Paul Pouvreau, Archi 5 (2010)

Paul Pouvreau is an artist based in Paris. His work is mainly grounded in the photographic medium, but he also uses video, drawings and installation. In the past few years, working between description and fiction, Pouvreau’s work has been specifically exploring packaging and its effigies, as well as their relation to urban spaces. Sculpture and architecture have been a recurrent concern of his practice over the years. He currently teaches photography at the école supérieure de la photographie d’Arles, and is represented by the gallery les filles du calvaire in Paris.


Paul Pouvreau, Pillars of industrial signifiers, a commentary by Gabriel Gee

A stack of papers fills the rectangular frame of the photograph. The horizontal layering of thin slices – paper, really? or more likely plastic? – forms a column. It lies on a plinth made of a wooden warehouse palleti, while its top is cut by the edge of the photograph. The slight close-up conveys a monumental air to the whole structure. One smells a sniff of classical majesty. The blown up column evokes the imposing effect of the antique; transferred to the industrial realm of the late 20th century. This minimal austerity, the purity of the machine-processed object, almost a minimalist entity whose whole one should be able to comprehend mentally (a Judd stack), is counterbalanced by a series of ornamental details. At the forefront, catching the eye, screaming for attention, eights folds where white, red and black stand out. They emerge at one of the four corners of this rectangular pillar, the one that is pushed towards our viewing point as we apprehend it from a diagonal perspective. Each fold has its own identity, its own configuration. Although each bent shape is singular, with a difference between a one folded and two folded movement, all folds except one ultimately point downwards. Only the lowest fold points upward. It does so by having, contrary to the others, a blank tip facing towards us, rather than the coloured pattern corresponding to the printed design on each of these eight separating layers – this blank audacity is counterbalanced by the much larger surface of coloured material to be seen from our vantage position on this lower positioned sheet. These singular paper dynamics alert us to the subtle modulations in the pillar. By underlining the horizontal elements of the overall structure, nine units composed of seemingly multiple cohesive layers, the folds also guide our attention towards the waving lateral variations and the printed motifs that appear within the uniform matrix. Stripes, recesses, fragmentation of the black vertical lines, asperities and swaying of the parts repeated with a slight interval.

When considering the obsession of Quattrocento artists in mathematics and geometrical constructions, the art historian Michael Baxandall pointed out on how their three dimensional projections on two dimensional canvases would have appealed to the mind disposition of the public most likely to appreciate them, the men who commissioned the art works in the first place: the burgeoning wealthy merchants of Italian city states. There was a joint appreciation by artists and patrons alike of the geometrical articulation of the renaissance cubic space. The abstract segmentation of volumes in particular would have found a keen reception. The education of aspiring merchants at the time included some literature and poetry, but was based mostly on mathematics, practical measuring and arithmetic skills. The packaging and delivery of goods was not standardised and merchants and bankers were trained to assess the quantities and values contained in varyingly shaped containers, a gauging skill. Hence Paolo Ucello’s hat on the head of Niccolò da Tolentino leading the Florentine troops to a victorious confrontation with the Siennese in the Battle of San Romano, would have held a geometrical appeal, a sort of private “serial geometrical joke”, to its commissioner and priviledged viewer Lorenzo de Medici. To the Twentieth century industrial eye accustomed to the delicacies of standardised variations, Pouvreau’s pillar offers a contemporary mazzochio to be explored contemplatively through its formal recesses and mechanic printing associations.

The assembled pillar leads to industrial packaging. Yet it does not show the packaging machine, but through the packaging product, the leaves that will envelop consumable materials in shape and/or in idea: the packaging machinery, the packaging economy.

A world of timely and technical organisation is contained in the pillar of containers. It is the world of the production line, of manual, semi-automatic and automatic wrappers, of versatile side seal and economic lap seal system, of sleeve wrapping and stretch wrapping, feeders and inserters, conveyors, labellers and coders. It is a world whose determining functions are in conception and design, printing, cutting and embossing, and crucially, in the end, folding.

These different operations are captured in a singular entity. The pillar is both the living matter of industrial packaging, and a symbol of its operations diffused in time. Furthermore, the operations of industrial packaging are far from being mere anecdotic occupation to be attached to a more substantial manufacturing industry. Envelopes have always been an influent part of human societies. The global technological revolution of the 1980s erected them as fetiches. Form took over content. And this is precisely what Pouvreau’s pillar addresses by, on the contrary, embedding the signifier in its material dimension. Rather than displaying a sign-value that would endlessly refer to another sign-value, it freezes the industrial icon and piles it on top of itself to gain materiality. This is obtained by an interruption of the industrial process. What you see is not what you see, but a condensation of past, present, future. You are not looking at the ready-made, but at the not-already-made, which enables the signifier to reach it signified dimension. This dimensions is not that of the biscuits, crisps, soups, beverages, that the cardboard and plastic containers will surround later in life. In fact, in parallel installation works, Pouvreau will make ancient cities out of these, skyscrapers erected on wooden pallets. The package regains its authenticity, its individuality through condensation. And in the immutable repetition of itself if discloses an abstract entity. Mostly the package pillars are anonymous – there are several of them in Pouvreau’s photography series. A Pringles shot comes as an exception. Packages do not represent any iconic product of consumption that we might associate with, for instance, France, as laconically as Warhol ate his American soups and drank his American sodas. They stand as the all-encompassing abstract envelopes that infuse our everyday glocalised life and environments.

On top of the attentive portrayal of the packaging industry, Pouvreau’s pillars are exemplary photographic metaphors. That is, they are metaphorical figures of photography itself, which flattens the object so as to immobilise the latter’s fleeting nature (its transitory existence). In the end, both photography, the medium of representation, and its object, the pillars of industrial signifiers, fuse the one into the other, simultaneously referring the one to the other.
Industrial pillars become a reflection on the medium used to capture it, a multipliable vector to be filled with object matter, sent away, torn and disposed of.