The Beads of Versailles: Jean-Michel Othoniel's Les Belles Danses
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The Beads of Versailles:
Jean-Michel Othoniel's Les Belles Danses

Giant golden glass orbs, strung together and arcing through the air in elaborate arabesques, populate the Water Theater Grove of Versailles. Sculptor JEAN-MICHEL OTHONIEL and landscape architect LOUIS BENECH collaborated to develop Les Belles Danses (2015), winning an international competition to revitalize a forgotten corner of the palace gardens. The sculptures' arabesquing lines are inspired by RAOUL-AUGER FEUILLET'S 1701 Choréographie, ou l'art de décrire la danse (Choreography, or the art of describing dance).1 Feuillet wrote this choreography manual for Louis XIV and his entourage in order to make dance recordable, teachable, and transferable. Through a carefully researched adaptation of the dance manual's forms, Othoniel's contemporary sculpture effectively marries the past and present, taking up the danced shapes of the past in order to extend the aesthetics of glory associated with the reign (1643–1715) of the French king Louis XIV, the "Sun King." The elaborate fountains and garden spaces of the Water Theater Grove were originally developed by the celebrated garden architect ANDRé LE NOTRE at the special request of the king. Although this corner of Versailles [End Page 449] was favored by Louis XIV, it had since fallen into disrepair. Neglected under subsequent monarchs, it was finally closed to the public after a devastating storm partially ruined the gardens in 1999. Othoniel's installation, sparkling in the sunlight and spouting glittering jets of water, seems a far cry from this previously neglected, storm-ravaged terrain. Not only did the golden sculptures revitalize this corner of the garden, but they also represent the first new permanent installation at Versailles in more than three hundred years.2

Figure 1. Jean-Michel Othoniel, The Beautiful Dances, Versailles 2015. Fountain sculptures for the Water Theater grove, Gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Photo: Thomas Garnier.
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Figure 1.

Jean-Michel Othoniel, The Beautiful Dances, Versailles 2015. Fountain sculptures for the Water Theater grove, Gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Photo: Thomas Garnier.

The inclusion of new art at Versailles is significant, insofar as the palace of Versailles is a site that looms large in the French cultural imaginary. In the absolutist world-system of the seventeenth century, the king styled himself not only as the most meaningful entity of his domain, but also as the source of its signification, even the anchor without which meaning itself could not exist. As Louis Marin has noted, Versailles' gardens and castles "architecturized" the king "not [End Page 450] only [to] render these spaces the locus of absolute political power, but the center of the entire cosmos" as well.3 To include a new, contemporary sculpture as a permanent installation in this once closed, utopic space is not a décor-renovation choice made lightly. In the French cultural context, it is nothing short of dramatic change. A treasured site so closely connected to a hegemonic past and a sense of French nationalism would surely require art that echoed the glories of the Ancien Régime past, or at least that continuously extended a certain sense of the State and stateliness. Othoniel's adaptation of a regulatory apparatus—the dance manual—seems on the surface an apt means of shoring up the memory of such a centralized past.

Figure 2. Aerian views of the Water Theater grove, gardens of the château de Versailles, May 2015. © EPV / Drive Productions, © 2016 Othoniel / ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin.
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Figure 2.

Aerian views of the Water Theater grove, gardens of the château de Versailles, May 2015. © EPV / Drive Productions, © 2016 Othoniel / ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin.

While lingering near these golden fountains, we seem quite far from the explicit exploration of sexuality and embodiment present in the artist's other works. Othoniel has never shied away from queer themes in his artwork, from his 1995 performance installation "Glory Holes," which involved dancers peeping and poking through a suspended sheet spangled with embroidered holes, to his anuses in molded sulfur from the late 1980s and early '90s, which were displayed in glass cases with strategically placed mirrors that exposed the undersides of the sculptures to viewers. Even Othoniel's glass sculptures are queerly accessorial to [End Page 451] the body: unwearable glass beads form immense necklaces, glass-baubled beds, giant glass harnesses. Othoniel said of his first work with glass (from 1993), "I wanted...