“I had designed it a little too small”: Abraham Poincheval spends a week inside a sculpture of himself

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“I had designed it a little too small”: Abraham Poincheval spends a week inside a sculpture of himself


LLast month, at a posh 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 applauded. He had been there for seven days.

Abraham Poincheval, perhaps the most extreme performance artist in France, specializes in surreal feats of endurance, often in tight spaces. He lived in a rock for seven days and a teddy bear for 13 days. For this last work, Hartung, he decided to look at a painting by abstract artist Hans Hartung for seven consecutive days. He even built a special contraption for it: an aluminum hull of a man sitting on a block, looking down at a large square funnel.

Forced to look: sculpture on the other side Photography: Claire Dorn

“It’s my double, made with a 3D scanner,” says the 49-year-old man, who dresses like a teenager on acid. “We made me a little taller so I could get in on my own. The block functioned as a seated pit toilet, and in the character’s arms there was food and water. “It was a very difficult start,” says Poincheval, who struggled both to reach for his supplies and to bring them to his mouth. “I had designed it a little too small. “

Poincheval on the march in western France. Photography: Fred Tanneau / AFP / Getty Images

The biggest shock, 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,” Poincheval explains. He barely slept the first ‘chaotic’ night, so disturbed was he by the thick black streaks of Hartung and the splashes of gold and iridescent blue. But the next day things calmed down. “We begin to find our place in sculpture, to find our bearings and to invent gestures that allow us to function. He compares the experience to “a solo crossing of the Atlantic”, his mood changing from calm to anxiety and then to euphoria. The painting became a kind of mantra and, to his surprise, was continuously in motion. “Things have disappeared, others have reappeared, colors have changed,” he says. “It was always in motion, like a real landscape. “

Poincheval focused on performance from the start of his career. It was cheaper to start with. “We have a body,” he says, “which is already an amazing thing – a refuge, a means of transport. He receives a lot of information, which he keeps, archives, transcribes.

Pulling his own shelter, he climbed the Alps through the four seasons (The Thickness of a Mountain, 2013), walked Brittany wearing the armor of a medieval knight (Le chevalier errant, homme of absence, 2018) and was a living message in a bottle (Bottle, 2015). Slowly the journey became interior as he became fascinated by the first hermits. Indeed, their efforts make Poincheval pass amateur. 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 a withdrawal as a change of perspective. “They were able to give the best report in the world.

In 2017, Poincheval lived inside a limestone rock that had space in its center for him. It was there that he came with Hartung, having experienced hallucinations that reminded him of the painter’s later exuberant works.

Rock star artist… is preparing to spend a week inside a rock.
Rock star artist… is preparing to spend a week inside a rock. Photograph: Benoit Tessier / Reuters

What effect did his presence within his creation have on other visitors who viewed Hartung’s work? “They examined the canvases much more carefully 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 exercise over a work of art, but also the power that the work can exercise over the gaze. And they followed it literally: Poincheval’s brain activity was monitored using 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 he intended to incubate, its presence adding the necessary 10 degrees of heat. “I was doing the job a chicken would do,” he says. “But being a human is a bit more complicated. “

He was amazed to find that people spent a good part of an hour watching him. This dynamic fascinates him: “Where is the relationship between the viewer and the work? And what happens – suddenly, chemically – to produce this magical moment? Fortunately, Poincheval does not over-intellectualize: if he is happy to talk about the gaze, he is just as happy to answer questions on the practical aspects of defecation. (He usually puts it in a special compartment. I sniffed inside Hartung and it didn’t smell.)

Glass half full… in a giant bottle.
Glass half full… in a giant bottle. Photography: Bertrand Langlois / AFP / Getty Images

During Egg’s final days, Poincheval became convinced that his experiment had failed and, after a horrible night’s sleep, was ready to announce that the eggs would not hatch. In the morning, a cleaner appeared to confirm this by warning him that one of the eggs had a crack. His heart sank. Then he noticed a little beak sticking out. “The chick had been fighting all night, like me,” he said. On the advice of one of the caretakers, whose family raised chickens, Poincheval undertakes a delicate operation: “I performed a cesarean section on the egg. The rest then hatched 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 pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in France. From the outside, it will look like a giant boulder, but the inside will be covered in gold leaf, allowing weary travelers to close their eyes in a sparkling cave. And next year, Poincheval will lock himself in a beehive, as an exploration of a unit larger than the family: society. “The beehive is the ideal representation of all societies,” he says, “whether in medieval times, antiquity, Renaissance, modernity or monarchy.

The search for transcendence in confined situations has resonated since the spring of 2020, but Poincheval does not want to make too many comparisons between his one-week imprisonment and the confinements. “It’s very different,” he says. “I want this. I conceived this idea of ​​being locked up. It’s different from someone who takes all the weight of it without having a say. “

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