beads he creates exquisite jewelry-like sculptures whose relationship to human scale ranges from intimacy to monumentality.
How do you describe your journey as an artist?
I was born in 1964 and come from Saint-Étienne in the centre of France. My parents were not in the art world. My father was an engineer, my mother a teacher. In the city there was a single museum of contemporary art where I used to go to when I was a child, maybe because I wanted to escape the sadness of life at the time. At the age of 7 years I decided to be part of the art world.
Were you alone in your family?
My older brother left when I was 9. I was the smallest and was quite alone, but I loved it. I went to art classes and conferences at the museum, and was meeting with artists. I enjoyed the family of the art world then as now. My parents were very happy, they saw that I was in a context I loved. As a child I was a big dreamer.
How is the museum in Saint-Étienne?
The MAMC museum is the second collection of contemporary art in France, after the Pompidou Centre. I had the chance to see the American artist Robert Morris when he was 30 and I was 10, and Tony Cragg, the English sculptor, when I was 13. When I finished high school I left for Paris and entered the art school of Cergy-Pontoise (ENSACP). It was an amazing new type of art school, and we were able to do different media at the same time: video, sculpture, painting, poetry, the history of gardens. It gave me the freedom to jump from one material to another.
I started to make poetic installations with small objects, and while still at school I had the chance to show them at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (MAMVP), the best museum of contemporary art in Paris. I was also invited for a one year residency programme by the Cartier Foundation.
Were you something of a child prodigy?
I don’t know about that, but I was part of the good energy at the end of the eighties when the art world changed and was more open minded and you were able to do what you wanted. There were no more ‘movements’ to fit into, and it was really great to be able to be different without pressure to be part of a group.
What did you do?
Poetic installations, playing with a strange material called sulphur, a yellow element. I worked the yellow sulphur powder for about 10 years – playing with the French words sulphur/souffrir etc. – giving the objects poetic titles.
Always in Paris?
Also travelling. I lived in Berlin in 1989 when the wall fell, and in Hong Kong when it was still English. I was connected with a very international group and lived in New York for a bit. Then my work was shown in documenta in Kassel in 1992 and this gave it a big exposure and really started my international career.
When did you start working with glass?
I went to Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, for two years, and started to work in glass, because I was very curious about the natural black glass material called obsidian. Both sulphur and obsidian are volcanic, and I abandoned sulphur for obsidian and entered into the world of glass. I decided to recreate natural glass in an artificial way, working with glass blowers in the Marseille centre for research on glass and the visual arts (CIRVA). When I was at Villa Medici in 1996 I went to Murano many times to prepare a project for the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, where I did a show in the garden in 1997, my first solo show in an ‘American museum’.
What came next?
I continued working in glass, exploring the quality of the material, the light, the colour, and the possibility of building things in an architectural way. I wanted to put glass outside, connected with nature. This gives a stronger, more organic meaning than if it is in a room, where it is decorative. I had to fight with the decorative.
What did you do?
I hung huge necklaces in the trees in New Orleans, and then in 2000 I made the Métro subway entrance in Place Colette, Paris, in front of the Comédie-Française. In French it is called ‘La Bouche de Métro’, and this project changed my life. I was always pushing the limits of glass, and I had showed in museums, but I love the public art space because it is a way to connect with a new public, in the street. I like my work to be seen by people who don’t know about art. As a contemporary artist it is really difficult to explain to people what you do. This was my calling card to a larger world.
“I wanted to put glass outside, connected with nature. This gives a stronger, more organic meaning than if it is in a room.”
THE KIOSK OF THE NIGHTWALKERS, 2000. Permanent installation for the métro station Palais-Royal – Musée du Louvre, Paris. Murano glass, aluminum, metal, ceramic 220 1/2 x 236 1/4 x 78 3/4 in.
RATP Photo: ©Philippe Saharoff © 2019 Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris. © 2019 Othoniel / ARS, New York.
And then what did you do?
I continued to do my shows and exhibitions. For instance, in 2004 I had a large exhibition at the Cartier Foundation building by Jean Nouvel. It is a very difficult building to show in, so I played with the garden more than with the building itself. It was then that I started to work with the art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, and I also met the American architect Peter Marino, and they both changed my life.
Why did they change your life?
Because, after twenty years, I started to make money with my work for the first time. Emmanuel is of my generation and working with a person of my age brought a new type of collector, new museums and new energy. We built projects together.
Another show at the Guggenheim; the Brooklyn Museum; in Japan; and the last big one, which was in Qatar. At the same time I worked with Peter Marino on special commissions and entered into some of the best collections in the States. In 2015 Louis Benech invited me to be part of his project of rebuilding a new garden in Versailles with a permanent work called ‘Les Belles Danses’.
What did you do?
I made a fountain for the pond that Louis Benech designed. The project was for a competition, but through this Versailles project I discovered that all my work is linked to the idea of the past. There is no fracture in art history, just a continuation, looking at the past, looking at the ballet, looking at calligraphy. I do modern calligraphy with glass and the inspiration comes from the baroque dances of the Sun King.
“I love the direct connection of the body of the viewer with the work.”
