Aurélie Pétrel
Updated — 08/01/2018


Biographie par Michelle Debat

Tirée du texte de présentation pour le Séminaire de recherche - Nouvelles matérialités en photographie et art contemporain, INHA - Paris 8, mars 2018 

Aurélie Pétrel: Where Space Becomes Form

By Alex Bowron, 2018

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.

Thought 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

Texte de présentation par Michelle Debat

pour le Séminaire de recherche - Nouvelles matérialités en photographie et art contemporain, INHA - Paris 8, mars 2018


By Aurélie Pétrel, 2014 — Translated by Simon Pleasance, 2015

Of the structural and the figurational

By Sylvie Lagnier, 2010 — Translated by John Doherty
In Regards croisés, Shanghai 2010, Edition ENSBA Lyon, with support of Région Rhône-Alpes

Text by Baron Osuna

2010 — Translated by John Doherty