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.Read More
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.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018