Light from Within: An Interview With Christophe Piallat

By Anna Ter-Yegishyan


Los Angeles-based artist, Christophe Piallat, transcends the space inside Canterbury Records with his geologically inspired installations. By blending together photography and sculpting—two very different mediums—Piallat achieves what he calls, “Living Photography.”


What drew me in most wasn’t only the size of his sculptures, but the light that they released, from within. In the evening, this light becomes even more obvious, more compelling to viewers. This isn’t your ordinary art exhibit, and must be experienced in person in order for the magic of it to be seen and felt.


I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Christophe Piallat to find out more about how his past travel experiences and personal ideologies influenced his newest exhibition, “What Lies Inside, Stays Inside.”




AT: You started your career as a travel and documentary photographer. Which areas did you travel to, and which of those areas most influenced your art?


CP: I went on a pretty important trip—I think it was around 1997—where I went to Asia for six months. Most of my time was spent in India. I did a circle around the north; it took me about three to four months to complete. There I knew I was a photographer. I met a bunch of people and the way that I met them was through the camera. I took portraits of the people that I met. It was not only a great way to document my trip, more so than taking pictures of landscapes or the Taj Mahal, but it was also a way to meet people and talk to people. It was just a beautiful experience and so different from the culture that I knew. The more I went deeper into India, the more I felt empowered and strong and the person that I wanted to be. I knew that photography was the way I wanted to navigate the world. When I got back from this trip I also went to Thailand for a month, New Zealand for three weeks, but India was really the catalyst.

I got back and I quit my job at the Opera in San Francisco—it was a pretty decent job, I was getting paid pretty well, and I went to school at City College for photography. I studied light and I studied, you know, basic technical aspects of photography. I also thought I was going to be a commercial photographer, but ultimately it was the art that kept me glued. When I went back to school again—this was in 2008—for a Master’s in Fine Art at the San Francisco Art Institute, I somehow discovered this technique of crushing the paper and capturing the light in a different way than photography does it. It’s still a moment in time and it’s still like the imprint of a moment. So it’s the same kind of empowerment as that trip to India, but it’s just a different way of doing it.




AT: At what point did you realize that sculpting was a medium you wanted to explore and pursue?


CP: I spend a lot of time in mountains. I ride a mountain bike every other day. It’s kind of my spiritual, happy place, if you will. I’m always looking at twists and turns of geology. I think that’s a lot of where this comes out of, but really when I start sculpting the paper, the aluminum foil, the plastic, it’s like I don’t think about it too much. I just let myself go. Whatever comes out, comes out. If I wanted, these things could be very linear, but for some reason they’re organic and they’re geologic. I think that’s partly because of who I am and that I’m drawn to nature.


AT: How has your work developed and changed over the years?


CP: I think the most literal way would be that I moved from traditional photography to a sort of sculptural type of photography that I call living photography. That would be the most obvious, but I think it’s developed from a place where I was taking pictures of people (portraiture has always been the thing that’s come the most naturally) to trying to make photography more like painting, and then moving from painting to sculpture. Basically, it’s blending mediums. Installation is just a natural fit for me because I was a stagehand and I built sets for a living. I used to build sets in small theatres when I travelled around with the San Francisco Opera. I’d show up, unload a truck, build a set, do a show, break it down, load a truck, wake up at five in the morning and do it all over again. I think part of it is the idea that I do like the temporary, the ephemeral. I think my work has sort of evolved in that direction, that it’s addressing those issues of ephemerality, fragility, and strength, and addressing a medium that really hasn’t changed all that much. Photography has gone from silver plate negatives to digital, but I always kind of wanted to push it to the next level. To me, that’s what this is.


AT: How is your personality reflected in your work?


