Words by Subin Anderson
Photography by Laura Stevens
One can find escape in enchantment and realize the extraordinary beauty in our ordinary life through Jean-Michel Othoniel’s work. We unwind Othoniel’s intimate stories in this conversation and reflect on his present. Each step of Othoniel’s journey can be connected by his works. Through his signature glass beads, one can ponder the ever-evolving fragility and robustness of life—and channel hope and comfort.
Subin Anderson: You had quite a busy year in 2021.
Jean-Michel Othoniel: Yes! First, I built a new studio in Montreuil, which I started during the lockdown. The renovation of this 50,000-square-foot space allowed me to remain focused on my work even though we were all experiencing great uncertainty. Every morning, I would draw alone and work with my team in the afternoon.
Also, the Petit Palais Museum in Paris offered me an extensive exhibition, ‘The Theorem of Narcissus’ (2021). Last year was full of doubts and joy because the exhibition was a great success with more than 200,000 visitors, but I know that our access to art is still precarious, and we are all dependent on the global health situation.
Art seemed to find you at a very young age. You went to a school in Saint-Etienne where students visited the museum every Wednesday afternoon.
I believe in the importance of art for children’s education. My personal experience is proof that one can discover new horizons through art, especially if it is avant-garde and ahead of its time, which was the case at the end of the 1970s in the museum of Saint Etienne, my native city.
You described the opening night of an exhibition by Robert Morris as having the most significant impact on your childhood and motivating you to be free. I am curious to know what ‘freedom’ meant to you during that moment.
Freedom meant, above all, joy and impertinence in the face of a period that was still very conservative in the French provinces. The ’70s were a time of change, notably with the social movements for equal rights for many minorities. But the freedom I perceived was also of play, where art was linked to life. In this sense, the work of Robert Morris invited us to have fun with his sculptures and be interactive. I also attended my first performances, and these actions, which I perceived as poetic, filled me with wonder as a child.
Did this eventually lead you to create art?
At that time, I was only a child from a modest background dazzled by the world of art, and I drew by regularly going to art classes in the evenings—drawing was already my passion.
Let’s fast forward to the years at École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy, where you studied under Sophie Calle and Christian Boltanski. Has their teaching influenced you to use photographic material in your early practice?
I was lucky to meet this generation of artists when they were still very young and creating, each in their own way. A new approach to art highlighted “personal mythologies”–they were speaking about the world by speaking about themselves.
Photography was a medium that corresponded to this perspective on oneself and the time in the 80s because of its speed of execution. It was becoming more democratic, and [there was a new] possibility of multiplying images infinitely. But for my part, I worked on the photographic material rather than the representation. My “images,” which were unique, were inspired by the chemistry of old photographs of the 19th century.
Was this the first [art]work you ever made?
These Photographic Failures’ (‘Les Insuccès Photographiques) were my first works. I was lucky enough to exhibit them in 1988 at the Musée d’art Moderne de Paris while I was still in art school; this exhibition allowed me to join a gallery and live off my work right away.
Can you talk about social and academic life in the ’80s, especially the art scenes and memories you miss the most?
We were in a period where the large colored image, especially in painting, was omnipresent. There was not much room for a poetic work like mine compared to Free Figuration in France, the Transavantgarde in Italy, and the new German Expressionism. But perhaps, for this reason, I had the freedom to express my difference.
Also, I remember a feeling of celebration, joy, and liberation linked to the economic madness of the time. At the same time, a veil of sadness and fear with the appearance of AIDS in our lives. It affected us intimately with the disappearance of friends, professors, and artists—everything collapsed. But I am still nostalgic for our carefree attitude and the levity we lived despite it all.
As exciting as it sounds, they were also the years of darkness.
Yes, these years marked by AIDS have conditioned our relationship to the other, to the body, to love. For this reason, my whole generation of artists deals with the body. Jan Hoet understood this very well with his great exhibition in Kassel for the ‘documenta IX’ of 1992. In this major exhibition, I expressed my intimate vision of this body in suffering that we had to live and love.
I was in residence for several months in 1991 at the new art museum in Kowloon. I presented my small sculptures in yellow sulfur in lacquered wooden cases, which represented fragments of bodies accompanied by small objects that I had found in Guangzhou, China. Hong Kong was still linked to England, and Western contemporary art was almost nonexistent. Moreover, the works I presented at that time had been made and shown in Hong Kong. It was a real adventure and the beginning of my passion for Asia.
“Art and poetry are, for me, the only means of surviving the anxiety-inducing reality of the world, but I don’t think we can escape reality. Art enhances it so that we can live it better.” – Jean-Micehl Othoniel
During this time, you made A Spark Would Be Enough (Une étincelle suffirait), 1989, which dichotomizes the relationship between desire and suffering.
