Purple Magazine

philippe parreno


interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

french artist philippe parreno opened his studio full of orchids — his latest experiment — to explain, through the filter of his art, how love connects us to animals, plants, mythological creatures, and stars like marilyn monroe.


OLIVIER ZAHM — When a planetary system is out of kilter, what remains for us? What can we count on? Can we count on love? You use metaphors and fiction to talk about it.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, I often use metaphors. In 2007, I gave a talk to a colony of penguins in southern Argentina! It was very funny and very frightening.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Penguin couples are very faithful, aren’t they?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — They’re monogamous. In our collective imagination, thanks to cartoons, penguins are very cute but awkward creatures. There’s this idea of a group of indistinct beings dressed in tuxedos. It was a totally crazy expedition.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it in a zoo?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — No, in a big penguin colony at Punta Tombo in Patagonia. I really wanted to talk to them. I contacted the national park, which agreed to let me do that. They thought I was going to take photographs. I was taken to the colony by national guards, and there were several thousand penguins. I approached them one night on a beach, crawling so as to be on their level, very gently, when most of the penguins were in the sea. The beach really stank: it was full of guano and rotting birds. An incredible number of insects. Surreal noises. The first time, it didn’t go so well — they went crazy, and I had to move away. Then, the second time, I was able to get to a spot close to them. I had to remain still, waiting for the penguins to come back from fishing, summoned by their fellow creatures — they use cries to find each other. And then the moment came. I lit my light, turned my mic on, started reading my text, and soon found myself surrounded by thousands of penguins. They’re looking at you, intrigued by you, and they start pecking at your things, biting you. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds: if they decide to eat you, you’re dead meat. They started arriving en masse. One of them starts pecking at your bag. And then, afterward, one of them starts giving you a little peck just to test your reaction. I’d been told that if things go wrong, you can stand up because your size might freak them out a bit. At one point, I started getting up, and they stopped moving. I cut short the text that I had to read.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What had you come to say to them?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — It was like a declaration — going all the way with an idea, and exposing oneself to millions of beings. There’s this great phrase by Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Pascalian Meditations, which says, “To expose yourself, you must be disposed.” So, exhibition presupposes a disposition. And we do indeed talk about being disposed to being in love. You have to feel like it. Exposure to alterity. It’s a disposition. The idea was to make that long journey and be prepared to expose myself to a multitude of beings, of bodies, and to see that it’s perilous. I didn’t stay for long. They could have attacked me, just out of curiosity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In love, there is risk: of being devoured by the other, then abandoned, left weak, torn up by rejection.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Lacan emphasized the essential relation of anxiety to desire for the other by using the image of the praying mantis, accompanied by the hostile question: Che vuoi? What do you want? What do you want from me? It would seem that we need to wear masks so as not be recognized as being the same. If you are seen as being the same, you get eaten up.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Love is never tranquil: it’s the radical experience of the other, of their difference.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — The radical experience of the other. In my private life, in my experience living with my partner Shéhérazade, one of the things that I appreciate about her is that we’re very different.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that a discovery?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes. At first, we try to love what resembles us. That typical seduction scene in a Hollywood movie or in a bar, when you find yourself ordering the same cocktail as the other person. We understand each other implicitly. That’s how it starts, with similarities. Similarities are exciting, comforting, and then come the differences.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you accentuate the difference. Alain Badiou says that this exploration of difference is not just a quest for the other — it’s about opening up to the world. It’s seeing the world with the other and sharing it from another angle. It’s like having four eyes.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Four eyes, but two brains. Because otherwise, in effect, your basic drive will tell you the opposite: “I need to get back into my own world.” So, the world seen by the other is different: opening up to the other rather than being devoured. It arouses anxiety or can raise the level of insecurity, but, at the same time, it’s a real discovery. Afterward, the way all that relates to language is extremely entangled and complex.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Love also partakes in the pleasure of language, of communicating, of always having something to say.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Perhaps, but also accepting that sometimes you’re not saying anything. Because saying nothing is a form of higher intimacy, which you shouldn’t mistake for emptiness, the end of the relationship. Saying nothing is sometimes just saying nothing — because there’s nothing to say. It’s not serious. No judgements, no whatever. And it’s complicated to get into those states, to be able to say nothing and feel right together. It’s like feeding the silence.


