Zoom: Charles Pétillon, photographer

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Charles Pétillon is a French photographer whose poetic work is known across the world. He invaded Covent Garden last year with an installation of 100,000 white balloons – his favorite material to work with because of its simplicity, accessiblity and universality.

A: Could you introduce yourself first?

CP: Charles Pétillon, photographer, people recognize me through my art work with the balloons. It’s the raw material I’ve been using for a few years now since 2007/2008. I have always worked this way but I have another activity that is applied art. I also work in advertising. I photograph still life and my art work comes from there. I chose to work with balloons because it comes from my researches for advertising, applied art and the magazines in particular.

A: Photographer and plastic artist?

CP: I am not a plastic artist. I am a photographer. My installations aim to create a relationship between space and history most of the time. In London, I wanted to remind people that the place counted, Covent Garden. As a photographer, I offer a point of view… I’d actually say I question, because I do have a point of view but I keep it for myself. What is important in my work is my photographies.

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Charles Pétillon’s Parisian installation

A: What about Land Art?

CP: It’s really important in my work. We are supposed to feel it because it’s an intervention within a natural space. Sometimes there is a digression, indeed indoor is part of my work as well. It’s not necessarily a landscaped area. I get really inspired by land art. I’ve been fed with it and it has been key for sure.

A: Land Art as a more subtle way to educate people concerning environmental issues?

CP: Absolutely. And more actually! First of all, balloons also question in a subtle way. I re-use your word ‘subtle’ because it really is relevant. Balloons aren’t aggressive, grown-ups and children can both understand, each in a different way and this is brilliant. Everyone has his own perception. Balloons also refer to fest, its white color conveys a comfortable message, the subtlety of my questioning. I raise questions but you raise your own too.

A: This is what stroke me at first in your work. Everything is thought and coherent, it makes sense. Can you go further about this white color?

CP: One of the first step was to choose a color. But color is anecdotical. At first, I thought about red. Then I quickly understood that white is universal. It conveys the most positive symbol in many cultures. Except from some where it emphasizes death but in most of the cultures, it still represents peace, tranquility and rest. It’s something that doesn’t exist in nature, except the snow. And as soon as you put white balloons within a space, it becomes rare. Then you create a contrast and a discrepancy.

It’s a series of photographies actually. It’s a way of expression. The balloon is a raw material that can be shaped in various forms. You must have seen the evolution in my work, especially in the latest ones. The diptyque called ‘33km‘ shows the rods, they appear clearly. Same for the installation I made (downstairs) for the gallery, the rods are part of the installation. You can find the keys to the evolution of my work there. I didn’t start to sculpt steel because I’m not plastic artist but my work can evolve and may include other things than just balloons. There are so many things to say and to do with the balloons, so many shapes to create that the investigation field is incredibly wide! When you have photographers such as Georges Rousse – he has always been using squares, cercles, colored ones etc, that we don’t even ask ourselves if tomorrow he will work differently. It becomes obvious.

A: The notion of time is important in your work, the ephemeral installations versus the lasting photographies…

CP: The notion of time is indeed really important. I have been asked quite a lot of time if I could realize these installations with balloons that last longer. Some kind of fake balloons we could make. In fact, it doesn’t make sense. What strikes all of us tonight is that the balloons are real. I started to record myself because people asked me if it was 3D or photoshop. No no, they aren’t rigged, they’re real! I feel emotional because it’s fragile, because it’s ephemeral and some of them only stays a few hours or even ten minutes for the ones I made in the sea. I took 10 shots and it was broken by the waves. It’s beautiful because this material is nothing, it’s so fragile that time is really important as much as the memory of the space, I can talk about it for hours…

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A: How do you choose your locations?

CP: I work in different ways. Most of the time, some topics and subjects directly interest me.  Could be societal questions I feel concerned about so I try to find a way to translate it into the balloons. For example, the situation in Calais brought me to photograph ‘33km‘. It was complicated, I had to find the right balance because the topic is difficult to deal with. By tackling this subject this way, it’s not aggressive, there isn’t any judgment. I only ask questions. That’s it, I never judge. So, either a philosophical subject or a news topic inspire me, either the space itself gets my attention then I tell myself: “I gotta do something!” I recently went to China for example. I was stroke by several things and tried to translate it on site. We destruct and reconstruct all these things. Prejudices we have before going there made us create ‘Distorsions’ because once we arrived there, it’s so completely different from what we have in mind and this makes you think twice. It’s about distorsions of our thoughts.

Although I don’t think travel is essential in my creative process, you won’t be able to determine the locations on most of my photographies. It generally remains anecdotic except from a few ones such as the China series because I question the subject and the context is important. I took a photography called ‘Outrances’ in Dubai. It deals with the trashes in this city and when you know where it was taken and the name of the photo, you understand and there’s nothing to add to it. I usually try to find places that are as neutral as possible so everyone can relate.

A: I can tell how important the wording is…

CP: It’s fundamental. Nothing comes out of the atelier without a title. Each time, my mind gets tortured. Sometimes it appears to be evident. It comes naturally and I don’t even have a process to find the right words, then sometimes it just doesn’t come out. The photography is ready, I know what I want to express but I cannot find the right word. It’s complicated and at the same time, I want the word to be delicate. I want it to give some clues without orienting the spectator. It has to be wide even if my purpose is specific. I can talk about each of my photographies because they all have a meaning. About this one for instance « Cloud Computing », I represented a cloud – I always create symbols that are metaphors, I don’t want to create a real cloud of course, it’s about evocation. I don’t want to be literal. It won’t make sense because it becomes narrative. The purpose of this photography is a question: would you be ready to give your family pictures, your credit card number, your agenda to a stranger you just met in the streets? It seems like you won’t, however this is exactly what we do because it’s easy and we don’t escape from it. But what happens if tomorrow somebody decides to flip the switch to turn off the cloud? Well, in the digital, we are doing things we would never do in real life. 

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“Cloud Computing”

Madga Danysz Gallery

78 rue Amelot

75011 Paris

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