When you think of Monaco, the azure Mediterranean Sea might be the first thing that comes to mind — sparkling along the French Riviera, with its glamorous holiday hotspots with sandy beaches, yacht-filled marinas and fresh sea air.
This year, the Monte Carlo Societe des Bains de Mer, which operates Monaco’s most distinctive cultural outlets, is seeking to raise awareness about climate change and marine conservation with The Sea is Green, a series of artistic initiatives to highlight the need to protect our seas.
The programme was launched earlier this month by giving Armenian artist Jean Boghossian free reign to fill Monte Carlo with several public art installations, all with a nautical flair — from detailed ceramic seashells to recycled sail cloth adorned with paintings.
Boghossian spent his childhood years living in Lebanon, then in Belgium, where he took a step back from his family’s jewellery-making business to study art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. He recently moved to Monaco, and having now lived by the sea in three different countries, the sight of it has become intrinsic to his daily life.
“I know the Mediterranean in Beirut, where all the plastics are polluting the water. People don't respect it,” Boghossian tells The National. “And, of course, I have seen the sea in Belgium. In Belgium, the sea is brown, so we are very lucky to have the Mediterranean where the sea is blue, like in Monaco.
“I love the climate here, and I also love the fact that they are very drawn towards the ecology, to making the world a better place and to taking care that our garbage doesn’t end up in the sea,” he adds. “It so happens that my work is a kind of recycling, whether it is the sails I bought [to paint on], or the ceramics I’m showing here.”
From his balcony in Monaco, Boghossian would watch sailboats go out to sea three times a week. This became the inspiration for his first installation, combined with his trademark practice of working with paint, smoke and blowtorches — a remnant from his jewellery-designing days.
At the Jardins des Boulingrins, recycled galvanised steel plates from the Atomium in Brussels — a monument built for the 1958 World's Fair — have been repurposed to form a regatta. The 30 triangular metal sheets, resembling sailboats, have been painted and burned, causing the paint to bubble and take on new forms and colours.
“It represents various periods of my artwork. I work with fire, so a lot of it has to do with flame and smoke pigment, as well as mixed media: liquids, paints, brushes and various techniques,” Boghossian says. “I received them as a gift in 2010 from Diane Hennebert, who at the time was the director of the Atomium, before taking over the Boghossian Foundation, which I created with my father and brother.
“At first I didn’t really know what to do with them, but since they were in my studio, I started painting them over the year,” he adds. “I already had about 12 of them, and when I told the Societe des Bains de Mer about the idea, I wanted to do more and make a whole regatta.”
A short walk away lies the Hotel Hermitage Monte Carlo — an Art Deco grandiosity with seashell motifs hidden in the ceiling plasterwork and mosaic floors, making it a fitting backdrop for Boghossian’s Shellfish series.
The sculptures feature ceramic sea snakes, bright coral — both real and ceramic — the remains of sea urchins and pastel-hued shells, like imagined reefs teeming with marine life.
Spread through the hotel, 30 ceramics evocative of seashells, waves and marine life can be seen. The works were inspired by the collection of the Seashell Museum in the nearby town of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, which Boghossian bought in 2016 — when the museum closed — to preserve it.
“I bought that collection in from the owner as he was leaving to go to Madagascar. The museum is small, but the mayor was so happy that now we decided to make the museum a bigger one, and to find some donors to reopen it this year,” Boghossian says. “Before [the museum owner's] departure he invited me to his apartment. One of the rooms was full of cases of rocks, shells and various things of the sea, but also books about shells.
“He gave me all of it as it was too costly to ship and I saw so many beautiful shells that are not in the museum, which I have now used in my sculptures,” he adds. “I used to go to the museum and I saw that shells are like precious stones; they are the beauties of the seas, while precious stones are the beauties of the earth. And they interact together very well, so I places some semi-precious stones on my sculptures too.”
The third element of Boghossian's public installations takes viewers to the promenade behind the Monte Carlo Casino, where 18 painted flags fly five-metres-high along the corniche.
As the installations are all about ecology, the use of recycled materials was at the forefront of Boghossian’s mind. The flags are made of declassified sail cloth, reused as a canvas for his artworks and made using natural pigments, soot, smoke, ink and water to create rippling shapes and merging colour.
A similar technique can be seen up close on some displayed works on paper the Hotel Hermitage Monte Carlo.
“When the sails get old and develop holes, there are controls in place that decide that they are no longer valid for use,” he says. “They are made of plastic and various materials which they don't know how to throw away, so I bought some to paint on them.”
Boghossian hopes that, as visitors flock to Monte Carlo for various touristic events such as the Monaco Grand Prix or the Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament in the coming months, they’ll take a moment to peruse his public artworks and think about how they can help to preserve the Mediterranean Sea.
Boghossian's public installations will be on display in Monte Carlo until May 10