BY Rahma Khazam in Features | 13 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 154

In Focus: Emilie Pitoiset

Withholding, covering up and glimpsing the secret world of objects

BY Rahma Khazam in Features | 13 MAR 13

The attribution of human feelings and desires to objects is a familiar trope in art. Emilie Pitoiset takes a different approach: highlighting their movements and the ritual gestures associated with them, she offers a revealing glimpse of our interaction with the secret world of objects. Take ‘Les actions silencieuses’ (Silent Actions), the French artist’s current solo exhibition at FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, which looks at how objects that bear testimony to past actions can come to exert a particular hold over us. Moulding my Hand Thinking about a New Piece (2013) consists of an antique bedside table that calls to mind the fumbling hand of its owner reaching out night after night for a handkerchief or a watch – an association corroborated by a white, shell-like imprint of the artist’s hand on the table top. Attached to the far wall, a pair of black leather gloves, Les Indiscrets (The Indiscreet Ones, 2013), appear to be cupped around an invisible object, underscoring the glove’s auratic power as a means of concealment. Although the ersatz hands might evoke Marcel Duchamp’s casts of body parts from the 1950s, Pitoiset invites us to focus not on the objects themselves but on the gestures affiliated with them.

Other works on show at frac are also associated with the act of withholding or covering up: a large, ornate, pleated, black leather curtain titled Giselle (2012) evokes not only the rise and fall of the curtain in performances of the eponymous ballet, but also a funeral shroud and the rituals of burial. While the curtains in Giselle conceal the body in its entirety, in Le Masque (The Mask, 2013) – an oblong piece of shark skin with two holes near its top end hanging from a metal rod – calls to mind the act of holding up a mask to conceal the face. Elsewhere, a white monochrome canvas titled Solo Show (2013) references the act of painting and the aura with which the art object is endowed. In Capital (1867), Karl Marx famously discussed the fetishization of the commodity by its producers, who succumb to its magical power. Pitoiset draws attention to the fetishistic qualities of the everyday object, the art object and, by implication, the exhibition itself. Her concept of the art object as a repository of past actions creates an additional layer of complexity: is art the creative act itself, or the trace – whether embodied as a painting or a sculpture – that the creative act leaves behind? 

Giselle, 2012, installation view at FRAC Champagne-Ardenne

Sans titre (Untitled, 2013) consists of an old-fashioned flip-book whose stiffened pages fan out into a saw-toothed wave form that is replicated by the placement of the wooden panels in Operation of Chance (2013) installed nearby. The movement sketched out by the pages is as unnatural as that of the panels: living up to their Duchampian title, they lean precariously against each other, indicating the threshold between stability and collapse.

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Pitoiset has always been fascinated by movement and stasis, poise and equilibrium, whether in animals or people, through objects or on film: her video Othello (2006), for instance, shows a horse performing certain movements while being threatened with a gun. Although the animal would have no inherent fear of the weapon as an object, the viewer interprets the horse’s reactions as if they are being performed under duress. In 2012, Pitoiset’s collaborative project with Jean-Max Colard and Catherine Robbe-Grillet at Les Églises Centre d’art contemporain in Chelles, ‘Vous arrivez trop tard, Cérémonie’ (You’re Too Late, Ceremony), was an homage to the nouveau roman that also explored the notion of stasis. Midway between a tableau vivant and a nature morte, it eschewed actors attempting to be motionless in favour of static chairs and screens disposed in theatrical poses. Meanwhile, Pitoiset’s current joint exhibition with Hanna Schwarz at Badischer Kunstverein, ‘Hold Repeat Pause’, testifies to her interest in the actions that precede and follow moments of imbalance, offering a contemporary perspective on the study of motion capture as once practiced by Étienne-Jules Marey or Eadweard Muybridge.

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The significance of posture is also the theme of Pitoiset’s memorable sculpture Ordinary Experience (2008). It consists of a stuffed horse lying with its head and legs tucked under its body, a position the animal can only assume in death. Rather than adopting the taxidermist’s approach of passing off a dead animal as a living creature, Pitoiset’s strategy is to pass off an object as a dead animal. Here, she ex­plores the gap between the animate and the inanimate, and more generally between objecthood, life and death. 

Emilie Pitoiset lives and works in Paris, France. Her solo exhibition at FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in Reims, France, is on view until 21 April. Her show with Hanna Schwarz, ‘Hold Repeat Pause’, is at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, until 1 April.