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Exhibition view: Jean-Michel Othoniel, Dark Matters, Perrotin, New York (3 March–15 April 2018). Courtesy Jean-Michel Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris 2018. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.
Jean-Michel Othoniel invites AD into his Paris studio to discuss his expansive—and striking—new show on the eve of its debut
These past few years have been hectic for French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. From completing a major installation for the Angouleme Cathedral Treasury to solo shows in Korea and the South of France, the artist has also collaborated with a Mexican mathematician and produced a few books. Othoniel is now in New York installing his latest solo show, Dark Matters, and celebrating for the first time the full opening of the entire Perrotin NY gallery space on Orchard Street.
French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel is known for his sculptures comprised of hand-blown glass parts. Made for both indoors and out, Othoniel explores history and universal human experiences in his large-scale artworks.
After graduating from the École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts de Paris-Cergy in Cergy-Pontoise, France, in 1988, Othoniel worked with wax and sulphur, exploring their reversible and symbolic properties. Motivated by his preoccupation with the human body and the trauma of the AIDS epidemic, these early sculptures attracted international attention at documenta IX (1992) in Kassel. A set of sulphur works and My Beautiful Closet (1994)—an installation-performance piece featuring dancers filmed in the dark—was included in the exhibition Féminin/Masculin (1994) at Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Since 1993, Othoniel has been incorporating glass (made by internationally renowned glass-blowers in Murano and Basel as well as Monterrey, Sapporo and Firozabad) into his work to address experiences of joy, suffering, loss and recovery. The glass bead necklace has been a recurring motif in Othoniel's work since first appearing in 1996 as giant suspended sculptures in the garden of the Villa Medici in Rome; its beads allude to the human body, bonding and the embracing of both joy and suffering. The following year, the necklace was reduced to a more intimate scale when Othoniel fashioned 1000 of them from blood-red glass beads in memory of the late artist Félix González-Torres, who had been Othoniel's mentor and friend, and had died of AIDS in 1996. Giving away the necklaces at that year's EuroPride festival, Othoniel made a photomontage of the process, titling it Scar-Necklace (1997).
Again using the motif for his public commission titled Le Kiosque des Noctambules (The Kiosk of the Nightwalkers) (2000), Othoniel placed two crown-shaped structures over the subway entrance to the Palais-Royal/Musée du Louvre station in Paris and surrounded it with a fence of aluminium rings, beset with coloured glass beads. The crowns, also made from glass globes, have two different colour schemes representing night and day. Patrons of the subway encounter the colours of the day when emerging from the ground, and the opposite when descending into the ground. Creating the work while he was recovering from heartbreak, Othoniel drew on the idea of the emergence from dark into light as an experience that, though different for everyone, is universal.
Often, Othoniel's other sculptures address more specific social and historical concerns. Bateau de Larmes (Boat of Tears) (2004), for instance, consists of an abandoned Cuban refugee boat from Miami over which the artist erected a canopy of glass globes. Crystal teardrops hang from the canopy, signifying the hardship and suffering faced by Cuban exiles. In his 2018 exhibition Dark Matters at Perrotin New York, Othoniel paid a tribute to the Stonewall riots of 1969 through his sculptural series 'Precious Stonewall' (2010–2017). The artworks are made of glass bricks from India, piled up to give an impression of glossy stone walls. Stacking the glass bricks in a fashion that recalls the way bricks are kept on roadsides in India, Othoniel increasingly experiments with incorporating architectural elements into his work.
Othoniel is also recognised for his rejuvenation of historical sites. Unveiled in 2015, Les Belles Danses (The Beautiful Dances) is a group of three sculptures that marked the reopening of the Water Theatre Grove at Versailles. The sculptures consist of a total of 1,750 glass bubbles set with gold-leaf. Their vibrant forms, seemingly floating or rising out of the fountain in the Grove, were inspired by the dance annotations that Raoul-Auger Feuillet (1653–1710) developed for King Louis XIV in 1701.