OLIVIER ZAHM — You did that project on Marilyn Monroe, in which you looked at her last moments. She’s an erotic icon but also the female incarnation of unhappiness in love, famous for her emotional wounds.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, with Marilyn, I tried to make a portrait of a ghost.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The icon that never dies.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, literally, because we reproduced and reconstituted her voice with specialists at IRCAM. We took all the texture of Marilyn’s voice, made up of algorithmic artifices, then mapped this onto the voice of an actress who read a script in order to get the right intonations. It’s like a puppeteer giving the creature its actions. Here, the creature was vocal. And also, we copied and reproduced her way of writing, her signature, with experts at Frankfurt University. When you sign, you are authenticating. All that remained was the eyeprint. That is part of the triangulation for a biometric portrait: voice recognition, recognition of writing, and, after that, ocular recognition. In fact, it was a bit like a biometric portrait. Marilyn’s eye was that of the camera because it was a POV shot. It was a biometric attempt to record a spectral presence. Once the set was in place, I brought in a medium who channels presences and specters to see what presences it might have attracted with the shoot.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which of Marilyn’s texts did you use?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — There was a book of Marilyn Monroe’s notes that had just come out at the time. They were rather lovely, touching.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They were short notes she had left behind?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, in which she talks about herself in the third person. A kind of diary. It’s called Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters. And what’s great about it is that you have the image of Marilyn speaking to the real person, to Norma Jeane Mortenson, and just before she killed herself, too. So, in a way, it’s the first time in history, I believe, that an image has killed its body. It’s the Marilyn image getting rid of the Marilyn body.

OLIVIER ZAHM — An image completely separate from the real self.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Totally. So, that’s what’s interesting — it’s saying: “In the end, there was a murder.” It’s like a science-fiction novel in which the image gains the upper hand. It’s the old 19th-century thing, the portrait of Dorian Gray.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting. In non-Western traditions or non-romantic traditions of love, the sufferings of love are viewed as spells, with this idea of a spirit coming and capturing your spirit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There are also spells that you can cast if you want a person to fall in love with you. It’s as if Marilyn cast a spell on herself.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, it’s the power of the nymph. The one in Homer’s Odyssey. The nymph was originally a place. It might be a grotto, for example. You talk, and the grotto answers you. Echo was a nymph. And the nymph’s body is a rock that looks like scales, and all of a sudden, it’s a dragon. It’s a grotto that answers you, that can see you. You put eyes in it and then start identifying a character, and then afterward, she starts flying. But, at first, the nymph is topographic. And she casts a spell on you. But the spell or possession was an act of knowledge, a non-logical form of knowledge.

OLIVIER ZAHM — An act of knowledge and an act of prediction.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, of prediction. Being possessed, under a spell, also means reaching a certain level of consciousness and knowledge of the world. So, the nymph puts you under a spell, but she bewitches you because you are possessed of a knowledge that wasn’t known before now. It’s an initiation. But there can also be, at a given moment, invention. There is agitation around love. And that is actually what Marilyn is. In my film, she becomes a place again, a space.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s her living room, in fact.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — The voice only describes what it sees, what you see, and the hand or the robot writes only what you see and hear.So, in fact, it’s just a single topographic nymph. It’s a being-space rather than a being-time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s what she created with her life, that space of the eternal figure, the symbol of seduction and desire, but also of wounded love because, in the end, she committed suicide. Her life was a failure, one could say, in terms of her love life.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — She had a good death.

the specter

OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened is that all these experiences of altered consciousness, with LSD, the use of psychedelic drugs, were technologically transferred to the world of virtual reality, to the Internet and social media on one side, and artificial intelligence on the other. Today, we’re living in a world of artificial intelligence, where we’re losing the other. When a machine transcribes you or when Google Translate automatically translates you, the computer is more linguistic than you are. When you’re looking for your way, the computer is a map that is activated immediately.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — That’s why it’s interesting to come back to Alfred Korzybski, who said that “the map is not the territory.” Do you see?

