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Emmanuel Barrois' 'Reflexions' bridges art, light and human experience

Glassmaker Emmanuel Barrois' transformative masterpiece Reflexions, in Palais Royal Garden in Paris, moulds light and glass into a profound exploration of human existence.

by Aarthi MohanPublished on : Sep 20, 2023

In the world of artistic expression, where labels and definitions can often confine creativity, master glassmaker Emmanuel Barrois orchestrates a symphony of transcendence with his monumental masterpiece, Reflexions. Illuminating in the heart of the City of Light, Paris, a towering 15-metre-high grid-like glass installation stands tall amidst the beauty of the Palais Royal Garden, lighting up the scene for Paris Design Week 2023. This is not just an art installation; it is a profound enquiry into the very essence of our existence. STIR delves into the installation and the imagination of its creator, exploring how he sculpts light and glass into a symbol of hope and beauty.

Making its global premier, Atelier Emmanuel Barrois has harnessed impressive technical expertise to craft a large-scale glass installation, incorporating a staggering eight tons of glass and 6000 metres of intertwined prisms. Reflexions is an ambitious project meticulously crafted through scientific collaboration with engineers. This “light trap” creates an immersive sensory experience, captivating spectators through the rainbow reflections cast on every surrounding surface. Moreover, the glass structure serves as a beacon, highlighting the concerns of sustainable development and the reuse of float glass in architecture.

Meet the master of Glass: Emmanuel Barrois| Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
Meet the master of Glass: Emmanuel Barrois Image: Laurent Caron, Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

Barrois' creative imagination fuels this project, born from a desire to engage with the interplay of materials and light, prompting profound questions about our very existence. Contemplating the ever-shifting landscape of our world, he couldn’t help but wonder: What is the relationship between construction, material, and humanity in an era marked by virtual realities? Does the physicality of labour still possess meaning, and what role does humanity play in shaping the world of tomorrow? These questions, like seeds of inspiration, germinated within him, giving birth to this glass sculpture.

Barrois working on his kaleidoscope-inspired masterpiece | Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
Barrois working on his kaleidoscope-inspired masterpiece Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

This project draws from a childhood memory of a kaleidoscope at the Foire du Trone, which resurfaced half a century later as a scaffold. Whether one chooses to view it as artwork, sculpture, or installation, Barrois' creation defies confinement to a single category. He has erected a scaffold; a creation he deems triumphant if the public perceives its distinctive beauty, metaphysical essence, and the tangible as well as intangible spaces it generates.

Light is the fundamental material of space and Architecture | Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
Light is the fundamental material of space and architecture Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

Barrois explains, “If this structure is entirely fashioned from glass, it also embodies light. To me, glass is solid light! Light is historically perceived as the bearer of the inexpressible. Light is the mother of colour, constituting the fundamental material of space and architecture.” He goes on to describe the driving forces behind the installation as the pursuit of the absolute, the physical involvement in the creative process, and the celebration of complexity.

‘Reflexions’ – A triumph of beauty and accessibility | Réflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
Reflexions – a triumph of beauty and accessibility Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

The sculpture artist aptly puts it, “As we work, obstacles come into view. At each stage of production, we grapple with technical questions that remain unanswered. It entails attempting, and even improvising, to find the most suitable solutions to address these challenges.”

As the project unfolded, it indeed proved to be far more intricate than Barrois initially envisioned. "With this installation, we have pushed the boundaries of prior achievements. In its entirety, the project required thousands of hours of manual craftsmanship and engineering, moments of uncertainty, triumphs, and a consistent driving force: self-reinvention, with an unvarying aim; surpassing oneself to create beauty. This pursuit is underpinned by a resolute aspiration—to "share" this creation with all audiences. “This is why we have made its access 'free', allowing it to be experienced by as many individuals as possible. It’s a ‘popular’ project for the public,” shares the sculptor on his vision for Reflexions.

The creative forces behind the installation| Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
The creative forces behind the installation Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

The production of this art installation required the involvement of key partners such as Atelier Barrois for the fabrication of all glass components, Fabrica Company for the design and production of the metal base of the installation, and CTM for the metal junction pieces of the glass bar. With regard to glass production, where machines typically adhere to tolerances of 2mm, Barrois and his team achieved an accuracy of 0.10 mm and perfect transparency for the entire 15-metre-tall scaffold’s glass bars. The precision extended to the 3,000 adhesive bonds, where a glue thickness of exactly 0.55 mm was applied.

The installation transcends traditional notions of illumination | Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
The installation transcends traditional notions of illumination Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

The project faced significant engineering challenges, necessitating collaboration with experts from Bollinger & Grohmann. The glass scaffold was designed not only to withstand winds exceeding 100 km/hour but also to endure earthquakes. The intricate interconnection of the glass bars needed numerous calculations, extensive testing, and the innovative use of small stainless-steel nodes that combined mechanical fastening and adhesive methods. Integral Light Engineering emerged as a key dimension of the project. The objective was not merely to illuminate the installation for nighttime visibility but to reveal hidden essence during daylight hours. The installation was conceived to transport observers to alternative mental and sensory realms, transcending traditional notions of illumination.

How glass became Barrois’ calling | Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
How glass became Barrois’ calling Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

For Barrois, glass is a way of life, a realm of freedom, and a vocation born from a chance encounter. After training as an agronomist, he initially worked in humanitarian endeavours across Africa and Asia before stepping into the world of glass. In the 1990s, he began learning the craft of glasswork by restoring stained glass windows of cathedrals and abbeys. His intention was not solely to recreate past techniques but to feel and understand how the glassworkers of the 13th century shaped the architecture of their era and crafted their own modernity.

Emmanuel Barrois: an artist, craftsman and designer | Réflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
Emmanuel Barrois: an artist, craftsman and designer Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

A self-taught glassmaker, his collaborations with renowned architects such as Claude Parent and Paul Andreu were pivotal in shaping his path. Recognised for his outstanding contributions, Barrois was appointed as Master Architectural Glassmaker in 2010 and received prestigious awards like the Boston Society of Architects Design Award in 2012. Barrois’ work transcends boundaries as he collaborates globally with architects like Frank Gehry and Kengo Kuma. His artistry has graced the national museums of Japan and China, as well as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, demonstrating his versatility as an artist, craftsman and designer who masterfully sculpts light and materials.

A symbol of dedication and beauty| Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
A symbol of dedication and beauty Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

Embracing the role of a project godmother, Cynthia Fleury, a philosopher, psychoanalyst, writer and professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts offers her perspective on the installation, describing it as a testament to the discipline and artistry of craftsmen and engineers. The precision and rigour in its construction highlight the juxtaposition of glass’s perceived hardness and fragility. This ephemeral structure’s journey reflects years of unwavering dedication and refinement, serving as a metaphor for labour, determination and the beauty of life, resembling a geometrical angel greeting us within its natural setting at the Palais-Royal.

Reflexions: where artistry meets innovation | Reflexions| Emmanuel Barrois | STIRworld
Reflexions: where artistry meets innovation Image: Courtesy of Atelier Barrois

In the intersection of glass, light and human creativity, light sculptor Emmanuel Barrois has crafted not just an installation, but a reflection on the essence of existence itself, inviting all to contemplate the beauty and wonder that arise when artistry and innovation converge. The installation begins its international journey in Paris, and then travels to Italy and Japan, where it will enhance cultural landmarks.

'Reflexions' is on view at Palais Royal Garden from September 15 to November 15, 2023.

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