Jean-Michel Othoniel, Les Belles Danses (The Beautiful Dances) (work in progress), 2014, Murano glass, steel, dimensions variable. Photo: Philippe Chancel.

Installed over the summer of 2014 as part of a major renovation of one of Versailles’s gardens, the three sculptures in Jean-Michel Othoniel’s Les Belles Danses (The Beautiful Dances), 2014, evoke King Louis XIV dancing on water. To realize the works, the Paris-based artist set up a makeshift studio in a vaulted ceiling chamber that once housed the Sun King’s apothecary. Othoniel is the first contemporary artist to make a permanent mark on the royal grounds as well as Versailles’s first artist-in-residence in over 300 years. The work will be previewed during FIAC this month before the grand opening in May 2015.

AS A FRENCH ARTIST, it is a special experience to add my work to a garden originally designed by André Le Notre for Louis XIV. Versailles is one of the most important historic sites in France; it is part of our national identity and collective past. Louis XIV’s reign represents a key moment in French history because he was the first king who really made a connection between art—he especially loved dance and was himself an accomplished dancer—and politics.

The arabesque forms in Les Belles Danses were born out of a discovery I made while doing research during a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the Boston Public Library I found L’Art d’écrire la danse par caractères, figures et signes démonstratifs (The Art of expressing dance through demonstrative characters, figures and signs), a rare book by Raoul-Auger Feuillet—there are only three known copies in the world—filled with notations diagramming Baroque dance sequences. To help Louis XIV learn and remember dances, Feuillet had invented a unique written language, which struck me in particular because the curvaceous script-like notations resemble forms that I have been using in my sculptures for quite some time. Once I saw this book, the idea for the fountains at Versailles became quite obvious: the Sun King dancing on water. It was natural for me to relate to Feuillet’s forms, to redraw them, to imagine them as sculptures, and give them a contemporary presence.

The sculptures are made of nearly 2,000 large glass beads and four blue glass orbs. Glass has a magical quality in the way it imitates water and I’ve been working with this material for many years. But what’s new in this project for me is the element of movement. In addition to the jets of water that spray out from Les Belles Danses, the glass beads themselves have a sensual quality that evokes the once-liquid state of the glass. The material is also very appropriate for the setting because there is an important history of Murano glass at Versailles. The splendid mirrors in the Galerie des Glaces were made by craftsmen from Murano, the Venetian island known for its glassblowing workshops. Upon recognizing this historic link, I decided that the four orbs needed to be fabricated in Murano.

For the beads, I worked with an artisanal glassblower in Basel. The technique of glass blowing has not changed much over the past 2,000 years. But what has changed are all the technologies around the technique, which permit us to optimize the quality of the material—to make it less fragile and more stable in terms of color. When you see chandeliers from the time of Louis XIV, they appear yellowish because at that time they hadn’t yet mastered true transparency. Today we can easily make glass that will not change color with age. We can also design a glass object using a computer that draws very specific, scientifically calibrated curves that make the glass pretty much unbreakable.

Before Les Belles Danses was installed, the most recent sculptures in Versailles dated to the seventeenth-century, so it’s really incredible to add to that collection. I’ve worked on other large-scale, site-specific projects before: glass bead necklaces for a tree in the sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art or the entrance to Paris’s Palais Royal metro station. But whereas in these cases I was not so concerned with the history of the site, at Versailles I was hyper conscious how my work would enter into a dialogue with the past. The focus became about much more than my own delights and obsessions.

With Les Belles Danses, I tried to create a link between the Versailles of Louis XIV and the Versailles of present day, all while looking towards the future. After this there may not be other opportunities for contemporary permanent art installations at Versailles. For me it’s a bit like a fairytale; like the garden in Beauty and the Beast that opens once and then closes right behind you.

— Translated from French and as told to Mara Hoberman

Irma Blank


View of “Irma Blank: To Be,” 2014.

Irma Blank was born in Germany in 1934 and has lived in Italy since the 1960s. Her latest exhibition, “Irma Blank: To Be,” is a concise retrospective of her major works—from her earliest script-like transmissions in the Eigenschriften (Self Writings), ca. 1965–72, to the most recent hand-drawn chain-mail of fragmented letters in the pencil on paper Global Writings, ca. 2000–14. The show is on view at London’s Alison Jacques Gallery from October 17 to November 15, 2014.

THE WORD is deceptive. Since the literary critiques of the 1960s, faith in the word has been largely lost. We see it still today: words, words, words that say nothing. The word is emptied of its meaning. I try to retrieve the space of silence, the unsaid.

