Aurélie Pétrel: Where Space Becomes Form, 2018
By Alex Bowron
The Parameters of a Practice
In 2001, Aurélie Pétrel created a thought experiment. What would be the effects on a photographer's work if the architectural integrity of her studio were thrown into a state of perpetual flux? Not taking the permanence of a built environment for granted, she proposed to manage a practice that adapted itself to new surroundings, which she achieved by making movement a necessity. A prolific period of creative activity followed. Over the course of twenty years she has travelled back and forth between 7 self-designated sites of research and photographic study: Shanghai, Tokyo, Leipzig, New York, Montréal, Paris, and a small French village near the Swiss boarder called Romme.Out of this intense period of engagement in photography, Pétrel selected 1000 images for print and filed them into an artwork that functions as a sculptural database titled 'Prise de vue Latent' (latency images). This sculpture, and the images contained within, would serve to act as the physical and mental groundwork for the next stage of her career.
hought experiments continue to play a central role in Pétrel's practice. Nothing satisfies her more, than to hypothesize, and then test through the production of artworks, a theoretical proposition for a seemingly impossible act. What would happen, for example, if you asked your lab to print a white-on-white photograph, when white is not a tone that exists in photography, analogue or digital? The gap between theory and practice is of great fascination to Pétrel and it is where her artworks reside. It is by identifying and attempting to represent this gap that perspective is gained. It is in the gaps between things that space is felt most strongly. Through a series of self-designated parameters that define how her work comes into being, she questions conventions, flattens hierarchies, and builds space. Under Pétrel's hand, photography becomes architectural. It measures and is measured. It is lived in motion, freezing time only to project it back into space. Where the viewer stands, there is a space before the work begins. Engaging in this space is the only way to be fully aware of what has been placed in front of us.
The Intersection of Time and Space
American architect Peter Eisenman used the following conceptual analogy in the production of his early works:
1. Architecture is language
2. Language is text
3. Text is the manipulation of words to produce something other than a narrative
We begin with a cube. A strict procedural model is applied that divides the cube into volumes and planes. The process is axonometric—it is three-dimensional, but lacks perspective. It employs shift, rotation, compression and expansion to breathe life into a whole. The whole should always be heterogeneous—it must be a divided space. It should also be autonomous and therefore free from traditional constraints. As such, it becomes possible for the divisions to drive themselves, they become perpetual, resulting in a form affected by constant motion that appears to design itself. We must achieve a confidence in architecture that defies function in favour of form. Even the author is subordinate to form, because once it is created, all meaning derived from within the structure is self-generated. The structure, therefore, is free from the iconography and symbolism that come from external references to form.
According to Eisenman, architecture is 'the possibility of making a difference in the experience of being in space and time'1. Architecture should define itself by creating and distorting space to make us fully aware of being in the world. To appreciate architecture, a viewer must understand the relationship between subject and object as a relationship that disrupts space and intervenes with the everyday. In 1981, when Richard Serra completed his commissioned work Tilted Arc for the Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan, it was met with public outrage. At 120 feet long and 12 feet high, this swooping wall of unfinished weathering steel sliced its way diagonally across the previously open space, unapologetically intervening with all human traffic that used to cut across the plaza. Unlike so much unobtrusive and agreeable public sculpture, the work was constructed with intent to interrupt. It would not be ignored. If art and architecture do not provoke, then their impact falls flat. If they desire a place of significance, they must overcome any singular emphasis on materiality, function, meaning, and beauty. Beauty in particular is not interesting, but obvious. By its very nature, conventional beauty does not require close examination in order to be understood.
Autonomous architecture is liberated in its form. It must be designed to perpetually displace space so that form will forever take precedence over function. The structure of autonomy is heterogeneous: its planes collide and are transparent, and columns float freely, projecting themselves cosmetically and inconveniently into space. This type of architecture does not facilitate habitation. It is not comfortable or forgettable. It is not conventionally beautiful. Instead, it forces an experience of space that is demanding of, even hostile to, its users. Like the artworks of Pétrel, Eisenman's constructions are conceptual stand-ins for theory. They function as a record of the design process, so that structural elements are revealed, pointing towards the methods of their construction. In fact, there is little distinction made between design and resulting object. With a similar rejection of traditional hierarchies, Pétrel creates works like Photographic Score, 2014, where text performs as a direct stand-in for photographic process. The scores offer a highly detailed account of each technical and creative step in the production of her photographs, acting as both indexical sign of the physical, and physical signs in their own right. Pointing to a gap between the printed image and its source, these scores identify the physical spaces involved in what has become a photo-based installation practice. Through their flatness, and despite their utter lack of pictorial or representational qualities, these text works provide a highly accurate record of time and space, creating volume and reminding us again, and in a new way, to examine our relationship as subjects to objects.
