by Dilpreet BhullarJan 06, 2022
The narcissism, if for once, is not to be bracketed within the act of self-obsession, opens the world peppered with idealism devoid of unpleasantries. The layer of optimism around such a scenario is fragile - enough not to resist the test of uncertainty. Dissipating such clouds of skepticism is Jean-Michel Othoniel’s latest exhibition, The Narcissus Theorem, at Petit Palais, Paris. The 70 new art installations - placed on the water mirrors of the pool, suspended from the branches of trees - speak to the architectural beauty of the venue. The work of imagination evokes a sense of enchantment and desire similar to narcissism: a state of idealism not to be experienced as neurotic behaviour.
The curator of the exhibition, Juliette Singer, in an interview with STIR, looks at the evocation of the figure of Narcissus as, “An invitation to come back to ourselves, and to see the world around us; by inviting us to look at this world and ourselves with a benevolent gaze, and so to speak in love, which elevates us to the best of what is hidden there. A bit like a revealer.” Furthermore, she elaborates on the curatorial approach developed to highlight both the heritage of Petit Palais and the visual aesthetic of the glass sculptures. “Othoniel is used to working in resonance with architecture: he did so for the Qatar National Museum, where his sculptures played on the building created by Jean Nouvel. From a curatorial point of view, the main thing was to make him visit the museum several times so that he could immerse himself in it while providing him with historical elements concerning the architect of the Petit Palais, Charles Girault, and the Art Nouveau period.”
With the built environment of the Petit Palais, Othoniel identified several architectural "sequences" and treated them as different chapters of a narrative. Each time he played on the chromatic and architectural characteristics of the museum: the gildedness of the large ironwork gate, the pride of the Petit Palais, the frescoes of the peristyle of the garden painted by Paul Baudoüin. But he also showcases the interlacing of the mosaics that adorn the floor. To illustrate this, Singer gives an example of The Great Crown of Night, “How it has taken its place above a majestic staircase made of concrete, and which seems to rise into the air. A central hole suggested that a chandelier had once been installed there; and the work, once suspended, simply seemed to find its place, both in terms of its proportions and its aesthetics, both theatrical and refined.”
The Narcissus Theorem is Othoniel’s biggest solo show in Paris ever since his retrospective My Way at the Centre Pompidou, almost a decade back in 2011. Even if the shape of sculptures, carved out of the beautiful glass, is akin to a “man-flower”, as the artist would like to see, it momentarily reminds us of the human body convoluted in a complicated shape. Talking to STIR, Othoniel dubs material as a dream trap, “It envelops us in the beauty of the materials to invite us to lose ourselves in the thousands of reflections offered by the complex shapes of the glass sculptures.” The exhibition is a continuation of the artist’s obsession with infinite knots and the theory of reflections which he developed with the aid of Mexican mathematician, Aubin Arroyo. The draft of the work is first drawn in a fairly classic way in watercolour, which is later digitalised to let Othoniel’s team bring volume to ideas for sculptures. “Very precise plans are then provided to the metal workers,” adds Othoniel, “who then forge the metallic soul of the sculptures, which is then dressed, thanks to the virtuosity of my glassmakers, with the glass pearls to the nearest millimeter so as to cover the metal which structures the form.”
The artist opines material such as glass “calls for love and respect”. It is at the moment of metamorphosis the material undergoes – from being thousands of opaque grains of sand to liquid and back to solid in a transparent form – that Othoniel prefers to, “intervene to give a new form to the natural material.” Cognizant of the fragility of the material, he expounds, “You have to take care of the glass so that it survives many centuries. If you do not love it enough, you are at the risk of breaking it - with the total disappearance of the works.”
With installations such as Rivers of Blue Bricks, Lotus, Necklaces, Crown of the Night, Wild Knots, and Precious Stonewall punctuating the architecture of the Petit Palais, the artist is keen to create stories, “All of my exhibitions function like wide scenarios.” For the artist, “It is a way to reenchant the world by creating something wonderful.” After the period of confinement and isolation due to the COVID pandemic, both Othoniel and Singer are hopeful that the exhibition built on “the notion of enchantment” and a walk through the arts, myths and beauty would offer an opportunity for the viewers to experience “a renewed joy and optimism.”
The visual aesthetic of the glass sculptures is bound to strike an emotional bond with the viewers only, “to escape from reality, perhaps better - to find themselves.”
The exhibition The Narcissus Theorem runs at Petit Palais, Paris, until January 2, 2022.