High Wire Art: Philippe Petit & Victoria Dearing on Their New Exhibit

Brooklyn-based photographer Victoria Dearing’s fascination with high wire artist Philippe Petit began midway through a viewing of the Oscar-winning documentary, Man On Wire. Moved by his unusual life philosophies, the 29-year-old Dearing resolved to meet the man who walked between the tops of the Twin Towers back in 1974. She couldn’t have guessed that over the next few months, through a series of coincidences, improbable encounters, and the beauty of a classic Leica M6 camera, she would be given a privileged peek into Petit’s cloistered domain. In an exhibition called “LINE UP – Rigging Knots + Glimpses of a Master Class,” which opened last week, Dearing’s photographs of Petit’s first Action Maverick Master Class (TIGHTROPE! An Exploration into the Theater of Balance) hang alongside drawings of rigging knots executed by Petit himself. The set of slightly blurred, black and white photographs surreally depict Petit as he floats above a cluster of onlooking students. They’re contrasted by the intricate drawings, each of which contains a hand-written poetic explanation of the type of knot portrayed. The Clic Gallery will host a holiday reception for LINE UP on December 16th, from 6-8pm, and the exhibit will remain on display at their new space in SoHo until January 16th.

Dearing first encountered Petit at a Q&A following a screening of Man on Wire. A few months later, they met again at Pravda. Over time, she charmed Petit and his partner/producer Kathy O’Donnell, and was eventually invited to observe him as he taught his first class at Elizabeth Streb’s SLAM in Williamsburg. We interviewed the artists to learn why Dearing came to photograph Petit, and how she became an exception to his rule.

What did you know about Philippe Petit before all of this? Victoria Dearing: I had known about him just from growing up in New York and hearing about him walk across the towers. When Man On Wire came out, I literally was halfway through the film and I said to myself, ‘I must meet this man.’

What about him inspired you? VD: When you finish watching the film, you are reminded that all of our society is based on the word No. Everything that Philippe Petit does is the opposite of that. He defies all laws, all rules, and regulations. He breaks laws! He says Yes to everything. So for me, that’s the biggest fascination. He’s a dreamer. He wanted to be a dancer on the wire, a poet of the sky. He makes you think: What am I doing? Who am I? Where am I going?

How did you end up taking photos during the Class? VD: I went and I had two cameras in my bag and I knew that Philippe didn’t want to be photographed at all. I slowly took them out and one of them is this beautiful panoramic Widelux camera, and Kathy was like, ‘Ooh what’s that?’ People act like children around this camera. So I said, may I take one or two? And she said, ‘Yes, as long as you don’t move, and stay out of his way, don’t make a flash.’

Was it difficult to photograph him under those conditions? VD: I never felt comfortable doing it, because I was really far away. On the last day of the last class I went by myself and I said, ‘Philippe, I didn’t even ask you, can I take photos?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, as long as if you sell them, you give me the money,’ he said jokingly. So I got a little bit closer, but I had no plan, no intention, it was just for me because I just adore him, you know?

When the idea to do an exhibit came up, did you think he would agree to it? VD: [I thought], he’ll probably say No, because I once asked him three questions: One. Where do you live? He said, ‘New York, I don’t know why everybody asks me that, I’ve lived here 35 years.’ Two, I said, who is going to take over for you when you’re gone? There’s nobody like you. And he said, ‘There’s nobody, because nobody teaches; nobody is like me. I made up my own life, my own story. I don’t work for the circus, nobody.’ And three: Can I photograph you? And he said, ‘No, no, no, I say no to almost everybody for the past 35 years, I’m not going to start to say yes now.’ So having said all of that, a lot of these elements lined up. In the end, when I sat down and we made the show happen, I said, Okay, now that it’s happening, I can think: Why me?

You’re not big on being photographed, why is that? Philippe Petit: Well, it’s a strange thing. The result is never to my artistic satisfaction. Normally I would not let anybody take pictures of me at random because on the wire I do certain moves and those moves have to be photographed right, so the photographer has to know what the move is. Like when I salute, the hand doesn’t touch here, it goes there or maybe the thumb goes up, so I have to explain and I didn’t want to; I was working on my Master Class.

Why were things different with Victoria? PP: I am challenged by artistic challenge. I like to do things that are even against my nature. So when I make rules for something, immediately there is a set of exceptions to that rule. So in my first Master Class, I said, ‘Absolutely no photographs!’ Of course the New York Times was there and that was an exception. And then I invited a couple of friends to be a fly on the wall, but she came with a few cameras, she’s a photographer; she’s an artist. So I said, Okay, for the first time in my life I’m going to say do what you want and we’ll see. Instead of saying, ‘Get out of here’ I said, ‘Okay, but I cannot help you in any way; you will have no freedom. You cannot move around, you have to be invisible.’ So she was an exception, and I like that challenge.

So what do you think of the show? Are you happy with the results? PP: Well the funny thing is, I was so preoccupied with so many things, I have books, and a one-man show, and a feature film, and lectures going on – I didn’t even look! I didn’t look at those photographs, Kathy saw them, but me, I didn’t really see them until 2 hours before. I went very calm, I had nothing to do and for the first time, I look at the exhibit and I was flabbergasted! And I told her the truth, I said, ‘This is great.’ I was very impressed. How the hell did this young woman here manage? Besides organizing the whole exhibit, which she did 24 hours a day for the past few months. I was very impressed. So it was an exception and it worked very well. I invited her to look at something, but she didn’t have really good conditions to work in and yet it’s amazing what she managed to do!

