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Immerse Yourself in the Poetic Artistry of Jean-Michel Othoniel

From his studio in Montreuil, the French artist discusses his obsidian self-portrait, which Perrotin is showing at TEFAF New York, and the magic of large-scale public installations
Jean-Michel Othoniel at work in his studio office in Montreuil, France. Photo: David Atlan. Courtesy of the artist.
By Stephanie Sporn  May 5, 2022
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Raised in the 1960s and ’70s in Saint-Étienne, France, Jean-Michel Othoniel had the privilege of calling the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (MAMC)—one of the country’s most important collections of 20th-century art—his local museum. Reflecting on when his interest in the art world crystallized, Othoniel points precisely to visiting an exhibition of Robert Morris’s Minimalist works at MAMC in 1974. “I was captivated by his energy and freedom,” Othoniel shares. “It was like a window had opened.”

In 1987—before officially graduating from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts in Cergy-Pontoise, France—Othoniel had his first solo show. As a young talent, he was especially influenced by his mentors and teachers, who included French artists Sophie Calle, Annette Messager, and Daniel Buren. While Othoniel originally favored mutable materials such as wax and sulfur, by the mid-1990s, he found his signature medium: glass.

“It was not an obvious material to use in the art world. It was difficult to work with and linked to decoration,” recalls Othoniel. For the last three years, the artist has shared a 4,000-square-meter studio in Montreuil, an eastern suburb of Paris, with Flemish sculptor Johan Creten—but their friendship goes back three decades. “It’s important for me to have a dialogue with an artist of my generation. When he started using clay 20 years ago, it was not part of the art world’s language either.”

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Jean-Michel Othoniel stands next to Invisibility Face, presented by Perrotin at TEFAF New York 2022. Photo: David Atlan. Courtesy of the artist.

Both Othoniel and Creten are represented by Perrotin, which is exhibiting a unique sculpture from Othoniel’s 2015 series, Invisibility Faces, at TEFAF New York 2022. Composed of obsidian, a volcanic black glass, this body of work represents a departure from the candy-colored brick and bead-like glass sculptures which are synonymous with Othoniel. Sourcing the obsidian from Armenia, he brought nearly 12 tons of glass back to his studio, which he then cut and sculpted. “I made a face with different facets. It’s an abstract portrait of myself,” explains Othoniel, long fascinated by the mythology behind obsidian, one of the oldest forms of natural glass. “There is a story about how if you look at yourself in a mirror of obsidian, you can see your own soul.”

In addition to its significance in several cultures, obsidian has an intriguing link to Surrealism. Othoniel cites La Tête d’obsidienne, a 1974 book by French novelist, theorist, and former minister of culture, André Malraux, which is about an artist’s plight against old age and death. “Invisibility Face is really important to me,” says Othoniel, who has kept almost all of the works from this series in his personal collection. “Obsidian is a strange and mysterious material. This work is like a meteorite falling from the sky and landing at TEFAF.”

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Jean-Michel Othoniel, Kiku, 2022. Photo: David Atlan. Courtesy of the artist. © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

In terms of other recent projects, Othoniel still readily employs colorful glass, a medium which he loves for its interaction with light, particularly in an outdoor context, as well as for its universality: “It’s not a sophisticated element, like crystal, but at the same time, it’s totally magical and part of normal life.” Because the artist is not a glassblower, the medium requires him to work with artisans in Italy, India, and beyond. “It’s always a dialogue and an experiment to discover forms, colors, and all the possibilities of this complex material.”

With the philosophy that art should be publicly accessible and not reserved to museums and galleries, Othoniel is increasingly turning towards environmental installations. “I want to bring poetry into the real world,” he says. In 2000, his intervention at the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre métro station in Paris brought a vibrant, cheerful, and futuristic entrance to the historic area. In 2015, the artist was selected to activate Versailles’s ponds with a swirling glass sculpture titled Les Belles Danses, marking the first permanent commission in the palace’s gardens since the reign of Louis XVI.

Whereas today, experiential exhibitions are a hot topic in the world of art, Othoniel was an early pioneer in the power of immersion, and he continues to push the boundaries between art, architecture, and landscape. “Each show is like entering a small, enchanting world,” says the artist. His sprawling 2021-22 retrospective, The Narcissus Theorem, which took over the Petit Palais’s interior and exterior, will travel to the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) this summer. Othoniel finds his work strongly resonates with Korean and Japanese cultures in particular. “Going to Asia, I’ve discovered another facet of my work—the fact that beauty can be a type of spirituality,” he says. “Visitors there enter my work in a very contemplative way.”

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Jean-Michel Othoniel’s studio office. Photo: David Atlan. Courtesy of the artist.
“I want to bring poetry into the real world.” — Jean-Michel Othoniel
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In his studio office, Jean-Michel Othoniel keeps mementos from various cultures and books that inspire him. Photo: David Atlan. Courtesy of the artist.

This May, Othoniel will open The Dream of Water at Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval in Hauterives, France, to celebrate the historic monument’s 110th anniversary. The singular stone structure was built over 33 years by Ferdinand Cheval, a rural postman who dreamt of having a palace in his vegetable garden. The fantastical tower drew the likes of Pablo Picasso, André Breton, and numerous Surrealists who idealized it as a pillar of freedom. For his intervention, Othoniel seeks to fulfill Cheval’s wish of having the palace’s water features activated. “It will be an homage to this figure of Outsider art, as well as an homage to my childhood,” says Othoniel, who visited the Palais Idéal several times as a kid.

Drawings, texts, and paintings by Outsider artists can be found in Othoniel’s personal collection, which he describes as “a diary of emotions and moments in my life.” Souvenirs from his extensive travels, as well as books from exhibitions that moved him, are as meaningful to Othoniel as his collection of 17th-century paintings, early photographs, and contemporary art. In his Montreuil studio and office, Othoniel mainly surrounds himself with his own creations to limit distractions, and inspirational objects, which include mementos from other cultures, such as Native American beads, and books he produced: “My generation was very influenced by artists like Christian Boltanski, who published many artist books.”

While Othoniel prefers to only display his own work in his studio shared with Johan Creten, he wants to encourage artists in other disciplines, such as music and dance, to perform there. “I’m lucky to have this huge space, which will push me to develop collaborations,” says Othoniel, believing in the spirit of artistic camaraderie and shared experiences as much as the creative potential of glass. “My studio has to be a platform of change.”

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Jean-Michel Othoniel working in his studio office. Photo: David Atlan. Courtesy of the artist.
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