The Science Fiction That Inspires Philippe Parreno

At Berlins Esther Schipper gallery, the artist tells stories through time-based objects 

BY Pablo Larios AND Philippe Parreno in Interviews | 06 OCT 20

Pablo Larios: Your Iceman in Reality Park (1995/2019) is currently on show at Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin. What gave you the idea to make (and remake) this work, which melts every few days?

Philippe Parreno: It’s a piece I first made for a show in Tokyo called ‘Ripple across the Water’. It was one of the first group shows in which I participated. The curator, Jan Hoet, invited each artist to work in a different area of the city. I chose Kirin Park, which a lot of office workers use during their lunch break. It was a summer show: the idea was that the snowman would gradually melt while people were eating their lunch; then, the next day, I would make it again. Iceman in Reality Park is almost filmic: it’s a time-based object. I wanted to create a work that conveys time without involving any technology – like a metronome. In the current moment, I thought it made sense again for people to come to a gallery and see something melting.

PL: The title of your current show, ‘Manifestations’, reminded me of another early work of yours, No More Reality: La Manifestation (1991), in which children take part in a protest, shouting: ‘No more reality!’ The word ‘manifestation’ has a dual meaning: ‘to make present’ but also ‘to protest’. How are these works linked for you?

Philippe Parreno, Iceman in Reality Park, 1995/2019, sculpted ice, stones, wooden plinth with found Japanese metal manhole cover, sound installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin 

PP: ‘Manifestation’ has various meanings. No More Reality: La Manifestation was an attempt to vaguely organize a group of kids to produce another world – in the sense that, when you demonstrate, you want to change or reinvent something. The French word for hand, main, can also be found in the French word for demonstration, manifestation. Of course, the precise form a demonstration takes depends on the regime in which it occurs but, in order for any kind of emergence to occur, it must make itself manifest. I titled my latest show ‘Manifestation’ – which is another way of saying ‘exhibition’ – to move away from the notion of the exhibition as display to the idea of an exhibition as something that draws attention.

I still have an issue with that moment in history when the common root of exhibition and storytelling was severed. When cinema appeared, we began to make a distinction between the two. It was as though a secret pact had been made: exhibitions display objects; films tell stories. This shift resulted in the creation of various boxes: lightboxes to dance in at night, black boxes to watch performances or see moving images, and white boxes to view paintings on the wall.

PL: And you aim to reunite exhibition and storytelling?

PP: Yes. Most public museums and galleries still reflect the 19th-century notions of display that prevailed when they were built. However, I grew up at a time when exhibitions started to be held in repurposed former industrial spaces, which got me interested in art in that context. I would never hang around in museums or theatres: I wanted to go to these new kinds of spaces where you could project innovative ideas influenced by conceptual art. It’s strange to think, really, that topography can magically produce form.


Philippe Parreno. Courtesy: Esther Schipper, Berlin; photograph: © Ola Rindal

PL: The 1991 piece is a protest against reality; your iceman sits in ‘reality park’. Are you attempting to construct alternate realities?

PP: Yes. The author Philip K. Dick believed, and I think he was right, that, by writing, you create something that challenges the world in which you wrote. Dick was influenced by Alfred Korzybski’s concept of general semantics, advanced in his book Science and Sanity (1933), which views language as a form of vice that allows you to see reality. This idea that there must be another way to approach reality is something the Beatniks pursued through their use of drugs in the 1950s and 60s. I never had a chance to be a writer, so I had to deal with it in a different way.

PL: Through your scripts and choreography.

PP: Exactly. They act as written protocols, in a way. The composer John Cage once wrote in Silence (1961): ‘It requires a lot of work to produce chance.’ It’s a bit like that.

PL: I want to challenge this idea of ‘reality’ you’re producing. Given our political situation, is it not possible that we now have too many ‘alternative realities’?

PP: It’s true what you say; it really is. Postmodernity was invented to fight modernity with this notion of disorientation – and here we can talk about science fiction – but a lot of it was based on the idea that the way to attack reality would be to re-throw the dice. Today, I think we shouldn’t try to disorient it; we need to reorient it: to find another angle using technology. Indeed, that’s a shift we can already start to see now: the shift to reorient the world.

In 1985, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard curated the show ‘Les immatériaux’ (The Immaterials), which prefigured this. It was a maze, a space set up to disorient the condition of knowledge. Now, we find ourselves thinking: what form would ‘Les immatériaux’ take today? What is a museum of sensibility? How do we cope with it? How does it reorient us, and toward what? I think now, more than ever, we need science fiction – and fiction without science.


Philippe Parreno, ‘Manifestation’, 2020, exhibition view, Esther Schipper, Berlin. Courtesy: Esther Schipper, Berlin; photograph: © Andrea Rossetti

PL: What effect did ‘Les immatériaux’ have on you?

PP: I decided to make art because of it. At the time, I didn’t really know if I wanted to be an artist. But ‘Les immatériaux’ showed me that an exhibition was a way to display ideas with no beginning and no end – no linearity. I was empowered by it; everything became possible. There is so much I took from that show. The philosopher Yuk Hui, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and I have been talking for a while now about the idea of staging a sequel to ‘Les immatériaux’ – possibly in collaboration with the Luma Foundation, who have held seminars around these questions.

PL: Were you also close, as Hui was, with the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who died earlier this year?

PP: We had a conversation last year. His books on technology and time had an influence on me, as did the fact that he was director of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which was founded by Pierre Boulez in the late 1970s to explore the relationship between technology, industry and music.

PL: It’s impossible for me to look at your work without thinking of artificial intelligence and technology. It seems that the world has almost caught up with a lot of what you predicted years ago. Seeing Iceman in Reality Park makes me consider the impermanence of nature. What’s next?

PP: An exhibition is just a beginning; it is not the end of a process. In fact, I would like to make a piece that lasts for longer, but still isn’t permanent. Now that I can look at the exhibition, I can have a relation with it. I want to get into a mode where I have my tools, then I can start writing.

‘Manifestations’ runs at Esther Schipper, Berlin, until 17 October 2020.

Main image: Philippe Parreno, ‘Manifestation’, 2020, exhibition view, Esther Schipper, Berlin. Courtesy: Esther Schipper, Berlin; photograph: © Andrea Rossetti


Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Philippe Parreno lives and works in Paris, France. His exhibition, ‘Manifestations’, is on view at Esther Schipper, Berlin, until 17 October 2020.