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May 18
Talk: Maylis de Kerangal and Jessica Moore ONLINE EVENT The Center for Fiction 15 Lafayette Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11217

Interview with Artist Abraham Poincheval

The French artist Abraham Poincheval (born 1972 in Alençon, lives and works in Marseille), represented by the Galerie Semiose, is an insatiable explorer. Whether by crossing the Alps while pushing a capsule he used as his shelter, or by enclosing himself for a week in a rock, his—itinerant or static—expeditions require total physical commitment. The works and performances of Abraham Poincheval are subject to numerous national and international exhibitions and invitations.

FrenchCulture: Abraham, your artistic practice is specifically focused on performances that put confinement to the test, whether it be in a bear at the Musée de la Chasse – Paris; in a stone or to hatch eggs at the Palais de Tokyo – Paris; or in a big bottle at the FRAC PACA….

Can you explain these works of yours to us? What are the similarities, if there are any, or the differences between each experience of confinement?

AP: The first project that I created was called 604 800 secondes. This project was shown at l’Histoire de l’oeil, a bookstore / gallery in Marseille. It was about living in a hole 60 centimeters wide and 1.7 meters tall for seven days. This confined space was dug into the ground of the bookstore and closed with a stone weighing one ton during my journey. It was a way of placing myself before the story, since literature strongly influences my projects and I had always wondered what it would be like for me to create a proto-literary work.

FrenchCulture: Can you clarify the role of literature in your practice? What are your literary references or the books and authors that have influenced your worked?

AP: As a starting point, I will cite the Writings of Gandhi, a short encyclopedic story of stuntmen and Tout l’univers, an encyclopedia in the loose sense of the term. Next, Jack London, Blaise Cendrars , Dostoïevky, Peter Handke, Fernando Pessoa, J G Ballard…all whom I consider great reporters. Then, there is Rodrigo Fresan, who comes from magical realism, Bret Easton Ellis and his opposite David Foster Wallance, then another work like L’ile Magique by William Seabrook, Rue des Maléfices by Jacques Yonnet, Mon musée de la Cocaïne by Michael Taussig, Testo Junkie by Préciado, The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison…I have always been attracted to books that tackle the deconstruction and the reconstruction of a founding myth. In this way the story of the discovery of America by Lewis and Clarke is fascinating. I developed my first projects with this diverse collection of literary works.

To return to your first question about confinement, it was also a response to the walking project that I had subsequently developed. To not move is also to move. It is a paradoxical journey; I was a sort of terranaut. Then, there was l’Ours. This work consisted of occupying the body of a naturalized bear for 13 days at the Musée de la chasse et de la nature in Paris. Half stretched out in the stomach of the beast, provided with the bare minimum I needed to live there, I embarked on an interior journey that touched upon our ancestral thoughts and our link with the animal realm. Enriched with these new territories that revealed themselves in each of the previous pieces, I hoped to further explore other worlds. I literally dived into the mineral realm during an immobile voyage that would make me move forward at the speed of minerals by creating Pierre at the Palais de Tokyo. The hard stone was furrowed at its center to marry my silhouette. I was able to make some daily movements and surround myself with the bare necessities needed to live autonomously for one week. Thus, confined in this rock like in a space capsule, I had an internal journey, experimenting the evolving structures of the mineral. 

Abraham Poincheval, Pierre, 2017. Photo : A. Mole, Courtesy Semiose, Paris

FrenchCulture: I understand that each work allows you to explore a territory in steps. A posteriori, can you explain the nature of each of the territories that you discovered (conceptual or physical)? Overall, is the performance/confinement the time to deepen an idea, by isolating yourself at the crux of the notion in question and remaining, until you have found the response to this question, uniquely in the idea’s presence?  

AP: Effectively, it is a kind of laboratory, among other things. For Oeuf, for example, I performed the experiment in a cube: a form that oscillates between a showcase, a vivarium, and the minimal form, in order to bring the space of a laboratory to mind and imagine the center of art (le palais de Tokyo) as the laboratory where we experiment with art. Throughout my incubation, I asked myself questions like: What is it like for visitors to watch a birth in an exposition space? What is it like for a chick to be born in an exposition space? What is the interaction between the public, the egg, and me?

