The Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne is currently giving Jean-Michel Othoniel carte blanche for his third solo exhibition at the institution. The artist’s work is also being shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, until 11 November. An encounter.
Just how far will Jean-Michel Othoniel go? To mark the 30th birthday of the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne, the artist, a native of this mining town, is presenting an even huger “wave” than the one seen in 2017 at the CRAC de Sète. A deep, intimate meditation on the artist’s future, the exhibition Face à l’obscurité (Facing obscurity) resounds like the end of a cycle. An interview devoid of nostalgia, tinged with memories and heady uncertainty.
AMA: Can “La Grande Vague” at Saint-Étienne be seen as an extension of the one presented last year in Sète?
Jean-Michel Othoniel: The two installations have little in common actually. Here, La Grande Vague presents a type of “matrix”. It’s designed like a somewhat threatening echo point, whose form is more ambiguous and in motion than the one shown in the south of France, which was more like a glass-brick monument. This one is a personal work, linked to my personal history and that of this town. A type of “artist’s folly” that corresponds to no museum logic.
AMA: So it’s a piece related to Saint-Étienne… Do you mean that this town has had an impact on your path?
JMO: Absolutely... The MAMC triggered my artistic vocation. From the age of six years, I went to introductory art lessons at the Maison de la Culture and then attended evening classes at the town’s fine-arts school. From an early age, I became familiar with the collections of this joyful, welcoming, light-filled museum, so far removed from my memories of blackened faces and sad town facades. But I assure you, I didn’t have a Zola-type childhood there!
AMA: You’re also showing two small pieces, once again related to your childhood. Could you present them to us?
JMO: There’s a video, which is a sort of testimony, and a black-and-white photograph. These are souvenirs of performances whose scope widens through their contact with the other works on display. The video is on the metamorphosis of a volcano-like slagheap, in 1994, at the Musée de la Mine. Unlike the heaps in the north of France, in Saint-Étienne these heaps could be found in the middle of the town.
When I was a child, they terrified me as I was convinced that they were volcanoes ready to explode! I tried to express this anguish poetically, in 1994, through this filmed performance.
AMA: How did you go about this artistic transmutation?
JMO: Fireworks experts helped to set off Bengal flares and fireworks from the top of the heap – a scene that I filmed with a Super 8 camera. The result is a film that recounts this telluric relationship that brings out the harshness of elements – something that could already be sensed in my work with sulphur. Its form was a budding version of La Grande Vague, which I also see as an enormous mass of coal. So there’s a very strong link to my memories and childhood fantasies in these pieces.
AMA: How about the second one?
JMO: This is a small photograph which opened my retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2011. It comes from a performance at my artistic debut, executed during a family visit to Saint-Étienne. Dressed in a long priest’s alb, I wanted to perform in front of a grotto which my childhood memories rendered even more beautiful and miraculous. Once I got to the site, I realised that the grotto was no longer magical. So I kept going and came across a 19th century dam wall, from which water emerging from evacuation holes had completely frozen.
AMA: So what did you do?
JMO: I climbed these ice walls, endlessly falling and climbing up again until I was exhausted. I took many photos here and only kept the smallest one, printed on silver-halide paper. A prudish, discreet format, that could easily be tucked away in a book. Already, indeed, I was saying far too much about myself.
AMA: Saint-Étienne, childhood anguish about slagheaps, fantasy places, a performance that marks your artistic debut. This exhibition undeniably marks out your imprint on this territory.
JMO: It also announces the end of a cycle, a type of end to adolescence as experienced by… an old adolescent! Now I am emerging from this “autobiographical” aspect, I’m taking a distance from my own story.
AMA: Sure, but next to “La Grande Vague”, don’t these obsidian “self-portraits” still talk about yourself?
JMO: That’s true... On one side of the exhibition, you have this big swell that draws and carries within it this violence of the depths. In this work set out as if against the northern lights, we can see reflections of all shades of grey, of such a type that I had never previously observed.
On the other side, you find yourself facing an obsidian “army”, as if planted in the ground, somewhat austere but also sparkling, which wipes La Vague from your mind. I wanted to deal with the relationship with obscurity in a binary manner.
AMA: The obscurity you refer to is also associated with the colour black. What does the latter represent for you?
JMO: Black? It’s life, the hive, the woman’s womb. It’s also the blackness of creation, the color of Plato’s cavern, the cosmos... But it’s not the colour that matters, it’s what we do with it! The black of my obsidian sculptures is a very incisive, solemn mirror-black. An almost pictorial black.
The black in La Grande Vague is a black-reflection, made up of iridescence. The obscurity in it is full of mystery, a “disturbing marvelousness”.
AMA: Let’s get back to “La Grande Vague”. You say that it in no way corresponds to “museum logic”. What do you mean by this?
JMO: It’s a difficult, heavy piece that requires a long assembly and disassembly procedure [editorial note: the piece is 5 meters deep, 15 meters wide and 6 meters tall]. In order for an institution to display it at length, enormous storage capacities are required. Of course, it could find its place in a foundation wishing to protect works.
But this is not a vision shared by most French establishments. Perhaps it’s up to me to create such a place? I’m thinking about it more and more.
AMA: Your “Grande Vague” is powerful and impressive, almost architectural. How do you define your relationship with architecture?
JMO: Undeniably attracted by the monumental, I wish to focus on the creation of “monsters” that dialogue with space, the public, outside of museums. I wish to produce strange, singular, autonomous works that resist market laws. And in my architectural desire, I also identify the violence and immediacy of my first sulphur works.
In fact, I feel like I’m at a transition period in my creation. I create “engaged” works in that I exit the well-defined museum context and I wish to bring my work up against different cultures. I also feel that I need to go towards the public via installations that dialogue with architecture. This art is cultivated and in everyone’s reach!
AMA: Tell us about its technical design, which seems extremely complex...
JMO: The piece required two years of research and one year of pure technical drawings in order to position the bricks in space, in an organic form. To do so, we used cutting-edge aviation-related software such as CATIA, created by Dassault and used by Frank Gehry to make his glass sails.
AMA: Apart from Saint-Étienne, what else is happening with you?
JMO: The technical drawings behind La Grande Vague were visible at the Coder le monde exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, concluding on 27 August, and I now have a solo show on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Motion – Émotion, where I’m presenting my pearl tornadoes, whose forms recall those shown at the CRAC in Sète, in 2017. In Montréal, they’re mobiles that I worked on using a computer, to create otherworldly ballets between them...
Jean-Michel Othoniel. Face à l’obscurité, until 16 September. Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain Saint-Étienne Métropole, Saint-Priest-en-Jarez.
Jean-Michel Othoniel. Motion – Émotion, until 11 November. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Canada.
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Featured image: Jean-Michel Othoniel, "Motion-Emotion" exhibition view, Museum of Fine Arts Toronto, 2018.