OLIVIER ZAHM — With GPS, you lose your connection with the territory. You no longer look at it. With artificial intelligence and social media, once you get inside the machine, the machine becomes your other, your alterity. Are we also losing a connection with love? You start losing the territory because you have an instant map, and you start losing the other because you can get it on social media. It’s there immediately, unlike with a letter — a letter is always a demand for love. Isn’t the other being diluted, hidden in the machine?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Of course! That’s why we must invent other ways of being for the other. For example, from the outset, Shéhérazade and I said, “We’re not going to send SMSs,” and we got into the habit of always writing, photographing the note, and sending it like that, handwritten.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I love that.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — And so, we text lots of handwritten exchanges. We send lots of images, too, in order to talk to each other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Whereas a text is paradoxically blunt. In just a few messages, you can create a situation of rupture or conflict.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — As Godard said, “SMS means Save My Soul.” It’s too easy, too fast. For example, the fact of picking up a pencil and taking a photograph: that already removes some of the immediacy. It may be a way of recovering an element of the symbolic, of the ritual, the nonverbal. Another language. An intimate language that enables us to invent another relationship. Actually, it’s amazing, this thing that everyone has been doing with Zoom since lockdown — it’s like a new ritual. Never mind what we say about it — we do it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s amazing how we’re discovering that there’s this possibility of closeness.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Which we didn’t know. So, the other is there all the time, even when the streets and restaurants are empty, and the city has ceased to exist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The other bounces back on the screen.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, it bounces back.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In forms that are very accidental, within this machine, because it’s the discrepancies, the distortions, the lost moments that are the most touching.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — All the more so as, now, we are beginning to accept the silences and a form of communication, a connection, that is a bit spectral. We still have the screen for loving the other, seeing the other. Because the city is no longer a place where you meet people: clubs, restaurants, parks — that’s over. That’s gone. No more city. There are only interiors — apartments and screens. So, the other coming back on the Web, on the screen — in a way, it’s surprising. I, too, have this almost tactile, physical feeling. The other, I think, is becoming a bit spectral. Elusive. Almost abstract. Everywhere and nowhere. It’s a somewhat disincarnate body, or one incarnated in everything, in a virtual whole.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Floating, a bit.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, a bit floating. When my son was at his mother’s place, I would take over his computer from a distance in order to show him things. He found that fascinating because you can be disembodied and go on his screen.

OLIVIER ZAHM — As if you were beside him.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yeah, moving something in his virtual space, his desktop computer, when you’re not actually there. So, that makes things happen. It was Timothy Morton who said, “We are all spectral.” It’s as if we were all superheroes — we all have this power of spectrality, this X-factor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The ability to pass through time and space.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yeah, because we know now that our skin no longer defines our identity, simply at the chemical level for starters. You can even see it with the virus. We are constantly radiating. There are things like that, which we knew. We’ve all done a bit of biology, but we now understand in a very immediate way that we are defined by many other things than just our bodily envelope.