It is a little like in the film Saint François d’Assise de Pasolini, when the protagonist talks to the birds. Here and in my projects more generally, there is a questioning that touches on the concept of territory. 

FrenchCulture: I understand that each performance in confinement unfolds in different material conditions…is this the territory that you are evoking? For example, I can imagine that being in a stone is “colder” and less prickly, no doubt, than being in a haystack. I think becoming aware of the quality of the material that surrounds you renders each performance unique. By setting yourself in this foreign material, do you seek to appropriate the material with your body and become one with it?  

AP: Yes, the material produces a unique framework where a unique symbiosis takes pace. For example, for Pierre, I imagine the time lived in the interior like a crystallization. The stone for this work served as a protector. Tightly confined in this in this 6-ton block, I was propelled into this voyage with a euphoric sensation. Next, while re-discussing this feeling with a geologist, she suggested that this stems from the composition of the hard stone, which is made slowly and without fits and starts. Likewise, for the “Lion Man” sculpture -- an enlarged version of the smaller statue of the same name from the Aurignacian period -- in which I resided standing up for one month. Shut away inside, I had the experience of a forested countryside at night, guided by what seemed to be a fox. Of course, I can very well imagine that this came from my body’s chemical reaction to the stress produced by the experience, but I also think that there was a form of exchange. 

FrenchCulture: How do you decide the length of the works and have you ever failed to fulfill the length you planned? 

AP: For what concerns the length of confinement pieces, I most often use the classic representation of time for occidental society: a week. In other cases, the length is inherent to the work, like for Oeuf -- the length was decided for me by the duration of the incubation for an egg. In this work that is still at the Palais de Tokyo, I confronted myself with the living for the first time. Living in a vivarium, I sat on 11 chicken eggs up until their eclosion. I was substituting myself for the chicken, for the duration of the 21-day gestation period of egg to chick. For “Ruch,” which is currently in the works, I imagined living as a worker bee for the shortest time needed to experience an active beehive – 13 days.

For the other works that do not involve a static voyage, the length depends on the landscape crossed, which can take two weeks to 4 seasons. Or still, from 3 to 6 seconds for the future project I am imagining with the critic and art historian Paul Ardenne. 

On the question of failing, up until now, the works have not stopped before the initially intended duration. If the work must be interrupted before the imagined stopping point, I would not feel like I was failing, since works of art function in a constant equilibrium. Even before the planning process, you have to accept that the work could end at any moment.

FrenchCulture: Can you develop the idea of a static voyage, which seems central in your work? What would be its sequence of events? Do you plan an itinerary in advance or have a precise goal? Or is it more like an adventure towards the completely unknown? I understand that it is about an interior voyage: Is the voyage composed of steps that you can describe to us? Do you prepare them? Could you possibly share some discoveries that you have made during these static trips? (Or not, if it involves experiences and senses that are incommunicable?)

AP: Yes, in effect, I have not yet found a way to summarize the entirety of the performance. While I cannot cover the entire story, I can explain small pieces of it. It is a little like if I was Schrodinger’s cat in the box. But your question gives me some paths that I had not yet envisioned for the publication of the record books. The interview is also a good moment for me to return to the projects.

On the question of a static voyage -- In the beginning, I imagined that it was unnecessary to add to the already enormous amount of movement that surrounds us. At this moment, the midges are doing their dance over the lemon in front of me, and, a few hundred kilometers away, the mountain is moving at a different scale than us. The hermits that are still a source of inspiration for me are the incarnation of this. Yuri Gagarin, who I consider the first space hermit, the man that sits in his Votsok like a cave, made the first long static journey.

On the preparation: I exchanged with the astronaut Claudie Haigneré and then the shaman Corine Sombren about this. I was shocked to share that, despite all the necessary preparations, the “journey” is always shifting, following its natural propension. Throughout the performance, all proprioceptions are modified – you must always be on guard. The lived territory continuously redesigns itself -- Consider the elements of nitrogen narcosis and high-altitude euphoria. For each step done, you must economize that of the return. You must take a direction, while accepting deviation. It is a science of intuition. 

FrenchCulture: What is the genesis of your practice? Do you know why you engaged in what is considered such an extreme practice, from the popular point of view of mortals? Did other works or artists inspire you? What was your “seminal” work? (Total SymbioseHorizon Moins Un?)

