A beading heart
French contemporary artist Jean-Michel Othoniel came to Hong Kong two decades ago for a group exhibition - 'Too French', held by Fondation Cartier - and a month-long residency programme. Though brief, the visit was important not only because it broadened his understanding of Asia but it exposed him to a new sculptural form.
'They were inspired by Chinese rocks in gardens,' says Othoniel, pointing at the photos of abstract sculptures he created during his residency here. And they were all made of sulphur. He reportedly first discovered this medium when researching photosensitive materials for his photography works in the 1980s. 'Soufre', the French word for sulphur, sounded like the word for 'suffering' and thus had a poetic ring to it, he once explained.
'Sulphur smells a lot when it melts, so I had to [work] on the roof, but I got to see the whole of Hong Kong,' recalls the 48-year-old, who won international recognition when, in 1992, he exhibited his sulphur sculptures at Documenta, a major modern and contemporary art exhibition taking place once every five years in Kassel, Germany.
'[The sculptures] have an abstract outlook but inside there's something very sensual and organic,' he says.
The Saint-Etienne-born artist is returning to this part of the world this month when his travelling retrospective stops at Macau's Museum of Art. Titled 'My Way', the show looks back at his 25-year artistic career and features some 50 pieces that include sculptures and installations.
The artist, whose works have appeared in plenty of art spaces and museums around the world, will also be showing at Galerie Perrotin, which will open its Hong Kong branch in Central in May.
Playing with a palm-sized model of Kokoro, his large-scale heart-shaped outdoor glass installation at Hara Museum in Japan, Othoniel talks enthusiastically about past works in his new showroom/office in Paris, which commands a sweeping view of the French capital's skyline.
When the retrospective first opened in March last year at Paris' Centre Pompidou, Othoniel said the show's title - a reference to the Frank Sinatra classic - was a metaphor for his artistic journey. It chronicles his search for the true beauty of life using a wide range of mediums, from sulphur to the Venetian Murano glass.
'To me, the material is important. My works are very much about life, about contemplation,' says the artist, who studied at Ecole Nationale Superieure d'Arts Paris-Cergy between 1983 and 1988.
'After sulphur, I worked on obsidian, a natural glass in black made from volcanoes [cooled lava]. And then I jumped to natural glass.'
In 1996, while preparing for his solo show at Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Othoniel worked with Italian glassblowers in Murano. 'Glass is something very basic and simple - it's not crystal or jewellery. It's something that everyone has. I want to show people that the real world is beautiful and full of wonder.'
Othoniel's first glass piece, Scar-Necklace (1997), paid tribute to Cuban-born visual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of Aids in 1996. This work was accompanied by a performance in which the artist created and gave away 1,000 necklaces made of red glass beads while taking snapshots of people wearing these necklaces.
From there, he moved on to installations made of larger and colourful glass beads draping from the ceiling, such as the Hanging Lovers series. That laid the foundation for future monumental necklace sculptures, including Necklace-Tree (2002), which has six glass bead necklaces suspended on a 100-year-old oak tree at the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in New Orleans and Peggy's Necklace (2006) at Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Othoniel says the oversized necklaces are about desire and frustration: 'You want to possess them when you see them, but you are frustrated because it's impossible - they are just so big.'
In 2000, he created Kiosque des Noctamblues (Kiosk for the Nightwalkers), comprising two crowns made of glass and aluminium, at the Palais Royal - Musee du Louvre station of the Paris Metro. 'I wanted to show how beautiful the world can be. Everybody walks into the light from the dark when they emerge from the station. And now it is really like a set in the city - people go there to take photographs,' the artist says.
Though one will have to go to Paris to see that work, My Bed (2003), an extension of the 2000 piece, will be on show in Macau. In contrast to the big beads, Tears (2002) is made up of tiny glass objects floating in 60 vases filled with water.
Diary of Happiness (2008) is an installation that fuses the forms of a Chinese screen and a traditional abacus. The work features more than 300 red beads made of Murano glass. 'It's my own calculator. One bead is created for each day - if it's a good day, you put the bead to the white side, and bad to black,' says Othoniel. But he no longer uses it to document his mood: a Chinese collector bought the piece after it went on show at Pompidou.
Othoniel is now looking forward to returning to the city that played an important role in his career. 'In life you are always connected to your past. Hong Kong was my first experience in Asia. I also learned my English there. I will be going back to Hong Kong.'
Macao Museum of Art, Macau, five patacas, Wed-Jun 17, 10am-7pm. Galerie Perrotin will inaugurate its space at 17/F, 50 Connaught Road, Central, on May 15