The pieces in this show go back to the beginning. I work in cycles of about ten years. I have to go back to the primordial sign, back before it became language. In Eigenschriften, I decide to write for myself; those works are directed to myself. When I was done with the Eigenschfriten, I wanted to speak to others. Our depths are part of the collective depths. When one looks introspectively, it is not only individual introspection but also collective.

The space I use in the Eigenschriften is limited—twenty-seven by twenty inches—and intense. I wanted to enlarge it. For Trascrizione, transcriptions of pages of existing books and newspapers, I declare more overtly that this writing is a script. I had a lot of success with this series, but I was sure I couldn’t continue working in that way, because I was exhausted. I said all I had to say. I did not make concessions to the demands of the market. In that moment, I tried several things and understood that only the brush could give me the sign I wanted to have. With Radical Writings, I decided to use a brush and I began extending the mark, making it longer and longer. In that period, you were not supposed to take up the brush, because everyone wanted conceptual research. Yet I found the brush is conceptual too. At that time it was not understood.

For the small works on paper in the ongoing series Avant-testo, I work with ballpoint pens. In smaller works, there is only room for one hand. In larger works I work with both hands full of pens, swirling both left and right arms. It is a rhythm. It’s a beautiful work to do. You lose yourself. You give yourself to it. When you start, you know nothing. I never know how a work will end. It grows; it defines itself in my hands.

In the Global Writings you see only fragments. The language is smashed. I still try to read the world as writing; writing is my tool for understanding the world.

— As told to Julia Langbein

Melanie Bonajo, NIGHT SOIL: Fake Paradise (Pt 1), 2014. HD video, color, sound, 36 minutes.

Melanie Bonajo is a New York–based artist whose work explores issues of alienation and individual identity in relationship to technological progress and commodity pleasures. Her most recent work is the video NIGHT SOIL: Fake Paradise (Pt 1), 2014, which is on view in “When Elephants Come Marching In” at the De Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam until January 11, 2015.

THIS VIDEO is about ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic brew that originates in the Amazon, where it has been used for thousands of years. Recently it’s been expanding into the Western world, but it is still kind of niche, not mainstream. In New York, specifically, it’s been interesting to see how people are trying to translate a tradition from such a different geographic place into a metropolitan environment through practices like “urban shamanism.” I come from a religious studies background, and I’m interested in the formation of ritual and how people fuse different cultures. What are they taking and what are they leaving behind? Can the ayahuasca be respected within this new situation or does it turn into something else, for recreational rather than spiritual use?

I went to many different ceremonies, some in cities and others in nature, conducted by men and conducted by women. One was with a branch of the Santo Daime church in the Netherlands, which combines Christianity with traditional Amazonian shamanism. Every ritual is so different and it’s interesting to see how you can combine two totally diverse philosophies into one religion. But ayahuasca is not just a philosophy—it is a plant, and it has a chemical substance that your body responds to. The knowledge and power to cure come directly from a conversation with the plant.

In current psychedelic research—both in pop culture and in scientific discourses—there are many interesting theories, yet there is a lack of female voices. I interviewed women who are using psychedelics as a mental, physical, and spiritual medicine. During the video we discussed their personal philosophies, alternative community building, the concept of divinity, the ethics of cyber versus spiritual landscape, relational eco-approaches, sexuality, non-Western health systems, psychopathologies of capitalism, the future shape of the earth, and feminist perspectives on the Anthropocene.

I wanted to show a confusion between the ethical system of the plant and the ethical system of our daily lives, and moreover to ask, How do you integrate the two? I also wanted to draw a parallel between the digital age, which is so bodiless, and the psychedelic world, where you have out-of-body experiences. With the latter, there is some part of you that is always present in a nonphysical dimension; similarly, in the digital world—wherein you make posts online and people respond—it has nothing to do with being inside your body. I went into making this work believing that I was a very open person, and immediately what came through was how stuck I am in my own views about the world. I’m not an expert on ayahuasca, but what I have learned is that the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural are not as fixed as my culture has implied.

— As told to Courtney Yoshimura

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled (Sculpture 2), 2008, mirror, paint, plaster, wood, 29 x 29 x 19”.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in Iran in 1924 and is well known for her dazzling approach to geometric abstraction, primarily in the mirror reliefs and drawings she has been making since the 1970s that derive from ornamental elements in traditional Islamic architecture. The first museum retrospective of her work, curated by Suzanne Cotter, will be on view at the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal, from October 9, 2014 through January 11, 2015 before traveling to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from March 13 to June 3, 2015.