CP: The free association aspect of it. I don’t like to think too much when I apply the material. I really like to let it come out and let it form to the structure, the shape be dictated by the path that I choose, not necessarily about any kind of particular design. And that’s kind of the way I am, like that’s the way I live my life. Not being overly fussy, you know what I mean? Any time I spend too much time ditzing with one particular spot, I realize I’m overthinking it. I just try and surprise myself. I think that’s the biggest part of my personality, is to constantly surprise myself no matter what I do. But with my artwork, I have to be constantly challenging myself. Otherwise, you’re not growing. For instance, there are times, like with this piece right here, with the mannequin—when I first started building that piece, my instinct was well, I need to attach that plastic in a real way at certain points so it doesn’t fall apart. Then I realized that that, ultimately, is what I like about the work, is that it’s all hanging together by itself. It’s not attached by anything, and I decided to cut all the parts that I physically attached and let it be this thing that’s barely hanging on. That’s kind of part of my personality too—barely hanging on.


AT: What role does light play in What Lies Inside, Stays Inside?


CP: Light plays a role in most of my work; light is always this integral component. But for this particular show, the idea is that there’s an infrastructure underneath these facades and obliviously it’s light, but you don’t really see where it’s coming from and you don’t really know what it is, necessarily. It’s the thing that turns ordinary material into the extraordinary, into magic—is the light. That’s what does it. This paper, that plastic, that aluminum foil would like nothing if there wasn’t the light addressing it in some way, sort of matriculating it. It’s a light source that is coming from within and it’s also the thing that transforms the material into something else.


AT: What are you most trying to communicate with your art?


CP: I’m not necessarily trying to communicate a narrative, but more of an experience and more of a feeling. It’s really just how these things resonate with the viewer. My heroes have been people like James Turrell and all the people from the light and space movement, but also Richard Serra. He kind of affects the body. If you’ve ever walked through his steel canyons, especially the tight little corridors, there’s something about the presence of this ton of steel just right next to you, leaning in on you, and it affects you, physically. I kind of want to do that with this work, in a more sort of intimate way. It’s kind of fragile and hanging by a thread, but it’s also strong and lures. I want to affect the viewer in a way where they’re conscious of themselves. There’s a calmness that comes over them. I want it to be alive, but also dead. I also just love the fact that it could be looked at as trash at the same point of being something remarkable. Something between magic and trash is where my work lies.


AT: Are there any particular artists that have influenced you?


CP: Definitely James Turrell is a big one. I love the simplicity, the spirituality from artwork that’s not even an object at all. It’s just a space, it’s an environment. So trying to combine those two things with photography is kind of my jones.




AT: Your style of art is often referred to as “Living Photography.” In what ways do your sculptures resemble the medium of photography?


CP: It’s capturing light. It can be not only just the physical capturing, but if you look at a particular little, tiny space in there, there’s like a million different photographs. It’s also transforming paper, which is what photography does. It’s a moment in time, but it’s a sculptural moment in time, not a pictorial moment. And then, when the thing is built, I photograph it. I photograph the details, I photograph the whole thing, and then it’s turned back into the two-dimensional. So it’s a back and forth, sort of symbiotic relationship.


AT: What’s the most important wisdom you’ve gained from art?


CP: To trust your instincts and to take mad risks, which is something I say a lot. I always say you’re not an artist unless you’re taking risks. There’s nothing wrong with mad failure, and if you’re not failing, then you’re not taking risks. I mean, you can extrapolate this in life too. I think for an artist it’s almost ten times more important because you have to be pushing yourself and whatever it is you’re doing all the time. I was just driving over here and there was an NPR article about this dude who’s been building this monstrosity in the desert for a long time, and a lot of artists have done that, but this guy just did it for the sake of doing it. Ultimately, that’s what it is. You’ve got to start there first and figure out what it means to you. I think that’s kind of what I learned, especially in the last few years. What does art mean to the artist? If it means something to other people, then that’s great. I don’t want to make art in the vacuum, but you’ve got to do it for yourself first. Then you have to figure out why you’re doing it. Is it to keep yourself sane? Is it to actually make an object? Is it to make money? You’ve got to figure out what that is. I guess every artist has their own path, but for me it’s primarily just pushing it, surprising myself, and taking risks.

Anna Ter-Yegishyan studies English at UCLA and dedicates most of her free time translating her thoughts into sentences. She has recently self-published a collection of her short essays and poems, Eye Drops, which you can check out here.



Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.

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