The Dialectics of Form
Modern architecture perpetuated an implicit hierarchy of form, favouring industrial materials that produced minimal surfaces like concrete, glass, and steel over the domestic textures of stone, brick, and wood. It also preferred frontality, the viewing of its structures from a single, central location, without any need for lateral movement. It is not the existence of dialectical relationships themselves that is the problem—for everything physical defines itself in relation to something else—it is the relentless favouring of one over another that encourages hierarchies and reinforces binaries to create bias, smallmindedness, and a rejection of the endless ambiguities that context can provide.
As antithesis, deconstructivism stems from the rejection of a singular truth. By fragmenting its surfaces and dislocating the very elements of its form, it forces an experience of relativity, understanding that what you see depends entirely on where you stand. Viewers of deconstructive works are forced into an active role. They cannot see the work if they do not move around it. They equalize the simultaneously perceived with the sequentially perceived. Eisenman reminds us of this. So does Pétrel. The elements that make up a building, a photograph, an exhibition, a text, depend on each other in order for meaning to be produced. There is another gap here, a floating signifier between a form and its significance. There is no meaning to a letter or a word in isolation. Even when woven into some semblance of a whole, meaning is never inherent, but depends entirely on relationships.
A Final Note on Photography
Photography is the medium of simultaneous perception. All the action of a photograph is perceived at once. It is non-linear by nature and cannot be read beginning to end. Photography is also inherently linked to time. It requires, suspends, and measures time, transforming it into something both physical and metaphysical. Time is photography's primary referent.
To create a map, you need latitude (time) and longitude (space). The question posed through an exhibition that links photography to time, space, and tools of measurement, is how to focus on artistic practice as a tool, one that takes time to make space.
Photography is an indexical tool of measurement. It acts as proof of a relationship between tool, subject, and symbol. That which is selected as subject is imprinted directly onto paper, creating an illusion of direct representation as a path to meaning. This 'myth of truth' is complicated by its own history, which is inherent to photography alone. Again: context, position, gap.
Photography is data and it creates data sets. Pétrel likens photography to the human ability to capture the entirety of a moment in one single glance. By interrupting her viewer's sightline, Pétrel plays with her own assertion. It may be possible to see everything at once, but it is impossible to read it without actively spending time on, physically moving around, and allowing oneself to be disrupted by, all that has been seen.
1 Belogolovsky, Vladimir. Conversations with Peter Eisenman; The Evolution of Architectural Style. DOM publishers, Berlin, 2016. pp. 42
Excerpt from Table simulation #00, #01, 2015
By Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou and Aurélien Vernant
Translated by Lucy Pons
“Aurélie Pétrel's work is an examination of the photographic image, its production modes, its (re)presentation and its activation in the form of installations. Positing the notion of “photographic partition”, the artist initiates a composition work that stretches out across space and time, in which each picture becomes meaningful and is established as a material creation “to come”. Aurélie Pétrel considers her work on movement within the photographic act as an ongoing process of thought and experience; it presupposes a constantly alert conscience, always seeking to capture, in every encounter and situation, potential ways of “activating” her camerawork. Her shots are at first kept in their “latent” state as digital files or prints filed in Phibox containers and, when the time comes, they are transposed at a three-dimensional scale. In doing so, the artist operates a transfer from planeness to volume and architecture.
The setups that Aurélie Pétrel creates liken the space in which they are shown with a complex construction set, in which architecture becomes part of a multiple and stratified experience of vision. Architecture has always been an omnipresent part of her compositions (landscapes or urban furniture, industrial buildings, indoor sceneries...), and acts de facto as a tool to define and structure the artist's setups, with which she constructs a journey of experience and visibility for visitors. However, because it acts as a connector between images, the activation system that supports them, and the exhibition space, architecture also becomes a factor of indetermination, blurring the lines between subject, object, and environment. [...]"