OLIVIER ZAHM — All these questions around vital energy are actually quite fascinating. I was reading about us being made up of molecules and atoms, and that the atom has a mass that is infinitely small, compared with its empty space. As that emptiness is traversed by quantum energy, it could very well be the case that we are made up much more of quantum energy than matter.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — That we are made of emptiness, of information without mass.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And this emptiness transmits information that has more of a future in the spectral technological machine you mention than our own body.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — That’s why I think ritual forms are important. Because, precisely, ritual is virtual, spectral, viral. And the future is viral. Not located.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which means that love is losing its focus, its exclusive investment, its theatricality vis-à-vis the other person.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — The other is a virus — it’s everywhere. You can’t grasp it anymore. It goes from one screen to another, from one message to another: it’s coded information.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you tell us something about orchids, which you’ve started to take an interest in?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, the orchid has replaced the cephalopods that I spent a lot of time with here at the studio. The week we made plans for the octopus to go  to the Musée de l’Homme — to which I’d donated it, along with the tank — it died. Strange, huh? It had stopped eating. It had laid eggs. When cephalopods lay eggs, the females allow themselves to die. She died before she could leave. It was a very powerful presence when I came to the studio, that creature. All those years…

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’d started to develop a kind of relationship with it?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Oh, yeah! The octopus is a gaze, really. I am there, I’m working, and it looks at me. When it died, I was looking for a transition. And I started taking in a few orchids. That comes from Joris-Karl Huysmans, from À Rebours [Against Nature], one of those so-called célibataire novels — Proust, Huysmans, etc. Huysmans had this idea of reproducing an elsewhere, a virtual world, because he was a great self-isolator.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The art of lockdown.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — To an extreme degree! In fact, that’s a film I wanted to make, an adaptation of À Rebours. This, for me, is the very beginning of virtual reality. It’s the archaeology of virtual reality. What happens in À Rebours — I don’t know if you remember the novel — is that [Jean] des Esseintes shuts himself away and reproduces reality, or whatever he lacks from the real, at home. So there, the changes of lighting, the smells — to come back to the orchids.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the flower, the orchid…?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — And the flower, well, that’s it. It’s a plant that gives out different smells at different moments of the day. In À Rebours, there’s a smell organ to produce an infinite number of possible odors. That’s one of the things that you miss when you’re shut away — being exposed, having smells pass across you, pheromones. So, Huysmans invented this artifice. Me, I started having orchids in the studio because, first of all, they were produced in large part by man, crossfertilized by man. It’s a bizarre thing, a kind of domestic plant, a bit strange, a hybrid that is constantly transitioning toward a new form.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a virtual plant, in fact.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, a bit. It’s a hybrid organism that is in transition, whose forms are not really stable. So, I found it interesting that they flower at different moments. I thought it would be interesting that this could, as in Huysmans’s book, produce smells at different times of day, like the chimes of clock.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And are these odors attractors?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, for different insects.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like all plants, they’re self-pollinating.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, it’s an eminently sexual and hermaphroditic plant. It’s at once an erotic symbol and like the opposite of love because of its self-sufficiency. Then again, some orchids are epiphytes, plants that live on others, that don’t need photosynthesis — it’s very strange. At the same time, they need the other to exist because they colonize a tree or something else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A bit of a parasite, then?
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, they’re parasites. Some orchids team up with ants.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And so, at the moment, you’re experiencing their closeness.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — Yes, I’m experimenting living with them. It’s the beginning of a process. Orchids have started to change my studio. I put in artificial light, but only afterward did I understand that some orchids actually need shadow. So, in fact, you’re recolonizing, so to speak, your interiority with these plants, which need to be put here because up there, it’s hot. Or because there’s light. Or a suitable corner. That makes a map that you have to make out of your space by finding plants that will adapt to a place, rather than to another being.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s not a decorative arrangement.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s as if the floral parasite had come and occupied spaces and changed the space.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And, naturally, you don’t know where that will lead you.
PHILIPPE PARRENO — No, no, I’m searching. I have started looking at Goethe’s book on plants, which was amusing in a period of lockdown because I couldn’t get out. The first thing that obliged me to go to the studio was that I had to look after the plants. But, yes, it’s interesting — this quest for the non-human other through orchids. The other as differend and as politics.



[Table of contents]

Table of contents

Subscribe to our newsletter