Yes, this work is a bit prophetic. It shows how everything was tense and how these questions of presence, absence,and sudden disappearance of a loved one were important in our lives as young artists. A Spark Would Be Enough for everything to explode and disappear. We lived on the edge where suffering was mixed with desire, but it was also a spark of genius that could have been enough to find a cure for AIDS and give us an easier life. It carried all these doubts and hopes we lived and still live.
Was art an ‘exit door’ that allowed you to escape reality?
Art and poetry are, for me, the only means of surviving the anxiety-inducing reality of the world, but I don’t think we can escape reality. Art enhances it so that we can live it better.
From a photographic plate, you make an artistic transmutation of utilizing sulfur and perpetually experiment. It started as a powder which eventually evolved into a sculptural form seen in The Hermaphrodite (L’Hermaphtodite), 1993. Interestingly, the figure doesn’t fully represent the body but instead shows what cannot be shown.
This work is the largest and the last piece I made in sulfur. It is now a part of the collections of the museum of Saint-Etienne, the museum which holds my childhood memory. Also, this enormous block of yellow sulfur represents the strength of inner light and the aura that a loving body can give off. This hermaphrodite lying on his side shows that a body [regardless of gender] can radiate our desire to live as long as it is loving.
While searching for native sulfur on Aeolian Island, you first encountered volcanic glass known as obsidian. Ever since then, you have been working almost exclusively with glass. Can you walk through your early experimentation and discoveries?
After my studies, I went to the Aeolian Islands in Italy between Naples and Palermo and met volcanologist Ms. Cavalier. During this time, I discovered sulfur and obsidian. Obsidian is the lava of the volcanoes which becomes vitrified due to pressure and temperature. A rare moment where lava becomes glass. But, in general, the lava that comes out of the volcano becomes pumice; obsidian and pumice have the same basalt and chemical composition, except that one is vitrified and the other expands. She challenged me alchemically, saying, “Whoever can melt pumice will obtain obsidian.”
And when I came back to France, I worked with the [Center for Glass Research] on transforming pumice into obsidian. Through this examination, I witnessed how solid became liquid, then became solid again; it went from opaque to transparent. Fascinated by this moment of metamorphosis, I started to utilize glass and eventually worked with glassblowers in Murano near Venice from 1997.
Most of the earlier glassworks take the form of large glass beads on string-like rosaries, which have an autobiographical connotation foreshadowing your previous work Self-Portrait in Priest’s Robe, 1986.
Yes, I have done numerous works that look like giant necklaces. It is a form found in many Hindu, Arab, [and] Christian civilizations. These strung beads always serve to count our prayers, our wishes. There is also a sacred dimension to my work, a relationship to the spiritual that beauty offers us, and these giant necklaces, often hung on trees, are like offerings to nature, just as the photographed performance you mention was motivated by a desire to merge with the landscape.
I want to discuss your works in brick forms. Brick is the most common yet essential material in architecture. Riveting enough, solid yet fragile, this contemplative form reveals the innermost human nature of stability and uncertainty.
The glass brick was born from a trip to India; however, the works in the brick form already existed in the late ’80s, which I made from sulfur with small yellow surfaces. During this trip, I noticed piles of bricks alongside the roads waiting to become one’s home. At that moment, I saw this as a hope and a dream that we all have within us. For this reason, I got into creating glass bricks that carry dreams. Glass is anything but comforting; it is a fragile material, just like our soul.
Kiosk of the Nightwalkers (2000) was a public project you did to cover a Paris metro station entrance, which became a tourist attraction. At the same time, it was also controversial in the beginning. How do you feel about the line between decorative objects and art?
The kiosk was built as a total work of art in the spirit of the Art Nouveau to which it refers. The entrances of the metro, designed by Hector Guimard in 1900, were utilitarian but at the same time intended to enhance the city with a social purpose. The work of art also has a social purpose, and for me, it cannot be dissociated from an emotion that I find myself in. Today, bringing beauty to the world is a poetic act and a political one, a space of survival where the spectator can find themselves to face the world better.
I appreciate how this practice encourages art to be not just for privileged consumption but for anyone to experience.
Works in public space require an absolute attentiveness and a great understanding of the places, of the public that inhabits them, and of the message one must transmit. For me, the idea of “real utopia” is an oxymoron that I dream of realizing every time.
A few years later, you did a major institutional solo show Crystal Palace (2003) at Fondation Cartier. The work and architecture significantly impacted [how your art] revealed your wondrous universe to the global audience.