Partition photographique, Aurélie Pétrel, 2014
Translated by Simon Pleasance, 2015
I posit the idea of a photographic score (partition), from the double definition of the word “partition”. The first refers right away to musical composition and its system of notation, on which readings and interpretations can be based; the second, which is more specific, refers to sharing, and redistribution (of territories, for example). Based on this semantic ambivalence, the notion of a photographic “partition” can be formed, at once notation (reserve) and redistribution (no longer of space, but of time). The “shots” (silver, silver-digital and digital) are, for me, the “degree zero” of the process whereby images appear in this dynamic which is indexed to the idea of partition. They are in a way the embryonic phase of a (potential) operation of development, a literal “take” (prise), at once a concrete sampling and a summons to a future development (we talk about a prise d'appel –a take call, literally—before a projection, a leap into what is to come). So an initial time-frame, prior to the images, where images are already potentially shot or taken, in the act and the being of the exhibition, redistributed, shared out, and in accordance with a given context, and becoming from now on a secondary time-frame, not only consecutive but composed of (marked by) the double time of a transformation which contains the visibility of its own temporal traceability (its spectrum). Otherwise put, the partition (time-frame 1) is played out (time-frame 2) and its play is doubly marked by its origin and its presentation. The score—this is its function—can be played again, and be represented in these (its) simultaneous time-frames.
Of the structural and the figurational
Sylvie Lagnier, september 2010
Translated by John Doherty
In Regards croisés, Shanghai 2010, Edition ENSBA Lyon, with support of Région Rhône-Alpes
In "Context as content", the third essay he published in Artforum in 1976, Brian O'Doherty demonstrated the firm hold of the white cube on the practice of art. "One cannot dismiss the white wall out of hand, but one can comprehend it. And this comprehension transforms it, because its content is made up of mental projections founded on non-formulated prejudices. The wall is our prejudice. And it is vital for the artist to know this content, and the way it affects his or her work. [...] It safeguards the possibility of art, while at the same time making it difficult." 1
Aurélie Pétrel, in her conception of the photographic, and of photography, works on relationships to place and wall, so that the image becomes one of the constituent parts of the work whose object is to be found in an interplay between the image, its substrate and its exhibition space, with which she not only questions the place and status of each but also multiplies possibilities through what Foucault called "strategies of power relationships that sustain types of knowledge, and are in turn sustained by them." 2 The function of the substrate is not just a question of legibility; it takes on visibility. Pursuing her examination of the regulatory conventions that stabilise sense - the white wall, the position of the image on the wall, the framing, etc. - Aurélie manipulates, in a performative way, metal plates, plain or micro-perforated, as impossible underpinnings of which she seems to mimic a central aspect, producing a work in the place of an image. Everything is related to a space of stages, screens, systems of representations in which the human, taking an apparent ancillary role, is the object that legitimises all illusion. The gaze of her subjects - labourers or packers, active or passive - is often directed elsewhere, and guides our interpretation: from architectural images, built up in planes, to real space, for example the cube into which a photograph has been inserted. Visually speaking, the viewer does not actually end up in the framework of the image; a dialogue takes place between the plane surface of the photograph and the viewer's space. The play of hypothetical reflections maintains the illusion of an "inner" and an "outer", while the cube, like the metal and glass plates, probes the concepts of space and art. Aurélie Pétrel toys with the White Cube, manipulating this sepulchre of modernist scenographic conventions that Schwitters and Lissitzky transformed as they colonised it with their collages. The structures lead to a two-phase perception: the eye assimilates everything, sliding into the image; then the body leads the eye on a voyage of exploration. Eye and body cooperate, and not only in the choice of a real or conceptual analysis but also in backing up sense with a deflection of the subject itself.
