From the Bay Lights' whimsy to the bronze monstrosities that grace the plazas outside a corporate skyscraper, public art can be polarizing. San Francisco should count itself lucky that French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel — who recently opened Les Belles Danses, the first permanent installation at Versailles in several centuries — has not one but two pieces up, and each is lovely to see.
Peony, the Knot of Shame is a large-scale, multi-colored work at 836M near Jackson Square, while La Rose des Vent, a kinetic piece bedecked in gold leaf, stands like a friendly sentinel outside the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Peony, although the less visible of the two, is nonetheless well-positioned, changing aspects as you move around it. As Othoniel guides me to his ideal mark in the gallery, he points out how for passersby on the sidewalk, Peony will appear as a geometric abstraction, while for people looking head-on from inside the gallery, it will reveal itself as a flower.
Othoniel loves the peony for its royal associations — in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a court favorite, having only recently been imported to France from China — but also because it's the "flower of shame."
"I have to be proud of my own shame," he said, laughing, "and make it flamboyant."
The idea for La Belle Danses (for which 836M has a scale model and a video of a site-specific dance performance) came from some notations in a book Othoniel found in Boston that described baroque choreography from the reign of Louis XIV. It gave him the idea to build a sculpture in a fountain at Versailles that had once been a grove for royal dances. By shooting water out of jets in a specific way, it could look "like the king is dancing again."
"And when the fountains aren't working, it's like a reflection," Othoniel told me, pointing to the model. It sits on a mirror made to resemble the reflective surface of the water when the fountain is turned off.
Othoniel employs several large teams to execute his vision. La Belle Danse's 2,000 beads were hand-blown and then covered in gold leaf to hide the water pipes, while Peony is only slightly less elaborate. With so much time and attention lavished upon them, these pieces could certainly be considered haute couture, but they're also technical accomplishments. The automatic pumps that run La Belle Danse had to be adjusted to follow the rhythm of the dance.
While fidelity to the past, and making a royal space accessible for 21st-century citizens of La Republique, was important, Othoniel made some modifications for modern audiences, chiefly in the dances themselves.
"I wanted to give a vision of what baroque dance could be," he said. "But I didn't want a real baroque dance, because it takes hours, and it's very boring, and I think people of today — maybe three specialists will love it but otherwise, very boring."
Public art must delight people, it is true. And while the gaudiness is eye-catching, Othoniel's work is more than surface. In terms of color and scale, there is some overlap between his sculptures and those of Jeff Koons, who Othoniel admires for his joyfulness and the beauty of his work. But Koons' calculated materialism turns him off.
"I want something for the people, to bring hope and joy in a very sincere way," he said. "There is no irony here. I try to bring people to the wonder of the reality and not to make a discourse about it."
Although La Rose des Vent's placement on the walkway leading to the Conservatory will lend the grounds a regal cast for the next nine months, installing it in a city known for NIMBYism was nothing like dealing with Versailles' mandarins and their resistance to change. As the first permanent project since the reign of Louis XVI at Versailles — once the seat of the Ancien Régime and now a complex of some 5,000 state employees charged with maintaining one of the most identifiable repositories of French history — La Belle Danse required a great deal of delicate ego management. And indeed, the bureaucrats there are always skeptical of contemporary art, Othoniel said. He built the sculpture on-site to "make them proud" of it.
"For the people who run the fountain, they've never stopped," he said. "It was the same family and company. With the Revolution, two wars, May '68, nothing stopped Versailles. They are always running the fountain. For them to run something high-tech was quite a shock, but now they are very proud, because now they can operate the fountain with their iPhones."