AP: Without a doubt, all of this comes to me from different experiences that I had and that I continue to have throughout my existence, from various past encounters and from those still to come, but I also needed a certain planetary alignment or an accident in the cosmos in order to create certain works. 

I remember a residency at the artistic center of Kerguehenec in Bretagne led by Denys Zacharopoulos that occurred while I was still a student. Without actually imagining or making performative works, I assisted Marina Abramovic there. In this incredible framework, I was able to be side-by-side with artists from each continent and catch a glimpse of their ways of imagining art. For me, that was the coolest thing, it was really what I ardently wanted to do…But how? That is the unsolvable question. It is still the question that I asked myself at the end of my studies and over and over again afterwards. How can we imagine ourselves to be artists when our heads are full of Bruce Nauman, Matt Mulican, Chris Burden, Michael Heizer, Absalon, Matthew Barney, the writings of Dan Graham, David Antin, and many more…You must stumble to cope. 

Regarding my “seminal” work – there are two of them. The first is Total symbiose – I was working in a duo at this point. The work consisted of surviving on an island before going to the place of exposition and presenting our research for the opening of the exposition. The second is Gryovague le voyage invisible. It is a solitary journey of crossing the French Alps in Italy over 4 seasons. This trip was accomplished while pushing an aluminum cylinder with a diameter of 1.6 meters and a width of 80 cm. This object was a cabin, a vehicle, and a pre-photographic device all at once. 

FrenchCulture: Did you use tools to capture the performances about static voyages? (Put simply, for example, did you use a log book, or something else, to record the ideas that came to you?)

AB: I always bring a notebook with me. For certain works, like for l’Ours, a webcam kept track of the performance 24/7. For Oeuf, we reused the same technique to maintain a record of the experience. For Walk on the cloud, it became a film because it is hard to share a walk on the clouds, even at a low altitude, with each visitor. 

The idea of keeping a record is very important for me. It once again goes back to the idea of the history of hermits because without Hagiographa, without colporteurs, the story would disappear. I also like that idea that the visitor can be the holder and the peddler of the work. It is what happened with Gryovague le voyage invisible and Le chavalier errant – l’homme sans ici, where the people I crossed during my journey later recounted their strange encounter. For Oeuf, I was very touched by how the visitors shared the work. It was no longer only me that was hatching the eggs, but the entire group of visitors that was participating in the hatching, as it was recounted to me afterwards. 

Abraham Poincheval, Oeuf, 2017. Photo : A. Mole, Courtesy Semiose, Paris

FrenchCulture: Do you have a common protocol for the preparation / unfolding of events? Do you prepare your body and spirit in a certain way like an athlete or a cosmonaut would? What happens afterwards? How do you prepare yourself for the exit?

AP: There are often three periods for the presentation of the work. The first is the presentation of the entirety of the elements constituting the project. Then, there is the performance, which is a particular moment in the exposition. And, finally, the conclusion. I find that these three stages are important for visitors to be able to immerse themselves in the entire project. 

I prepare gradually throughout the elaboration of the project. Most often, this begins when I am simply sitting in a chair at home or working on a chalk drawing on the ground. From here, I try to bring the project to reality. This introduces a vital energy. From this point, I usually work with a team that is composed according to the needs of the project. 

FrenchCulture: Is your team mostly made up of scientists, specialists of the realm that you are going to explore? 

AP: Yes, there are usually biologists and scientists involved in the planning stages. On the ground, there is usually a doctor, a set-up team, a hot air balloon pilot, an acrobat, and beekeepers. 

Then, there is the performance, which is a true shift. In the performance, you have to both utilize and rid yourself of what you learned and what you imagined in order to let the experience carry you. You have to accept completely losing yourself, all while maintaining a guiding thread that prevents you from feeling too lost. For example, if you transform yourself into a rainbow, like I did in Pierre, you have to be able to rediscover a “human form” – this can be challenging and joyful at once.  Then there is the exit: from this moment onwards, you must relearn how to live your daily life, which can take a long or short time depending on the work.

FrenchCulture: How do you handle the shock of the constraint of confinement that is often very radical: Do you meditate? Read? Sleep? Pray? Compose poems? Memorize texts in advance? Fast? Does this moment generate a sort of trance? How do you handle the time that passes and the absence of perception through light that sometimes occurs when you are confined? How do you handle the impossibility of even moving?