LAST SPRING, I had a survey exhibition at the Third Line in Dubai which then traveled to Doha. Suzanne Cotter had seen these shows, and she invited me to bring my drawings and sculptures from the past forty years to Porto. My work is largely based on geometry, which, as you know, always begins with a single point and can move from there into a circle. Or a point can become three leading to a triangle, or four to a square, five to a pentagon, hexagon, octagon, and so on—it’s endless. I was inspired by the geometry I found in old mosques with their tile, metal, wood, and plaster work. A master metalworker that I studied with once told me, “Everything is in geometry.” I then found out that with a hexagon you could do so much. And today, I still work on geometry—it’s at the base of my art because it has an infinite amount of possibilities. You can create thousands and thousands of designs in textiles, metal, tiles, everything.

These recent shows have been a remarkable time in my life because for so long I was really a nobody. Little by little, I’ve become…I don’t know…better known? Certainly the Guggenheim wasn’t giving me a show until now. I lived in New York for almost forty years, and moved there initially in 1944 to be a student. I was friends with many poets and artists at the time: Calder, Mitchell, Avery. I used to go to a club once a month on Tenth Street; all the artists would gather there and one would give a talk. I remember Philip Johnson, de Kooning, Newman, and then after that they would all go to the Cedar Tavern. I would follow but I wouldn’t drink. I had a lot of fun, though. Anyway, these days in Tehran the disco doesn’t let me in!

I met Warhol a little later on. After studying at Parsons, I got a job through a classmate of mine at Bonwit Teller. I met the head of the art department, and they hired me for eighty dollars a week. I used to also do freelance work for them, drawing a bottle of perfume, slippers, or a bag. Andy was drawing his shoes. He was very friendly, and at the time we thought we were making a lot of money. We used to go to picnics for lunch. When I returned to Iran in the ’60s, I knew Andy was becoming a very famous Pop artist in New York. So he came to Tehran to make a portrait of the queen. I had a big luncheon for him and his crew. My daughter arranged it. At the time we exchanged some works. I had so many great works in my collection until they were confiscated during the revolution in 1979, which also marked the beginning of my twenty-six-year exile in New York. Thankfully, many of my drawings were still in New York at Denise René’s gallery, where I had a show in 1977, as well as at her Paris gallery that year.

The Serralves show is an honor for me. Suzanne was the first one to notice that my drawings are something different and deserve a special focus, particularly those that were made when I didn’t have a studio following the early years of being exiled in the US. Many of these drawings will be in Porto and New York, and they’ve never been exhibited before. Honest to God, I’m grateful to those who have helped me to get my work back into the world. From Chris Dercon at Tate Modern to Gary Tinterow at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to Hans Ulrich Obrist to Frank Stella to Suzanne, and to everyone else I might be missing.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

George Herms


George Herms in Irvine, California, 2011. Photo: Sue Henger.

LOVE is not just the word with which George Herms signs his work but an expression of a particular ethos. Well known in Beat generation poetry, art, and 1960s-era California Assemblage circles, he was also involved with Wallace Berman’s influential publication Semina. Herms speaks here about a series of recent collage works exhibited in “LOVE George Herms” at testsite in Austin, Texas, which are on view from September 7 to October 19, 2014, as well as the recent acquisition of his archives by the Getty Research Center.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE STORYBOARD—isn’t that how the Bible starts out? A collaboration with a fictitious artist who integrates film, video, installation, sculpture, drawing, original music, and performance. That’s what I do, but now that text becomes a found paragraph for discussing artists of our time. Artists don’t want to be boxed in, or at least I never wanted to be.

Within the work, I’m the boss; I know what’s happening. My technique is to look at magazines upside down, and if I find something I enjoy, I tear it out. I’m a tear-rrorist. Like panning for gold with scissors, I cut out whatever is interesting to me. Then those pieces begin to dance around and form collages. Generally, I work on a coffee table, so that’s my natural scale. Besides the rusty-dusty stuff, I have an interest in color, which comes from working with bright and vibrant printer’s inks via my independent LOVE Press.

Some of the collages in my current show at testsite are composed of pieces of my archives returned to me by the Getty. And so this is an autobiographical body of work. For example, there’s a document in one of these collages, a piece of paper where you can see a list of names on the reverse side. This is from when I was executing the facsimile edition of Semina, and those are the people that are in the first issue—Cameron’s there, and so is Walter Hopps.

