‘the narcissus theorem’ at the petit palais in paris
jean-michel othoniel takes over the petit palais with ‘the narcissus theorem’, his biggest solo show in paris since his retrospective ‘my way’ at the centre pompidou in 2011. on view until january 2, 2022, the exhibition brings together more than 70 new artworks by the french contemporary artist, who was recently inducted into the académie des beaux-arts. rivers of blue bricks, intricate strings of oversized, mirrored glass necklaces and wild knots are placed in dialogue with the museum’s architecture, floating on the water mirrors of its pools, or hanging from the trees of its gardens.
in ‘the narcissus theorem’, jean-michel othoniel weaves a web of unreality, enchantment, illusion and liberation of the imagination. referencing the mythical figure of narcissus, the exhibition is about a man-flower who, in reflecting himself, reflects the world around him. ‘narcissus is a mythical character whose story resonates with us all,’ othoniel tells designboom.‘as the legend goes, this man – so obsessed with himself – has accidentally taken his own life by staring into his reflection. but this is not the narcissus that I invoke in my work. rather, it is the narcissus from childhood who rejoices in his own reflection and takes pleasure in seeing those around him encourage his delight.’ read our interview with the artist in full below.all exhibition images: jean-michel othoniel, exhibition views of ‘jean-michel othoniel: the narcissus theorem’, september 28 – january 2, 2022, petit palais © othoniel / ADAGP, paris 2021
© photos: claire dorn / courtesy the artist and perrotin
pictured here: jean-michel othoniel, gold lotus, 2019
interview with artist jean-michel othoniel
designboom (DB): the exhibition at the petit palais is titled ‘the narcissus theorem’ – where does the name come from?
jean-michel othoniel (JMO): I enjoy imbuing visitors with stories – taking them by the hand and leading them into my world, my exhibition, where they can momentarily escape reality. narcissus is a mythical character whose story resonates with us all. as the legend goes, this man – so obsessed with himself – has accidentally taken his own life by staring into his reflection. but this is not the narcissus that I invoke in my work. rather, it is the narcissus from childhood who rejoices in his own reflection and takes pleasure in seeing those around him encourage his delight. we have all experienced that chapter in childhood and it is one that I wish to revive; the moment when we first discover the notion of ‘the other’ and the pleasure of loving and being loved.
‘the theorem of narcissus’ is therefore a cheerful exhibition rooted in the desire of re-enchantment. I also find it interesting how narcissus doesn’t only see a reflection of himself but of the world around him as well – and this is exactly what’s happening in the exhibition. mirroring surfaces and water planes reflect the movement of visitors, the architecture, and the garden surrounding us. moreover, I wanted to pay tribute to the magnificent building that is welcoming my work – this charming little palace built in 1900 that makes every visitor dream.
portrait of jean-michel othoniel with gold lotus (2019)
DB: as your biggest solo show in paris since 2011, the exhibition brings together more than 70 new artworks. what are some key pieces on view?
JMO: I consider all the exhibited works to be key pieces because they’re part of an explorative journey – from the welcoming glass staircase to the garden decorated with golden sculptures. what was also important for me was the ability to display this body of work that spans over 10 years – including the knot-shaped sculptures.
DB: in what ways do the works dialogue with the architecture of the petit palais and its garden?
JMO: for one thing, the sculptures in the garden are like guarded fruits. they’re either hidden in the trees or placed in the water ponds. and when put in contact with natural elements, they emanate a sort of strange power. I liken them to lotus flowers that shine in the sunlight or necklaces of giants given as offerings to nature.
jean-michel othoniel, gold lotus, 2021| inox, feuille d’or © jean-michel othoniel / ADAGP, paris, 2021 | photo: claire dorn / courtesy of the artist & perrotin
DB: can you share more about the theory of reflections, which you have been developing in a dialogue with mathematician aubin arroyo?
