L.Last month, in an elegant gallery in Paris, the back of a sculpture was removed and a man was removed. He looked around, disoriented, as his body slowly unfolded. A doctor rushed to his side and, after inspecting him, announced that he was in good health. The crowd cheered. He had been there for seven days.
Abraham PoinchevalArguably the most extreme performance artist in France, he specializes in surreal feats of resistance, often in tight quarters. He has lived inside a rock for seven days and a teddy bear for 13. For this latest work, Hartung decided to look at a painting by an abstract artist. Hans hartung for seven days in a row. He even built a special contraption for him: an aluminum casing of a man sitting on a block, staring into a large square funnel.
“It’s my doppelganger, made with a 3D scanner,” says the 49-year-old, who dresses like a teenager with acid. “We got a little bigger so I could go in myself.” The block functioned as a seated toilet, and in the figure’s arms there was food and water. “The beginning was very tough,” says Poincheval, who struggled both to reach his supplies and to put them in his mouth. “I had designed it a little too small.”
The biggest impact, however, was Hartung’s work, a square canvas painted in 1989, the last year of the Franco-German artist’s life. “It had a really powerful impact,” says Poincheval. He hardly slept the first “chaotic” night, so disturbed was he by Hartung’s thick black trails and splashes of iridescent gold and blue. But the next day things calmed down. “You begin to find your place in sculpture, to orient yourself and invent gestures that allow you to function.” He compares the experience to “a solo Atlantic crossing,” and his mood changes from calm to anxiety and exhilaration. The painting became a kind of mantra and, to his surprise, it was continually changing. “Things disappeared, others reappeared, colors changed,” he says. “It was always moving, like a real landscape.”
Poincheval has been focused on performance since the beginning of his career. For starters, it was cheaper. “You have a body,” he says, “which is already something amazing: a shelter, a means of transportation. It receives a lot of information, which it preserves, files, transcribes ”.
Pulling from his own shelter, he has climbed in the Alps for all four seasons (The Thickness of a Mountain, 2013), Brittany walked in the armor of a medieval knight (The Errant Knight, the Man of Absence, 2018) and has been a live message in a bottle (Bottle, 2015). Little by little, the journey became an interior one as he became fascinated by the first hermits. In fact, his efforts make Poincheval look like a hobbyist. Simeon the Stylite, the 5th century saint, spent 37 years atop a pillar. “They decided to see the world differently,” he says; It wasn’t so much about abstinence as about a change in perspective. “They could give the best account in the world.”
In 2017, Poincheval lived inside a limestone rock that had a space in the center for him. It was there that Hartung came up with it, having experienced hallucinations that reminded him of the exuberant later works of the painter.
What effect did their presence, within your creation, have on other visitors who looked at Hartung’s work? “They have examined the canvases much more closely and interacted with them in a much more vivid way,” says Thomas Schlesser, director of the Hartung-Bergman Foundation, which organized the exhibition. “This performance shows the power that the gaze can exert on a work of art, but also the power that the work of art can exert on the gaze”. And they tracked this down quite literally: Poincheval’s brain activity was monitored via electrodes on his scalp. Scientists are now analyzing the results.
Poincheval felt the power of the gaze especially during Egg, when he sat on a wooden stool in a glass cube for 21 days at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Under the seat of the stool was a transparent compartment for a nest of 11 eggs that it was intended to hatch, and its presence added the necessary 10 degrees of heat. “I was doing the job a chicken would do,” he says. “But being human is a bit more complicated.”
He was surprised to find that people spent the better part of an hour watching him. This dynamic fascinated him: “Where is the relationship between the observer and the work? And what happens, suddenly, chemically, to produce this magical moment? “Fortunately, Poincheval does not intellectualize too much: although he is happy to talk about the gaze, he is also happy to answer questions about the practicalities of defecation. (He usually keeps it in a special compartment. I sniffed inside Hartung and did not smelled).
In Egg’s final days, Poincheval became convinced that his experiment had failed and, after a terrible night’s sleep, he was ready to announce that the eggs would not hatch. In the morning, a cleaner seemed to confirm this by warning him that one of the eggs had a crack. His heart sank. Then he noticed a small beak sticking out. “The girl had fought all night, like me,” he says. On the advice of one of the attendees, whose family had chickens, Poincheval underwent a delicate operation: “I performed a cesarean section on the egg.” The rest were later born and all went to live with Poincheval’s parents, perfectly completing this exploration of the family unit.
This summer, the artist is building a refuge on the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage route in France. From the outside it will look like a giant rock, but the inside will be covered in gold leaf, allowing weary travelers to close their eyes in a gleaming cavern. And next year, Poincheval will lock himself in a hive, as an exploration of a unit larger than family: society. “The beehive is the ideal representation of all societies,” he says, “whether during medieval times, antiquity, the Renaissance, modernity or the monarchy.”
Seeking transcendence in confined situations has had resonance since spring 2020, but Poincheval doesn’t want to make too many comparisons between his week-long incarceration and his confinements. “It is very different,” he says. “I want this. I’ve come up with this idea of being locked up. That’s different from someone who gets the worst of it without saying anything.”