For fifty years I never threw anything away, so there was five decades of junk mail, documenting every election and all that stuff. I was like a scientist recording what was going on that day. But once I got to the Getty Research Institute, things changed. I found out about archival categories, and they would put my things into different boxes: for example, letters and correspondence. If the letter had the date on it, the Getty didn’t also need the envelope to establish date. So they threw away all the envelopes; they were winnowing. We had a sign on the office wall, which I made, which read WINNOW, DON’T WALLOW. In that little office, there was a table and a camera aimed straight down on the documents. There was also a second camera pointed at me with a microphone on it and I went over every single piece of paper accumulated over those years. All told, it was about twenty boxes’ worth of envelopes and newspapers thrown away, and naturally I asked, “Can I keep them?”

After fifty years, I’m going through my own wastebasket and finding there’s more. It gets ridiculous, because the challenge is to make gold out of dross. The less interesting the thing is, the bigger the challenge.

— As told to Andy Campbell

Sanaz Mazinani, U.S.A.I.R.A.N., 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Sanaz Mazinani is a San Francisco–based artist whose work explores the relationship between perception and representation. Her installation U.S.A.I.R.A.N., 2014, is currently featured in “5 x 5,” a program of contemporary, temporary public art spearheaded by the Washington, DC, commission on the arts and humanities. Mazinani’s work, which appropriates the exterior of a vacant library at 1300 H Street Northeast in DC’s thriving H Street Corridor, is on view until November 21, 2014.

U.S.A.I.R.A.N. is a public art installation that activates a vacant space by covering all its windows with a set of twenty-one digital montages. The imagery used was all sourced online and brings together photographs of Tehran and Washington, DC, that challenge the negative representations of Iranians that are seen in popular media in the West, as a means to take control of our own image.

The site is a former library, which has lain vacant since 2009. It used to be an important community hub, so when I found out that it has been purchased by a developer who had plans to demolish it and build yet another condo in this already fast-gentrifying neighborhood, I knew that I needed to use its incredible architecture for one final hurrah.

The building is incredibly unique. It’s octagonal with a set of twenty-four windows, eight of which are curved, so I was excited to use it as an urban forum of exchange. I was commissioned by Out of the Box Projects for “5x5,” with a premise to create a public art installation that would speak to issues regarding the theme of home(land). Since the project is in the US capital, I wanted to respond to the cultural void created by the absence of an Iranian Embassy. In the 1960s and ’70s, the embassy was a site of cultural exchange, with events featuring Iranian performers and artists that drew the likes of Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra to DC. Today, not only is that singular venue long closed, but there are immigration restrictions in place that make it difficult for Iranian artists to present their work anywhere in this country. So this work’s initial inspiration was to throw light on the void of Iranian arts and culture in the US due to sanctions and the politics at play today.

The process of visiting the site and conversing with DC residents allowed me to understand exactly how little Americans know about contemporary life in Iran. The project slowly morphed into a kind of representation of Tehran juxtaposed against DC, wherein the montaged images on the windows do the heavy lifting of presenting a new perspective and proposing an alternative view of Tehran. I knew I wanted to create a public installation that would be alluring from a distance, but also difficult. The imagery uses patterns reminiscent of Islamic ornamentation superimposed onto this midcentury American building. By merging and colliding images of the US with those of Iran, the work forms surprising visual links and narratives.

While installing the work, I had a chance to talk with many neighborhood residents. One comment that stood out was: “Aren’t those two countries at odds with one another?” This was the golden question for me. I want to call attention to the significance of perspective and position, and to recognize the ever-changing political relationships that are manufactured around nation-states. Above the building, for instance, waves a double-sided flag that reads, SPEAK A NEW LANGUAGE, SO THAT THE WORLD CAN BE A NEW WORLD. This Rumi quote appears in both Farsi and English, and it references the power of arts and literature to alter the imagination.

The project is rather accessible, with blunt contrasts and comparisons that leave space for viewers to formulate their own questions, providing a physical forum that agitates our understanding of difference. The installation is viewable during the day and at night, when the entire building turns into a giant light box. And that really speaks to my interest in photography and what it does in the public sphere. Repetition and reproducibility empower images with the ability to construct and define history. This installation becomes an alternative to the dominant narrative. The images have all been plucked out of their own contexts. Combining photographs of Tehran gathered through a variety of online sources—which are not normally printed in newspapers—with similar photos of DC reveals the kinship between these cities.

— As told to Katie Anania