AP: Yes, there is a form of trance and meditation that sustains me during this period of suspended time, almost like a bear’s hibernation, which renders him both more present and more absent all at once. Of course, food is extremely reduced because I use a very little amount of energy and I have little space to keep supplies and waste. All of this is thus reduced to what is strictly necessary. Furthermore, to burden your being superfluously can lead to complications because your body is static. I am not even talking about the handling of my needs, which can be extremely dangerous depending on the position.

Concerning movements, I practice a group of exercises during the performance that are tiny and accompanied by breathing. I would otherwise say that the keystone that allows me to hang on is breathing. Breathing is the primordial element. It is like you are a house – you must, like in Feng Shui, let the breathing dragon circulate, and it is for this reason that you have to take care of each room and corner.

FrenchCulture: In contrast with agoraphobia, I have the feeling that you have a passion for confinement, which must be pretty rare: Have you studied this? Do you have literary reference works that inspired you to embark upon this unique path?

AP: Absolutely – I am a claustrophile and agoraphobic, the opposite of a large number of people who suffer from claustrophobia. In this story of confinement, I admire Diogenes and many other myths.

FrenchCulture: To return to the current situation of confinement in which a large part of humanity involuntarily finds itself due to the COVID-19 epidemic, can you tell us how you are experiencing the situation? How do you imagine it from a day-to-day and artistic point of view? Do you think that your practice is going to help you face the new daily, and conversely, can this situation help your practice?

AP: For the moment, this situation is allowing me to re-center and take my time. It is, I think, the thing that I miss the most. Naturally, the transition from ever expansive activity to suspended time is not the easiest thing to handle, but I think that is beneficial and largely positive. For the moment, I cannot predict what this quarantine will produce in my practice. I prefer to leave time for these reflections, the imagination comes from itself. 

FrenchCulture: What are your future projects - Those you have planned and those on which you have already worked? And potentially a project that you dream of doing but that is still inaccessible? 

AP: For the moment, I am working on the project Ruche. The principle is to experience a beehive with its 20,000 to 50,000 members for 13 days. The image of the beehive, like the honeybee, has been strongly solidified as an emblem by societies of antiquity up until our days. Here, the intention is to experience a society other than our own and that lives in cohabitation with our society. It is also to experience a matriarchy. It is also in this work that we reflect on the question of the relation of the viewer and the question of the product and care of bees. I like the idea that we can put on the outfit of a beekeeper to visit an exposition…

On a different note, there is this idea with Paul Ardenne that was formed following his book l’apologie du dragsterl’espace temps intense. The idea was to be at the bow of a dragster and to experience the duration / speed over 402 meters. There are more ideas – like that of experiencing a work of Hans Hartung non-stop for one week and returning to walk on the clouds at other altitudes. Stay tuned. 

FrenchCulture: A contrario, you are also developing some pieces in the open air, very exposed to the elements. Do you want to talk to us a bit about what seems to me like a reverse of your practice? 

AP: Effectively, as you highlight, there are works in open spaces. The entirety of these works form an equilibrium and often reply to one another. 

There was Gyrovague, the invisible journey that I already talked about earlier; There is Vigie, which goes back to the practice of stylite, a hermit at the junction of the celestial and the human. There is also Le chevalier errant – l’homme sans ici, which is the journey without a search or the lost search of a XIII century knight in our epoch. It is a journey without a setting, a Donquichottesque journey, the imaginary view of the Middle Ages on our epoch and on our landscapes. It is a project that I expect to come back to for an exposition in Quebec with Inter lieu d’art contemporain. I am expecting to make the trip to New York at some point. To finish Walking on the cloud, a journey on the clouds by foot, which was created for the 2020 biennial of Lyon and which will be presented to la Galerie Sémiose in Paris in November.

Abraham Poincheval, Le chevalier errant, l'homme sans ici, 2018. Photo : A. Mole, Courtesy Semiose, Paris

FrenchCulture: What do you take away personally and artistically from all of these performances? 

AP: I imagine that if I continue, it is because I have not yet found what I am looking for. There is still a vast field of possibilities, a horizon that is always expanding, experiences that can be found.

Translation into English by Jessica Cohen.