Jean-Michel Othoniel is an artist with a passion for metamorphoses, sublimations and transmutations. His work takes on a variety of forms: drawings, sculptures, photographs, narratives, choreography and video. Othoniel first gained recognition with a series of sculptures made of sulfur, exhibited at Documenta IX in 1992 in Kassel. The following year, he introduced glass into his work and began to explore its properties. Material transformations, rites of passage from one state to another, echo an essential ritual of the artist’s work—that of journeys and memory.
In the spring light of the Gardens of Versailles, there are winks and flashes from every gilded surface. Yet few of them radiate quite like the 2,000 Murano-glass globes filled with gold leaf that dance across the remodelled Water Theatre Grove.
Paris-based Othoniel designed Les Belles Danses in homage to the Sun King, Louis XIV, who first commissioned the classical gardens here. The difference between his contemporary fountain and the surrounding landscape, masterminded by André Le Nôtre in the 17th century, is the audience.
The elaborate Water Theatre Grove historically served as an outdoor stage where spectacles were performed for the king’s pleasure. Louis XVI had it dug up during his reign, and a series of storms in the 90s destroyed it completely. When palace officials chose landscape architect-du-jour Louis Benech to bring it back to life, he plucked Othoniel to fashion its central feature. The public will first experience this fresh take on the Sun King’s legacy when the grove opens next week.
Othoniel arranged the glass bulbs—his artistic signature—in three seemingly abstract arrangements titled ‘The Entrance of Apollo’, ‘The Rigadoun of Peace’ and the ‘Bourée of Achilles’. Their shape can be traced back to the 17th-century ballet notations popularised by the king and published by Roger-Auger Feuillet. Othoniel discovered Feuillet’s artfully printed work—one of only three in existence—during his 2011 residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner museum in Boston.
The recreated grove is the first modern addition to the Versailles landscape since the French Revolution and ‘Les Belles Danses’ is the most significant project of Othoniel’s career. In one of Versailles’ largest groves, the grand scale of the fountain has been a revelation.
It’s also the artist’s first moving piece. To complete it, he expanded his studio from five to 10 employees, who spent a year installing it alongside Versailles’ official fontainiers. It all slipped into place when they began testing the jets, which force the water through the glass in the same arc as Versailles’ historic main fountain.
Othoniel had experience working in the grandest of historical settings: he’d hung massive glass necklaces in the garden of the Villa Medici in Rome and installed works in the trees of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s Venetian garden; in the Alhambra gardens in Granada; in the Mesopotamian room at the Louvre; and near the Palais-Royal. The Othoniel/Benech collaborative entry was also the only one to echo the landscaper/artist combination of the 17th century, and beat 140 competitors.
For the past two decades, Othoniel has been working with the world’s finest glass blowers: in Murano in Venice, Monterrey in Mexico, Sapporo in Japan and Firozabad in India. And once he had hit upon Feuillet’s
annotation system, he turned to glass blowers in Murano and Basel to produce 1,750 gilded glass balls to use in his sculptures. To realise his vision, he worked with the fountain engineers of Versailles.