In 2016, Othoniel completed the eight-year renovation for the interior spaces of Le Trésor de la Cathédrale d'Angoulême—a 12th-century cathedral whose exteriors had been restored in the then-current neo-Romanesque style by the French architect Paul Abadie between 1852 and 1875. For his permanent addition to the cathedral, Othoniel employed his geometric motifs and his signature hand-blown glass globes from Murano in a colour scheme of mostly blue and gold, to reimagine the site as an absorbing spectacle.
Othoniel's work has recently been shown at Perrotin New York (2018); Kukje Gallery, Seoul (2016, 2010); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (2015); Karuizawa New Art Museum (2014); Perrotin Paris (2013); and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (2006) among others. His participation in international exhibitions includes the Venice Biennale (2009, 1995); Istanbul Biennial (2007, 1992); and the Gwangju Biennale (2000). In 2011 he held a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, titled My Way, which travelled between 2011 and 2012 to Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Macao Museum of Art; and the Brooklyn Museum, New York.
Othoniel lives and works in Paris.
Perrotin New York is pleased to present Dark Matters, Jean-Michel Othoniel's 7th solo show at the gallery. With an ensemble of new and original works, some specially created for the occasion, the show spans several levels of the building to mark the inauguration of the whole building at 130 Orchard Street. Dark Matters is the title of the text written by the French-American curator, writer and critic Natasha Boas, within the eponymous book published on the occasion of the exhibition.
A prominent artist on the French and international art scene, Jean-Michel Othoniel prefers materials with poetic and sensitive properties. From an exploration of drawing and sculpture, to installation and photography, writing and performance, he began working with glass, now his signature material, in the 1990s.
Exhibited around the globe, Jean-Michel Othoniel is a wild artist beyond compare, who questions how to live in today's world through works in which beauty is no longer an aesthetic element, but a condition of existence.
The artist's latest creations in New York are characterized by the figure of the oxymoron, bringing together the monumental and the fragile, the austere and the marvelous, minimalism and baroque. All of the elements brought into play—glass, mirror, metal, ink, white gold—pertain to this desire for violent, minimal and telluric enchantment, contrasted today with the sorrow of the world.
In Othoniel's enchanted world, heaven and hell have the same face: one of a phantasmagorical universe over which the pain and judgment of our human realm have no hold. The phantasmagoria receives and unifies opposites, be they moral judgments (good and evil) or aesthetic divisions (beautiful and ugly, abstract and figurative). It attains the artistic fulfilment sought by the Romantics. Schelling said that art was the resolution of an infinite contradiction in a finite object1. An awareness of the infinity of contradictions, which has marked the artist's oeuvre from the start, finds fulfilment here in an understanding of art as a mechanism of phantasmagorical investment. In doing so, he takes up the radical stance that influential artist James Lee Byars brought to the contemporary art scene. Byars responded to endless doubts with a quest for perfection that took him to the outer limits of art: the total transformation of the world into an object of contemplation, then, as a final step, the proposition of art as the only truly habitable world for the human spirit. Othoniel develops in his own language a conception of art as 'a world in which to live',2 an –expression Gianni Vattimo used in reference to Byars; a conception that can only materialize in a work in which beauty is no longer an aesthetic element, but a condition of existence.
Beauty and its reflections
Mixing polished metal with mirrored glass, the works in this new show are devoted to storms and the violence of the elements. The central pieces, a spring gushing forth from a blue grotto and gigantic tornadoes spinning like mobiles, are surrounded by walls of mirrored bricks, cascading necklaces and large suspended glass beads knots. The sculptures seek the violence of shapes; they demonstrate the perfect balance of hanging ellipses and the reflections between them. The artist also draws from his fascination for observing the mathematical combinations of reflections endlessly multiplied, which gave rise to a dialogue with Mexican mathematician Aubin Arroyo. The images he develops in his research echo the reflecting sculptures that Othoniel created in homage to Jacques Lacan. This encounter between sculpture, psychoanalysis and mathematics inspired their book, Nudos Salvajes3 to be published in December 2017. At the same time, a piece by Jean-Michel Othoniel, The Infinite Knot, entered the Institute of Mathematics collection at the University of Mexico.