How would you define yourself and your work?
I am more and more a sculptor. I love the direct connection of the body of the viewer with the work. What I try to express is the idea of the re-enchantment of the world, how an artist can bring hope.
Would you say that your work is joyful?
It is profoundly important for me today as an artist to bring hope to the world. If you go to Versailles, in one hour you can escape reality and be more optimistic and maybe see life in a different way. In Qatar I did a huge project in dialogue with Jean Nouvel’s architecture, also fountains, made of 114 sculptures.
Where do you realise these large projects?
In France. I had to build a huge structure for this project which is what I really want to do now. I want a dialogue with architecture, and maybe even to do architecture myself.
Which other architects do you work with?
At Château La Coste I made a Large Red Cross in glass in front of Tadao Ando’s chapel. My next project with the Château will be this summer, in dialogue with a Renzo Piano building. I am doing a sculpture 18 metres long along his huge concrete wall. My sculpture is in parallel with the wall and it will bring you inside the building, where there is also a huge installation. It is a site specific project more than a show.
Why would you like to be an architect?
I want to do sculpture that you can enter inside, a bit like Niki de Saint Phalle did with the big woman at the Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden) in Italy.
Do you have something in mind?
Yes, a project called Agora, a place you can enter and sit. A small prototype version is in the Gallery Perrotin. Nowadays it is difficult to have a place where you can speak freely. Only the art world is able to give free space for talking. I wanted to make a small area where your voice and ideas will be protected by the artwork. Maybe I will be able to show it at the next Triennial in Denmark – I am still a dreamer!
But you are also very practical and concrete?
Yes. I build Utopia, but for me it is very important to enter into reality and to touch people.
Because people do not have time now to just read or enjoy life. As an artist you have to be active and to bring the genius of poetry to the world. It is like a political act.
PEGGY’S NECKLACE, 2006. Murano glass, metal. 837 x 120 x 80 cm. Private collection, San Francisco. View of the exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2004. Photo: Jean-Michel Othoniel © 2018 Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris. © 2018 Othoniel / ARS, New York
Jean-Michel Othoniel and LA GRANDE CROIX ROUGE 2007-2008 in dialogue with the Tadao Ando Chapel at Château La Coste. Photo: David Hornsby.
DARK MATTERS, Jean-Michel Othoniel’s personal show at Galerie Perrotin New York in 2018. Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli. © 2018 Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris © 2018 Othoniel / ARS New York
LA ROSE DU LOUVRE, 2019 6 peintures sur toile, encre sur feuille d’or blanc. Installation en cour Puget, Musée du Louvre. © Claire Dorn
ALFA, 2019 In dialogue with the architecture of the National Museum of Qatar, Jean-Michel Othoniel created a monumental installation of 114 fountain sculptures. Photos by ©Othoniel Studio / Martin Argyroglo
ALFA arise like majestic black reeds along the 900-meter-long shores of the lagoon. Walking around the lagoon, the viewer will discover, from various angles, silhouettes reflected on the water that evoke the abstract beauty of Arabic calligraphy. At moments the sculptures are also transformed into fountains, launching arabesques of water toward the sky, hugging the curves of the museum’s architecture. Photo by ©Othoniel Studio / Martin Argyroglo
“I am at the same time totally French and totally international.”
How is it to be a French artist in the world of today?
I am at the same time totally French and totally international. Globalisation exists for art, and to be able to talk to different cultures is the main goal and the biggest difficulty for the artist today, whether American, Italian or French. But I am French, and the idea of poetry is really French.
Is art supported in France nowadays?
The French government has a tradition of supporting artists, and the vision that France has is quite unique, for example opening its patrimony to contemporary artists, like Jeff Koons at Versailles, or Richard Serra at the Grand Palais, makes France interesting for artists from all over the world.
Is it a challenge for your work to be situated next to the great artists of that patrimony?
I am doing a show for the 30th anniversary of the Louvre Pyramid. They gave me the opportunity to do whatever I want, and I decided to do ‘The Secret Language of Flowers’, a book in which I try to explain the meaning of the flowers in the masterpiece paintings. I have had this passion ever since I was a teenager, collecting notes and stories about flowers.
What is your next project?
A big show in the National Museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from June to November, with more than 40 sculptures that I did in the last 10 years working with a mathematician called Aubin Arroyo, who is from Mexico. One day he called me and told me he was working on a mathematical theory and said that the illustration of his theory looks uncannily like my sculpture.
Do you spend much of your time in Paris?
In Paris, and in Sète, which is close to Montpellier, and where I have a house in the harbour. I am very contemplative and I like to have time for myself.
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Jean-Michel Othoniel’s current show at the Louvre is on view until February 24, 2020.
« Nudos Salvajes », Jean-Michel’s retrospective show on his knot sculptures series at the CCK in Buenos Aires is opening on June 28th, 2019.
« Iles Singulières », Jean-Michel’s solo show at Chateau la Coste in the south of France opens on August 22nd, 2019.
Jean-Michel’s personal show at Perrotin Shanghai will start in November 2020.
All pictures © 2019 Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris. © 2019 Othoniel / ARS, New York