Architecture is, in fact, accessible to everyone, and to make architecture is to exhibit to the eyes of the public. I like this risk-taking and believe artists must express their vision and be part of the world. That’s why I like to do works in public spaces intended for everyone. Some of my pieces are now becoming architecture themselves, like the big wave of black bricks in tribute to the tsunami, which is the size of a building 30 feet long and 20 feet high, weighing 25 tons and made of more than 10,000 glass bricks.
Is this when you met Peter Marino and Emmanuel Perrotin?
I was 40 years old, and thanks to these two encounters, I started to really be able to invest in my work and show it internationally. Time and patience are essential in building a personal body of work. To be an artist, one must be patient and ready when the time comes.
You have absorbed different perspectives and influences from various cultures and made relationships with unfamiliar subjects. Transitioning these stories into artwork has allowed the international audience to join the journey of your pathways. For example, your retrospective exhibition My Way has toured four different cities.
Touring My Way in Korea, Japan, China, and the United States, was a significant moment. I could sense how cultural differences allowed for multiple readings of the same work, and above all, I realized that my world was open enough to welcome different sensibilities around the world.
Driven by the curiosity of discovering a new approach with each work, you bring a unique dialogue with the architectural surroundings and atmosphere to the spectators. Why has the notion of change been so indelible in your practice?
Change is linked to pleasure and rebirth. I like that work is never really the same and that it always surprises me. I am my first viewer, and I always want to be surprised. It should not be forgotten that my works are constructed like a long speech in love.
What are your ways of taking a break?
I love gardens, walking in them, discovering plants and flowers that I don’t know. When I travel, it is also a way to find other civilizations. I also secretly like to grow my roses; I have a garden composed of ten different rose bushes on my roof in Paris. It is one of my most incredible pride.
“Change is linked to pleasure and rebirth. I like that work is never really the same and that it always surprises me.” – Jean-Michel Othoniel
Comprising more than 70 works, your recent show at the Petit Palais, ‘The Narcissus Theorem’ (2021), has a narrative of reflection. Visitors are first greeted with Blue River, immersing themselves in imagination and dreams. With the uncertainty we faced, this show can be perceived as hope and joy that we have all missed.
The curator of the Petit Palais Museum, Christophe Leribault, came to me with the desire to make an exhibition to celebrate our emergence from the crisis. It was the first major exhibition in Paris after the lockdown. This monograph highlights the idea of generosity, which is vital in my work, and a positive, joyful world to re-enchant this uncertain period.
More than 70 works are intended to make the viewers dream. My passion for flowers led me to invest fully in the Petit Palais, including the garden. I chose the title ‘Theorem of Narcissus’ because it brings together several of the obsessions found in my work. The most significant part would be the relationship between the mirrors. The mirrored glass or polished metal relates to how we see ourselves, infinitely diffracted—a reflection of ourselves and the world around us.
As my sculptures are often shaped as spheres, one sees all the architecture, the landscape, and surroundings, but we are not the central element of this reflection. This out-of-range space and this sideways glance are evident in my relationship with the mirror. Also, I developed the idea of infinity with the mathematician Aubin Arroyo based on his theory of infinite reflections and Borromean knots. His wild knots were the heart of our exchanges and of our reflections. From theory to a theorem, there was a shift in meaning. I could have called this exhibition ‘The Theory of Reflections,’ but that would have been much too concrete; it would have reduced the poetic fantasy that can be born from a title like ‘The Theorem of Narcissus.’
The retrospective of your works (photographic plates, sulfur, glass) deals with manipulating light. What is it about this source that lends itself to the effective communication of your ideas?
All my work is built around this passage from darkness to light. It is a desire to re-enchant, to find hope, and my works are there to accompany us in this quest.
It’s a unique experience when one encounters a work that immediately resembles and connects to a particular artist. Each glass holds an extensive (both personal and political) history —and when the glass is put together, they create a present similar to the person you are right now.
I’m glad that the oversized, slightly baroque glass bead proudly bearing these scars is, along with the glass brick, perceived as my signature. An artist needs to be recognizable through the smallest detail of one of their works–it is perhaps called style. Unless it is just a singular gesture that gives us a little different place in the great history of art and the world.
What are your unrealized projects?
I would like to create an agora in the public space, like the place of speech among the Greeks, a small open-air arena where everyone could gather and speak before the city. I have already made a small agora of metal bricks covered like an igloo, shown at Petit Palais. It is like the model for this giant project that I would like to realize in a public space. The idea that protected speech can exist within a city seems important today. We live in a society where we are constantly monitored and recorded. I think that the only place of freedom that can still exist in the field of art and that a work of art itself can be a setting that protects the freedom of speech.