Aurélie defines her photography with respect to the classical image, i.e. painting as an iconic reference point, far from any referent. Her compositional choices favour the constructive force of architectural elements - walls, pylons, telephone lines, power cables, roofs, windows and openings, screen-type surfaces - in a spatial conception inherited from Piero della Francesca, which unifies the energy of reason and the sensibility of mind. The photographed space is not a decor, any more than the painted space in Piero's work. It consists of an indefinite, almost monochrome, landscape, or building(s) whose interior-exterior dialectic is enacted both within and between images. And there is no visual escape from the reality of the image as a plane. Which does not mean that the question of illusion is circumvented. Its immanence is revealed in the object-image, including the three-dimensional structures which, in real space, modify our relationship to the image, but also the perception of all images, as both displacement and production of sense. It is a game of mirrors - a throwback to polyptychs, and to the light that is constructive within the image itself, the real light that traverses the surfaces of the window stickers 3 in which the fragile human frame is delivered up to the world of human construction. Its vulnerability, as much as its strength, is what is apprehended by Aurélie Pétrel's photography, even in the form of an infinitesimal, almost insignificant detail that nonetheless, in the order of the image, becomes figurational, particularly through the action of colour, which, apart from structuring space, creates subtle relations between the different elements. When materialised on an opaque plane, it is a screen for projection in the literal sense. When acting in transparency it inverts the relationship to the subject, pushing it down into the image. It is homogeneous when foliage is treated as an organised space, an infinity of details and nuances, or textural effects, thus renewing the experience of photographic banality through a steady eye that can see how light corrupts all form. Emphasising frontality, the lure of narration is resisted in favour of a reflection on what an image constitutes. Aurélie Pétrel's implementations are not so much scenographies as instantiations of images.
1 - O'Doherty Brian, Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space, 1976.
2 - Foucault Michel, Dits et écrits, 1954-1988, Volume 3, 2001.
3 - These are translucent sheets that adhere to glazed surfaces. They can modify, qualify, or indeed transpose a space, bringing about a schism between the image and its substrate, given that they are double-sided, each side influencing the other in such a way that the body becomes the detail or the subject.
Text by Baron Osuna, 2010
Translated by John Doherty
Aurélie Pétrel puts speed into phenomenological principles relating to the experience of vision, the tangible manifestation of reality and the appearance of its photographic double, melting and merging them into one another. With her acceptance of photography becoming images, and thus figures, she undertakes the deconstruction of the medium's spatio-temporal properties - the perceptible and the noetic - probing the processes of perception and representation of reality so as to demonstrate the process of abstraction itself. Her works are visual theorems that circumscribe the betrayal of images. For her, the technical and conceptual aspects of using photography to produce images (in the sense of metaphors) supply the structure, and the instruments, of exegesis. But the work of interpretation, appropriation, comprehension and apprehension of the image (and images) remains to be done (and redone). Pétrel provides photographic, topographic, semantic and cognitive experiences in which support, surface, space and context multiply possibilities. Such are the mechanics of revelation, in that we know reality only through its action on our nervous system. We achieve an understanding of it by inventing sets of symbols and relations whose structures we try to bring into correspondence with those of the "objects" we study. Pétrel's work is articulated onto the status of the image, from its appearance to its materiality. Her most recent photographic installations, for example ...que nuage...#2 ("...but cloud...#2"), 2010, which can be assimilated to sculpture, are precisely concerned with the tensions that exist between reality and its photographic double - and vice versa.
Her creativity draws on a number of complex photographic techniques, illusions and displacements of reality. She designs visual and conceptual structures that are materially simple, with diasec-mounted superimpositions of reflections, transparencies and opacities (in Montperrin, Backstage, 2009), photographs printed on adhesive film mounted directly onto transparent spaces, volumes, buildings or structures (in Shakkei I and Shakkei II, 2009), and projects involving direct printing and engraving on glass plates (in Tokyo Bay, 2010). The architecture of the image is superimposed onto that of a place or an object to create a new "view", a new experience of perceptions, images and their reality. Images become elements of architecture and urbanism; objects and edifices become images, spaces for mental, sociological, metaphorical and metaphysical projections - those of a silent, distant reality which, though possible, is absent. Aurélie Pétrel's photographic installations give material expression to this absence of reality, and she transforms the concept of photographic technique in such a way as to establish the rules of a double game. A certain complicity springs up between the work and the world. The boundaries between image and context, memory and imagination disappear, so that the work reveals as much as it conceals.