JMO: moving on to another part of the exhibition, one can find more than twenty knot-shaped sculptures hanging like creatures in a dark cave. these knots are made of mirrored and colored glass beads that cast reflections onto each other; they also reflect the knotted structures in their entirety. mathematician aubin arroyo had worked for more than fifteen years on analyzing similar forms through virtual means; thanks to clever mathematical calculations, he deciphered and pushed for all the possibilities of reflection and calculations. in my case, the shape of the knot was inspired by pure research focused on the development of cosmic thought. it just so happened that his mathematical 3D images were similar to my sculptures. we were both naturally surprised by the similarity and decided to meet to see how two worlds, that of art and that of mathematics, could dialogue together. from that point on, conferences, works and exhibitions were created.
DB: what themes do the signature beads you use to create your sculptural necklaces address?
JMO: I created the oversized pearl as a module of glass or metal that evokes the sensuality of a dreamed, imaginary, and unattainable body – a universal body that must be protected at all cost.
jean-michel othoniel, nœuds miroirs, 2021 © jean-michel othoniel / ADAGP, paris, 2021 | photo: claire dorn / courtesy of the artist & perrotin
DB: what draws you to glass as an artistic medium and what is its personal meaning to you?
JMO: I like the fragility and transparency that is typically associated with glass – and the fact that it is born out of pure metamorphosis. it starts off as rough sand, then liquid, and finally crystallizes into a clear surface that lets light penetrate. you could very well say that glass carries within itself the passage from darkness to light. I work with glassmakers who interfere at this moment of fragility, when glass changes shape. it is an alchemical material, full of magic and humility. you have to love and cherish glass for it to survive across centuries – just like you have to love my artworks for them to keep on existing. their strength lies in their fragility.
DB: much of your work is exhibited outside of museum and gallery settings. why has it been important for you to create pieces that are accessible to the general public?
JMO: I think it is absolutely crucial for any artist to go down on the streets and meet with the public. art should never be exclusive to the elite; artworks displayed publicly have a life of their own – they become separate from their creator and start appropriating new lives, new meanings, and new stories through interactions with passersby. that is why I decided to cover the steps of the palace with a cascading installation made of blue glass visible to everyone, day and night. this monumental artwork dialogues with the gate of the palace; it draws in curious passersby on the street, encouraging them to push open the gate and enter the exhibition space to witness the installation for themselves. the museum director, perfectly understanding my desire to create an experience for people that have suffered long enough from confinement, has generously decided to turn it into a free exhibition, open to all. this is a first in parisian history.
jean-michel othoniel, la couronne de la nuit, 2008 | mirrored glass, steel | collection du petit palais © jean-michel othoniel / ADAGP, paris, 2021 | photo: claire dorn / courtesy of the artist & perrotin
DB: what impressions do you hope your work conjures? what discussions do you hope it provokes?
JMO: I want the audience to experience an other-wordly feeling and to gain a foothold amid the complications and violence of today’s reality. I want them to find themselves, to steal a moment of peace and access a state of pure contemplation, to rediscover the beauty that surrounds us – all of this in the hopes of preparing them to better confront the real world and even to create a better future.
DB: what aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your creative principles and philosophies?
JMO: I was fortunate to be raised with an open-minded education, one that respects diversity and has nurtured a curiosity to learn about the different cultures that shape our humanity. on the other hand, I’ve always found gardens and nature to be a great source of fascination, questioning, and surprises.
jean-michel othoniel, kiku, 2021 | mirrored glass, inox | © jean-michel othoniel / ADAGP, paris, 2021 | photo: claire dorn / courtesy of the artist & perrotin
DB: what are you currently fascinated by, and how is it feeding into your artistic practice?
JMO: I like to immerse myself in the basic, minimal forms that are at the foundation of our civilizations – namely the brick which exists across all cultures. it is a common denominator that has helped mankind build its utopias worldwide. so, in a way, the simplicity and universality of the brick allows me to speak one language across continents. the glass brick, therefore, in all its fragility, is the new module that allows me to build wonderfully imaginary spaces to dream in unison.
jean-michel othoniel, kiku (detail), 2021
name: le théorème de narcisse / the narcissus theorem
artist: jean-michel othoniel
location: petit palais – fine arts museum of paris
duration: september 28, 2021 – january 2, 2022
curator: christophe leribault (director of the petit palais), juliette singer (chief curator of heritage, responsible for contemporary art projects at the petit palais)
organized with the support of: perrotin and christian dior parfums, as part of its cultural gardens initiative
ART INTERVIEWS (68)
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