‘And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.’ From Genesis to the histories of Herodotus, between history and myth, the Tower of Babel and its destruction have fired the imagination. What remains of this ziggurat, this architectural utopia and symbolic link between heaven and earth? What happened to the millions of bricks used to erect it? What new utopias were built on the ruins of that thwarted aspiration? These are the questions that underlie Jean-Michel Othoniel’s latest works, presented for the first time at Galerie Perrotin in Paris.
For this exhibition, which brings together fifteen minimalistic, enigmatic sculptures made of glass or metal bricks, the artist has systematized the use of a module that entered his work in 2009, after a journey to India. On the road from Delhi to Firozabad, a city with an age-old glassmaking tradition, he was struck by the stacks of bricks accumulated in the hope of building a house and by the countless altars covered in offerings and multicoloured necklaces. Since then, he has called on the knowledge of Indian glassblowers to blow blue, amber, yellow and grey glass bricks. A modular element – like the glass beads that have been his hallmark since 1993 – brick has led JeanMichel Othoniel towards more refined, more radical works, somewhere between sculpture and architecture, enabling a new monumentality inaugurated with Precious Stonewall (2010), a gigantic monolith covered in necklaces, and developed, more recently, with the mpressive Big Wave (2018), which measures 15 metres long and 6 metres high. In brick, the artist has found a universal element, a common denominator between cultures and one that has traversed the history of humanity. Feeding his latest research and generating material for new ‘obsessions’, brick enables him to reach the architectural scale he was aiming for and to try out cantilevered constructions, to go beyond the idea of sculpture, to invent a new relation to space, to rethink the embedding in the landscape, to radicalize his relation to geometry or to create places – grottoes, paths, walls, agoras – that set out a different relationship to the body, thereby synthesizing the recurrent themes of his oeuvre.
If, for his exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in New York in March 2018, glass-bead sculptures and drawings were engaged in a dialogue with brick works, Othoniel has here chosen to concentrate exclusively on this new serial element in glass or stainless steel through abstract, monochrome propositions close to the language of minimalist art. Oracles thus marks a new turning point in the artist’s career, bringing together works that are more solemn but no less poetic for all that, like Blue River (2019), which unfurls its azure bed over more than 8 metres – that Indian ‘Firozi’ blue that encompasses a host of references to southern constructions, from Greece to Egypt, via the shiny blue coating of the Tower of Babel. Following in the spirit of the Brick Roads, invitations to journey into a fantasy world in reference to the yellow brick road of The Wizard of Oz, this stretch evokes as much a floor covering as an expanse of water. A landscape of monochrome pixels, the Blue Brick Road sees its surface rise as movement is arrested and time suspended in the expectation of a constant renewal, between the birth of a wave and the fall of a pyramid, between appearance and disappearance, construction and collapse. This dual feeling of emergence and cave-in recurs in Icebergs (2019), a series of stainless-steel reliefs that outline an imaginary and shifting cartography on the walls. Evoking an icecovered landscape of ‘monumental fragility’, these sculptures underline the extent to which nature is essential in the artist’s oeuvre, from the embedding of his works in the gardens to proposals that demonstrate a sensitivity to the environment, as can be demonstrated by the ‘suspended pearl tornadoes’ he imagined during a violent storm on a trip to the US, or the monumental glass wave that grew out of the emotion caused by the tsunami in March 2011 in Japan.
If the quest for beauty has always been the main thread running through Jean-Michel Othoniel’s oeuvre, it is accompanied by what the artist calls a ‘porosity to the world’. For him, the artist is somewhat like a visionary, a ‘sighted person’ sensible to all that surrounds him. ‘There is a strong oracular aspect to my work. There is something intuitive in my works, but also of the order of revelation. Artists have a powerful intuition’, he says, as he evokes his series of Oracles (2019), linear modules of amber, yellow and grey bricks that are as radical as any work by Donald Judd. Serial phrases punctuated by elements in relief, these glass strips unfurl on the wall like a coded message. Abstract and enigmatic, they nevertheless underline the extent to which Othoniel lets the narrative dimension surface in his work, as was the case with Boat of Tears (2004), a wooden raft abandoned on a beach in Miami and topped with a canopy of glass chains and necklaces, a work that intuitively raised the question of Cuban refugees. ‘When I create a glass tornado or tsunami, it has to do with what is happening in the world. But it is not something deliberate. On the contrary it is something that seeps slowly into my work and that appears to me progressively. Each work generates new ideas. Today’s conflicts and climate-related issues come to the surface in my work although it is not intentional. Perhaps it could be said that the works are the site where the ideas take shape.’ This combination of the personal and the political also transpired in Precious Stonewall (2010), whose title pays tribute to the Stonewall gatherings in the early 1970s in New York that marked the start of the gay rights movement. If brick can appear as a revolutionary material, as in the paintings of Philip Guston, it is also the material used in the construction of ideals or in devotional artefacts. Thus, the Altar or the Parlour (2019) is like a recollection of the altars encountered during journeys to India and recalls the presence of the sacred in Jean-Michel Othoniel’s work, from banners to ex-votos, mandorlas or rosaries, from the Cœur de l’Hôtel Dieu (2014) in Puy-en-Velay to the treasury of the Cathedral of Angoulême.
Consisting of stainless-steel bricks, and concealing a surprising mirror-like heart that contrasts with the satin-like softness of the exterior surface, Agora (2019) is the synthesis of the ideas borne by the exhibition and express the artist’s desire ‘to move increasingly towards architecture, the creation of spaces’. At once a grotto and a burial mound, a futuristic design and a work that has emerged out of the collective memory, this work offers up a site of shelter, a space of dialogue and encounter, expression and freedom, suitable to speak up in public and to share secrets. ‘For a long time I have wanted to build a kind of agora, a space where free speech would be protected by the status of the artwork.’ Between sculpture and architecture, the monumental and the intimate, Agora emanates, beyond its political dimension, a poetic and sensual power. All the while pursuing its ambitious objective to ‘establish a relation of wonderment with regard to the world’ and ‘to re-enchant’ reality, the artist gives shape, with this contemporary utopia, to a new hope and illustrates its definition, according to which, today, ‘beauty is something political’.
Text by Hélene Kelmachter, February 2019
Oracles is Jean-Michel Othoniel’s eighth solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin since the start of their collaboration in 2003. He has held solo exhibitions in leading international institutions such as Centre Pompidou (Paris), Hara Museum (Tokyo), Leem Samsung Museum of Art (Seoul), Macau Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum (New York), Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice), Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Paris) and more. His works have entered the most prestigious public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art - MoMA (New York), the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, among others. Jean-Michel Othoniel has been commissioned to create many site-specific works: Kiosk of Night Walkers for the Palais Royal metro station in Paris, Nœud de Janus for the sculpture park of the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, Kin No Kokoro for the Mori Garden in Tokyo, and many more. In 2014, with Les belles danses, he was the first contemporary artist to conceive a permanent work for the Château de Versailles in the context of the renovation of the Water Theatre grove. In 2019 he was invited by the National Museum of Qatar, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, to outline a monumental permanent work composed of 114 fountain-sculptures. Moreover, he will also hold several solo exhibitions in 2019, in Buenos Aires and at Château la Coste, among others. In November 2018 Jean-Michel Othoniel was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (sculpture section).