A French artist awakens the senses of people tired by the pandemic

‘Jean-Michel Othoniel: Treasure Garden’ presented in Seoul is the largest exhibition of artists in 10 years

An installation view of Jean-Michel Othoniel’s “Riviere Bleue (Blue River)” and “Knot” series at the Seoul Museum of Art (CJY Art Studio)

A shimmering blue river runs along the floor of the museum, and knot-shaped droplets float above the stream. The combination of works by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel is overwhelming, stimulating the visual senses.

The tranquil blue river, measuring 26 meters long and 7 meters wide, is made of blocks of blue glass created in collaboration with glassblowers in Firozabad, a famous center of glassblowing in India. The color blue, called “Firozi” blue, embraces multiple references to Mediterranean culture and the cradle of Indo-European civilization.

The exhibition “Jean-Michel Othoniel: Treasure Garden” at the Seoul Museum of Art is the largest exhibition of the artist, known as a master of glass, since the 2011 retrospective at the Center Pompidou. The Seoul show features some 70 plays from the past decade.

The series of knots – which hangs above “Riviere Bleue (Blue River)” – are made of stainless steel and mirrored glass, which the artist began exploring in 2009 and developed with Mexican mathematician Aubin Arroyo . Standing close to the nodes, the glass beads reflect the viewer and mirror each other, evoking a sense of infinity.

“I had a culture shock in India when I learned that the technique of glass blowing had a history of 2,000 years,” Othoniel said during a press preview on Wednesday.

On the wall are blocks of bricks in two different color combinations: blue and yellow or blue and red. Each installation looks like a beacon – the bricks reflect light from the ceiling, creating a shadow that looks like a flare.

“Precious Stonewall”, by Jean-Michel Othoniel, at the Seoul Museum of Art (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

The two-tone bricks, titled “Precious Stonewall,” are the result of the artist’s desperate persistence to remain an artist. Othoniel made a series of drawings like daily diary entries during the pandemic lockdown in France. The brick sculptures are based on the drawings.

“No one knew when the pandemic would end. I wanted to find energy and rhythm for creativity in the midst of hopeless times,” he said. “I made the drawing like a daily diary. I was able to regain the power to continue creating art.

The exhibition extends to the Deoksugung Palace, located opposite the museum. A small pond in the corner of the palace is decorated with Othoniel’s “Golden Lotus”, golden sculptures of lotus flowers. The fact that the lotus blooms in the mud attracted the artist to the flower.

An installation view of “Gold Lotus”, “Gold Rose”, and “Collier Or (Gold Necklace)” by Jean-Michel Othoniel at Deoksugung (CJY Art Studio)

When he visited South Korea 10 years ago and took a look around the palace, he had no idea that he would one day have an exhibition here at the palace, showcasing his works at the pond. He described it as a miracle. The golden sculptures look different depending on the weather. When it rains, it can have a more meditative vibe while it can be glorious on a sunny day.

“The garden is so beautiful. It’s inspiring, peaceful and meditative,” he said.

Golden necklaces, “Collier Or”, hang from the trees in the center of the pond, reminiscent of a wishing tree on which people hang written wishes.

For the exhibition in Seoul, Othoniel presents “Plum Blossom”, inspired by the floral motif used in the palace buildings. It is painted in two colors – red to express the petals of the flower and yellow to signify the pollen. It delivers a message of vitality, resistance and perseverance and resurrection symbolized by the plum blossom.

An installation view of “Plum Blossom” and “La Rose du Louvre (The Rose of Louvre)” by Jean-Michel Othoniel at the Seoul Museum of Art (CJY Art Studio)

Born in 1964, Othoniel came to international attention when his “La Rose du Louvre”, created to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Louvre Pyramid in Paris in 2019, was acquired by the Louvre Museum for its permanent collection. It is the only contemporary work still present in the museum’s collection.

The artist’s last exhibition in Seoul was “New Works” at Kukje Gallery held in December 2020.

The exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art runs until August 7. The museum is closed on Mondays.

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