The Writing’s on the Wall


Although Brussels-based, French artist Pierre Bismuth is perhaps best known as a screenwriter and an artist preoccupied with the moving image, he’s not tied to any particular format. Bismuth is fascinated with the transfer of images from one medium to another, and delights in the hiccups between them. Bismuth once ate a hamburger in a deadpan live performance (above), a re-enactment of a short film in which Warhol eats one in isolation. Eating a hamburger is an activity of a modern man in which the ordinary becomes  performative, but would we care if any person other than Warhol was depicted doing something so utterly banal—YouTube has logged nearly half-a-million hits for Warhol’s five-minute film! Apparently we do, as the audience claps at the conclusion of Bismuth’s performance. Bismuth’s strongest work creates unforseen consequences, and endows appropriated material, from film to printed matter, with retroactive significance.

For his current show at Team Gallery, “Following the right hand of…,” Bismuth renders visible what generations of rapt viewers inevitably missed, while paying attention to other features of the stars of the silver screen. Bismuth traces the movement of an actress’ hand on a piece of plexiglass for the duration of a film or scene. He then inverts the plexiglass and frames it overlying a film still to face the visage of the actress. The resulting effect is like a long-exposure photograph where the movement of the hand is recorded in a sinuous, meandering marker line. Gjon Mili’s iconic photographs of Picasso for Life Magazine come to mind, where the elderly master, holding a light source, makes a series of rapid gestures and the final, stroboscopic photograph reveals a spectral drawing. Bismuth’s series of drawn, photographic assemblages illuminate the interstice between performer and performance, between the gist of the whole film’s action and the jest of the moment. It’s not surprising that he won an Academy Award for co-writing the ultimate tale of erasure, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or that he returned to fine art to achieve distance from Hollywood culture.
STEVE PULIMOOD: You went to school for graphic design. When did the transition occur to art making?
PIERRE BISMUTH: Yes, when I went to Arts Decoratifs I wanted to become a graphic designer. I started to make art very late and was not interested in making objects. I remain far more interested in the process. Art is something that is being constantly redefined. It is the perfect way for us to understand our world. I think Carl Andre said, “Artists just make things. Other people make it art.”
SP: The series at Team deals with overtly cinematic subjects. How do you relate the film practice to your work?


Following the right hand of Lauren Bacall in “The Big Sleep, 2008. Courtesy of Team Gallery New York.

PB: I am somehow trapped in film now, but I started using cinema because I was interested in music. I was not really interested in cinema per se. You have to imagine that I am part of the first generation that had easy access to film through TV and video. I stopped making videos for a while when I kept being asked to participate in exhibitions about art and film.
SP: So you began using cinema because it was there to use, but even in your early art there were clearly concerns about perception, how the mind works, why we look at certain things, distinguish between them, and ultimately why they are important… Many of these questions are similar to those that the viewers confront when watching movies, the majority driving narratives.
PB: I am not sure that narrative is what really motivates filmmakers. Narrative gives us a reason to make films, and for the public to follow. You have to pretend you are going somewhere.
SP: How did the idea of tracing hand moments evolve?
PB: Out of boredom. I was watching James Bond films on TV and I became fascinated with Sean Connery’s nose. I thought it was interesting to watch the line that was traced by his nose. As a subject though, the nose is not serious enough. So if you are going to follow something, the hand has the most implication.
SP: The marker scribbles seems like scripted errors defacing the immaculate close-ups of these women, yet they question everyday assumptions about the aura of celebrity and their unconscious actions. So why do you sign your signature on the plexi-glass?
PB: I was most interested in displacing the attention of my signature. In 2000 I did a text piece that said “Everybody is an artist but only the artist knows it” it was reference to Duchamp and Beuys but applies here also. In this series “Following the right hand of…” Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo or even Sigmund Freud make their own drawings.

SP: Since you watched these films in real time, did you have to practice? Why did you invert the plexi-glass when they were framed?

PB: It’s not super accurate, but if I repeated the process the drawings would be very similar. I placed a piece of glass against the screen, but because it was their drawings, I turned it toward them. I was asking-Is it me or is it Marlene Dietrich? My name is totally eclipsed by her. It’s her work, and I am just functioning as an assistant. In a way I was trying to be faithful to the actress by following her hand, but by this act of faithfulness I was erasing the image.
SP: Your description reminds me of Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning (1953) as it was an homage to an icon that resulted in an Oedipal snuffing out, a literal painstaking erasure. Your work is not sexual desire meted out with violence, but the anxiety of your purpose is clearly evident.

PB: Yes, exactly. In my work, though, it’s a little bit misleading for some people to have it embedded with a reference to such famous actresses, I am only interested in “aura” and “motion,” and Hollywood is motion pictures with a lot of aura!

SP: Luckily, Hollywood does not yet own motion.

PB: (Laughs) I was simply interested in collapsing motion into one image. In my practice I try not to care about the end result. I follow a rule and then I follow it until the end. That’s, by the way, why I think Michel Gondry was interested in Eternal Sunshine. It was a not a storyline, it was a principle. You could say that Eternal Sunshine was a What-if scenario.
SP: What if … the final drawing is not attractive?
PB: I remove myself from aesthetic responsibility. I’m not going to say to myself, “Oh, no it’s not very nice… maybe I should add some…” It’s Marilyn’s drawing. If you find it ugly, it’s not my fault.


Pierre Bismuth’s “Following the Right Hand of…” is on view at Team Gallery through May 2. Team Gallery is located at 83 Grand Street, New York.