Anthony Haden-Guest Interviews Wire Walker Philippe Petit

Earlier this year Victoria Dearing got into a conversation with Philippe Petit in Pravda, a restaurant bar on Lafayette in Downtown Manhattan. Petit is, of course, the wire walker, who walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and Dearing, a photographer focusing on the arts, was intrigued to hear that he was about to give his first master class in walking the wire. Kathy O’Donnell, Petit’s partner of twenty years, suggested she hoik her camera along. This, and Dearing’s subsequent visits to the class at Elizabeth Streb’s SLAM – Streb’s forte is what one might describe as Extreme Dance – in Brooklyn has led to an exhibition which will run through 16 January 2011 at the Clic Gallery [http://www.clicgallery.com/] on Broome. It pairs Dearing’s black and white photographs, shot on film, with Philippe Petit’s drawings of the knots he makes as he does his own rigging – the knots to which he entrusts his life.

Backtrack. In fact backtrack way back. I interviewed Petit for Vanity Fair over lunch at the Windows on the World on top of the North Tower not long after his walk, and just looking out through the thick glass, and down, was unnerving. Petit had begun his walk, which had been wholly illegal, and executed on smuggled wire, just after six on an August morning. He had been aloft for forty-five minutes, dancing, sitting, lying and jumping, his feet leaving the wire, and generally poking fun at the cops, fruitlessly clustered on the rooves, until it began to rain gently, and he decided enough was enough. He had been arrested. No charges were pressed.

Over lunch, Petit was engaging, thoughtfully workmanlike, a performer. So it seemed fitting when he made a performance of a walk in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, and I was unsurprised when I heard that he was to be represented by Marc Glimcher, Arne Glimcher’s son, at the Pace Gallery. Vito Acconci had made ‘Seed Bed‘ at Sonnabend in 1971 and just a few weeks before the towers walk Josef Beuys had enacted ‘I Love America and America Loves Me‘, spending three days with a coyote in another Manhattan gallery, Rene Block, but it was perhaps premature for Petit’s very public coup to be accepted – and marketed – as performance art. The deal with Pace dissolved.

But now here is Petit in another Manhattan gallery, this time with drawings. He has, he told me in a bar across from the gallery, been drawing since he was six. “My parents put me into Martinot, an art school near Paris,” he said. “It was a very revolutionary school. For example, they wouldn’t give a little crayon to a kid. But chalks, one for each hand, and the kids, five or six years old, would express themselves on a giant twelve foot by twelve foot wall.”

Petit left art school at sixteen to become an acrobat, and first walked the wire that year, but he became “a kind of a mascot” to a group of painters in Paris and he never stopped drawing. “When I travel I don’t have a camera, I have a sketchbook,” he says. “I have many of those sketchbooks. I don’t draw very quickly. I make an art against nature in some ways. I draw a dead pigeon on the bank of the river. I draw a gargoyle that a drunk architect has put upside down. People look at what I do and think I am a madman because it is not a beautiful apple on a plate.

“I love to work for hours. I use all the pencils that exist from grade 9H to grade 9B. Sometimes I get too much into graphic dexterity, I get too much into the details. So I attack the paper, I scratch it like a child, I scrape, I get some life into it, otherwise it will be like an Audubon bird painting.”

Has he ever included an image of himself in a drawing of one of his own projects?

“I have been very reticent to draw human beings. I don’t know why. For example, when I was drawing the stone cutting workshop at the cathedral I was never interested in human beings. No, I would not put myself into a drawing really. For example, when I do a performance on the high wire I drew what I call stupid little sketches which are of me on the wire. But it’s my silhouette and I use a little wooden silhouette that you can move the limbs, A model. “

Petit continues to walk the wire at 61.

“On the high wire I have many projects. I have one project very dear to me,” he says. “But it becomes more and more difficult for an artist to perform in these days when everybody is paranoid about everything. But I do continue, absolutely.”

Why does he believe people are more paranoid?

“It is easy to understand. The 9/11 event. You have behaviour in airports. People are looking at everything.”

So he could hardly execute his guerrilla event at a location like the World Trade Center today. To what extent have the subsequent events there altered his life?

“When you say the events of the World Trade Centre I refuse to think about the ending. I think of the birth … of the growing up … of the marrying. I married them with my rope. And then, of course, the death of the towers. But I would not be able to talk about how it was echoed in my work.”

The irony is this: Nowadays the more ephemeral an artwork sets out to be the more likely it is to be irremovably documented, as stuck in the record as a Wikileak. Philippe Petit aged 25 sensed the significance of what he had in mind and sneaked a movie camera onto the top of the towers.

“I loaded it with film,” he said. “I hid it. And my friend on the other tower took a few pictures, and went for the camera. But the police came so he had to hide. So there was no movie of the towers.” The images are burned into the brain, though. Philippe Petit has developed his pure physical control over his body into an art form unmatched since Houdini. He makes his walks, and ties his knots, and draws them as meticulously as he tied them, and ties them still. Check it out. And Dearing’s black-and-whites too.

About the author

Anthony Haden-Guest
Anthony Haden-Guest is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He has published in leading magazines in Britain and America, most recently in Esquire, the Financial Times, GQ (UK) and Britain's Observer Magazine. In 1979 he was awarded a New York Emmy for writing and narrating a documentary, The Affluent Immigrants (sometimes less politely known as Eurotrash) for PBS. His most recent books are True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World (Grove Atlantic), The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night (William Morrow & Co,) and a book of cartoons, The Chronicles of Now (The Allworth Press). His website is: www.anthonyhadenguest.com. You can email him directly with your comments at anthonyhaden.guest@yahoo.co.uk.

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