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Correct Culture: Egg Work, Photo Finishes, Bauhaus Built

Fiercely Correct Art – Besides being a talented photographer whose alterna-persona Rosie The Clown is known for beyond-scandalous performance art shenanigans and homo-erotic photos that feature him as a bizarre clown serving up a rather, ahem, large appendage, artist Paul Wirhun a.k.a. The Eggman is also an uber-talented artist working in a medium involving eggshells and found wood. Inspired by early modernist paintings, Asian ceramics, and Japanese prints, Wirhun painstakingly arranges thousands of eggshell fragments into surreal, sensuous collage/paintings depicting everything from a young man’s curvaceous backside to the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Caution: Correctness Ahead – John Kelly is a performance and visual artist whose legendary career dates back to the early East Village clubs of the 80s. His talent seems to know no bounds, as he is not only a trained dancer who studied with the American Ballet Theater, but also a visual artist who studied painting and drawing with Larry Rivers and Barbara Pearlman at Parsons School of Design. His homage to Joni Mitchell, “Paved Paradise,” was so unsettlingly realistic that he was invited to give a command performance for her at Fez in 1998. Since the 80s he has created over 30 performance works and has appeared at many alternative venues including PS1, the Warhol Museum, LaMaMa, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. He recently had a successful showing of his paintings and drawings titled “The Mirror Stages: Self-Portraits 1979-2009,” at Alexander Gray Associates, and was last seen on the big screen acting in John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes in 2005. He is constantly in a state of creation, utilizing the many splendid gifts he is blessed with to exhilarating effect. But most important, Kelly remains one of the most humble, sincere, and truly sweet people on a scene that often turns even those with the best intentions into bitchy caricatures of what some feel a performance artist or diva should be. After a much-deserved rest this coming September, he will be focusing more on his acting, hopefully bringing his particular brand of magic to the wider audience he so justly deserves.

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Take the Picture – Victoria Dearing is incapable of cliché, in constant motion through the world refusing all those easy visual options, refusing repeatedly to take the photograph that so many already have and will do again, always seeing everything anew instead. She will not focus on the poverty even in the poorest pueblo of El Salvador but rather grants us elegantly composed, almost abstract details of everyday existence — images which tell us all we need to know about life here, yet with the promise of redemption, that spark of beauty which every person and place guards. Likewise in Africa she creates compositions of great tonal and aesthetic intrigue whilst never reducing her subject matter to mere geometries, always connecting directly to their essential humanity. Dearing is opposed to the condescension and compromise inherent to so much photojournalism; instead, she offers her utter and genuine curiosity and, yes, friendliness toward the world and all its inhabitants … an exceptional openness apparent in every one of her photographs. Dearing has photography built into her DNA and has been taking pictures all her life, negotiating that path between commercial imagery and personal vision where that art has currently found itself at its most fruitful. At a time when everyone travels and everyone takes photographs, it has become easier rather than harder to distinguish between the true photographic eye and the tourist’s banal snapshot. Any one of Dearing’s images makes it immediately clear that whether you mean a “decisive moment” or Barthes “punctum” — whatever the word for it — she has that rare and precious gift of truly seeing and so letting us see also.

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The Stuff You Need Now – I asked my friend Alex Bator to describe in his own words exactly what the deal is with his hot new T-shirt collection Dessau ({encode=”dessausportgear@gmail.com” title=”dessausportgear@gmail.com”}:

I chose the vintage bike as an ICON, because it represents freedom. A metaphor for that good feeling we all get from doing the things that we love to do. DESSAU on the other hand is one of the founding cities of BAUHAUS the art school/design movement. If you recall, I had always published Stuf Mag under an assumed parent company: Amerikan Bauhaus. To me the Bauhaus movement represented and new way of thinking and teaching. Bringing several artistic disciplines under one roof, for what seemed like the first time, there was a lot gained by the proximity of arts and more importantly ARTISTS. This lead to collaboration and unexpected goodness. Thus Dessau is based on this collaborative effort. In this way I am looking for other artists and brands to collaborate with. And because of all of the above, and COI (Conflict of Interest) included I am ok with moving very slow, very limited edition type of productions.

Personality: I am as you know a guy from Detroit I have always been drawn to cars, Muscle, Euro, Micro, Trucks, cool shapes and colors, I’m all about it. Motorcycle were stronger when I was a kid and used to dart around on a Vespa Style Honda 50 and super fun, Little Indian which was the lawn mowers version of a mini bike replete with Briggs and Stratton, pull start engine. I remember I bought one, took it all apart, painted the frame black, dropped new chrome fenders on it and recovered the seat with Denim that I probably re-cycled from a pair of old jeans or a jacket. Unfortunately the photo documentation is a bit weak, but maybe I could dig up, scan and PSD magic it back to visible life. 110 Film camera’s sucked for sure. Weirdly enough I‘ve recently found a slew of global brands that are mining the same idiosyncratic passions, literally stating: “We’re into Vintage Cars, Motorcycles and Skateboarding”. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you I’m into skateboarding! (ya, that was a J-oke and I know you got it!).

Photographs (except for Victoria Dearing) by Walt Cessna. See more from Walt Cessna on Facebook.