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Issue 240

Benoît Piéron’s Cycles of Slumber

At Chisenhale Gallery in London, the artist explores the disquieting potential of waiting rooms, doctors' offices and sickbeds

BY Dylan Huw in Exhibition Reviews | 06 OCT 23

In his UK solo debut, Benoît Piéron invites visitors to take shelter underneath a low, tent-like ceiling of patched-together hospital sheets. Dotting the gallery floor are egg-shaped emergency response lights, which the artist has programmed to spin rhythmically, choreographing faint discordant shadows against their surroundings. The overall impact of the installation – measured, repetitive – is calming until you notice the sheets are streaked with what appears to be blood, and possibly other fluids, betraying the histories of ill or decaying bodies in other times and other places. The lights emit a high-pitched drone that quivers between silence and screaming; their wiring, shaded in chromatic pastels, is hypervisible, ensuring we tread cautiously. The more time we spend inside the installation, the more its seeming tranquillity is replaced by a sense of unease: the proportions are all wrong (note the massive wooden table leg propping up one corner of the patchwork); the circling lights and droning frequencies begin to madden. In this context, even the adolescent simplicity of the title, Slumber Party (all works 2023), hints at the underlying potential for corruption.

Benoît Piéron, Monica, 2023. Courtesy: Chisenhale Gallery, London; photo: Andy Keate

Being sick is time-consuming; it eats up our capacity for life. Aspects of Piéron’s biography provide an instructive undertow to his sculptural installations: he was born with meningitis, diagnosed with leukaemia at three years old and cancer as an adult. His dominant subject is not illness but, rather, the imaginative possibilities (both generative and disquieting) of the settings and architectures associated with it: hospital waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, sickbeds. Often, his environments narrate the seeking of refuge – perhaps liberation – in the childlike and plastic. Slumber Party’s commingling of divergent timescales and materialities channels the imaginative plenitude on offer if you elect to re-envisage conditions of compromise or detainment as environments capable of transporting us to realms beyond the here and now. In the supporting literature, we learn that the cotton sheets have been recycled from hospitals in the UK and France, suggesting an undercurrent of solidarity as well as the capacity of hospitalization – despite being a profoundly interior experience – to engender methods of relating across cultural and temporal divides.

Benoît Piéron, Slumber Party, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Chisenhale Gallery, London; photo: Andy Keate

This commission could be viewed as a companion to Piéron’s contribution to Khanyisile Mbongwa’s 2023 Liverpool Biennial, the final days of which overlapped with Slumber Party’s opening weekend: a hangout space upstairs at the Bluecoat in Liverpool, containing a bed adorned with paper chains, a picture-book library and stuffed animal toys. (One such stuffed bat, advertised on Chisenhale Gallery’s website as being perched at the front desk, was sadly absent when I visited.)

Benoit Pieron
Benoît Piéron, Slumber Party, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Chisenhale Gallery, London; photo: Andy Keate

Slumber Party is an installation whose constant motion gradually reveals an eerie, imminent stillness. Evocations of liminality and nowhere-zones may be all-pervasive in today’s art ecosystem, but Piéron’s are distinguished by his sensitive particularization of such affectlessness, marrying an acuity informed by lived experience with a cultural specificity and cunning sensorial trickery. Ultimately, nothing happens at this particular sleepover: the lights continue to hum and their shadows continue to dance. We just wait, gradually getting dizzy or frustrated, until we give up waiting because we have places to be and lives to live. In an interview published in the exhibition handout, Piéron references Il était une fois ... la vie (Once Upon a Time … Life, 1987), a hit educational cartoon from his childhood in which personified blood cells and bacteria have emotional lives. The addictive refrain of its theme song – la vie, la vie, la vie, la vie – has been whirring in my head as I’ve reflected on Piéron’s transporting installation, its childlike harmonies forming an assonance with Slumber Party’s translation into sculptural form, denoting a resilience and an imaginative compulsion which transcend time and place.

Benoît Piéron's 'Slumber Party' is on view at Chisenhale Gallery, London, until 12 November

Main image: Benoît Piéron, Slumber Party, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Chisenhale Gallery, London; photo: Andy Keate

Dylan Huw is a writer and art critic living in Caerdydd, Wales.