As Aubin Arroyo explains, 'up until today, mathematicians have cataloged more than one and a half million different knots, starting from the simple stone towards the more complicated, and the catalog is still growing. However, the attempt to order all the existing knots in such a catalog can never be completed. This catalog only considers a class of knots called tame knots. A knot is tame if it can be constructed with the cord of a string formed by a finite number of beads, or pearls. There also are some knots that will never satisfy this property. These knots are called wild knots.'4
The Surrealists were fascinated by mathematical objects and shapes. They found something inherently poetic in their abstraction, which we tend to see as random and disconcerting. These linear shapes, schematic translations of thought that start from the simplest to reach the complexity of logical formulation, are the very expression of the mystery of shape. Indeed, no one doubts they hold meaning, esoteric to the average person, but essentially clear and demonstrative. Visualizations of a theory, a hypothesis, a system, they inscribe pure thought in space. In mathematical objects, the eye perceives something beyond the shape, an abstraction that is not disincarnation, but quite the opposite, a material expression of the immaterial.
'A knot diagram can be thought of as the projected shadow of the knot over a plane surface.5' These projected knots the mathematician refers to are a perfect description of Othoniel's paintings on display in the new Perrotin exhibition space. They are abstract figures, but based on observation of nature and its shadows. They invade the canvas like spurts of ink, a cold gesture that brushes the surface covered with white gold leaf. Like stained and frozen icons, these paintings are placed around the sculptures of black, amber and purple mirrors. This series of works on canvas shows the importance of drawing, suspended movement and the distanced body in Othoniel's work. Is the first painting not merely the shadow of a lost lover?
A new architecture of glass
'The face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels6'
For all his apparent rigor, Othoniel is, like his knots, wild. Free to drop everything and travel to India for several months to explore the country's glassmaking tradition. This trip was the only way for him to work in Firozabad, an Indian city famous for its glassworks, where he learned the age-old techniques of the local craftsmen. He observed them working right on the floor, as close as possible to the materials and the furnaces. These moments of creation, born of this close physical contact between the molten glass and the glassblower suffering in the sweltering heat, moved him deeply. India changed everything he thought he knew about glassmaking. Ever since this memorable experience, he has created giant walls of glass bricks built using Indian techniques. These abstract, monochrome works stem from his observation of the bricks piled up along the roadsides of India. The artist saw these brick monoliths as monuments bearing the hope of their owners, a symbol of their dreams to one day build their own homes. Today in New York, Othoniel exhibits his Precious Stonewalls, sculptures bordering on radical architecture. These walles-in spaces, his Blue Brick Road of 17 meters long and his Grotta Azzurra pay a poetic homage to the historic Stonewall demonstrations on Christopher Street and condemn the silence that still threatens the meaning of this worldwide march that began in NYC in the beginning of the 70's.
The marvelous real
This desire for gatherings, architecture and utopic monuments that foster dialogue and encounters is something the artist would like to reflect upon throughout his exhibition with the students of NYU and the support of the Public Art Fund. By converting one of the gallery rooms into a workshop, he would like to raise the question that haunts him today at a time when the world seems to be falling apart: how can we re-enchant the world? He wonders what happened the day after the Tower of Babel fell and millions of bricks were left scattered on the ground. What did the people do? What did they rebuild and what should we rebuild in their wake?
1 Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Le Système de l'idéalisme transcendantal, trad. de l'allemand par Ch. Dubois, Louvain, Peeters, coll. Bibliothèque philosophique de Louvain, 1978.
2 James Lee Byars, Gianni Vattimo& Rudi Fuchs, James Lee Byars - The Palace of Good Luck, ed. Castello di Rivoli - Museo d'arte contemporanea, Rivoli, Turin, 1989.
3 Jean-Michel Othoniel and Aubin Arroyo, Nudos Salvajes, Edition Othoniel, Paris, 2017.
6 Paul Scheerbart, L'Architecture de verre (1914), translated from the German by P. Galissaire, Circé, Poche, 2013, p.52.
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