Inside Saint Barthélemy: a Seven-Day Motionless Journey

For seven days, the French artist Abraham Poincheval lived inside the enlarged reproduction of a medieval wooden sculpture at the Museum of Art and History Fribourg (MAHF). How does this durational and almost immobile performance relate to the different temporalities of the museum and the live body?

The French artist Abraham Poincheval is renowned internationally for his durational performances requiring a total engagement of the body and mind. Thus, he regularly sets up for long periods of time in restricted spaces in order to question the notions of time, confinement and immobility. He has for example lived in the belly of a stuffed bear, in the hollow of a rock or in a giant bottle. All his performances require rigorous preparation, both physical and mental, like for a marathon.

For the performance Inside Saint Barthelemy, realized in the context of the exhibition “Corpus: le corps isolé” (The Isolated Body) at the MAHF, Poincheval inserted himself in an enlarged copy of a polychrome wooden sculpture of Saint Bartholomew dating from around 1480 and belonging to the museum’s collection.[1] The original sculpture was digitized, enlarged and reproduced in the form of a resin shell, leaving a small, cabin-like cavity into which the artist was able to slip and in which he lived for a week, 24 hours a day, becoming one with the representation of the saint. Or, as we say in French, the artist has literally put himself dans la peau de Saint Bartholomew (in French, we don’t put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but in someone else’s skin). It is then symbolic that Poincheval chose to inhabit a sculpture of Saint Bartholomew, a Christian martyr who was flayed alive.

The enlarged reproduction of Saint Bartholomew (holding his skin on his arm), in which French artist Abraham Poincheval spent seven days at the Museum of Art and History Fribourg, from March 7 to 12, 2023. Photo Emilie Magnin.

The increasing presence of performance art in museum institutions has posed many questions and shown the difficulties of reconciling live bodies, sound and movement with spaces that have been intended for immobile and often fragile objects. The temporality of the museum, in particular, is different than the temporality of the live action. Exhibitions typically last for weeks or months, and are open for eight hours a day almost every day. Performance artists who produce works for the museum have sometimes solved this problem by resorting to what art historian Claire Bishop has called “delegated performance,” i.e., hiring performers who can repeat the piece at regular intervals – thus ensuring its constant presentation during opening hours – for the duration of an exhibition.[2]

But in Poincheval’s performance, it is the body itself that is slowing down, almost mimicking the museal temporality of objects by reducing its physical needs to a monastic minimum, protected behind the walls of a golden cell. Inside the statue, basic amenities have been installed: a ventilation system, a rudimentary toilet, a compartment for water and food (mostly soups, nuts and protein bars) and a few books. But from the outside, the only clue of a living presence is the screen mounted on the wall nearby and displaying a live – almost abstract – image from a thermal camera placed inside the cavity.

Plan and close-up view of the cabin built inside the sculpture. The sitting area has been padded with foam. Photos Emilie Magnin.

This screen placed on the wall adjacent to the sculpture shows the activity inside the statue via a thermal camera mounted inside the cavity. Photo Emilie Magnin.

During the museum’s opening hours, visitors are invited to interact with the artist, either by chatting with him or by observing him onscreen. At night, when the museum is closed, a specially appointed guard checks on him every hour, making sleep rather a series of interrupted sequences of rest and meditation.

“During the performance, there is no physical movement, but an entire inner world deploys itself and it becomes a journey,” Poincheval explained. Every little movement inside the statue is paced, slowed down, like a choreography in the dark. Even though the long duration of the performance is impressive, staying longer wouldn’t be an issue physically, as long as his body is well prepared, the artist said. The main trouble would be to return from the hallucinatory journey that isolation provokes, to be sure that you have not ventured too far to be able to return intact.

On Monday morning, March 12, Poincheval cautiously stepped out of the sculpture, supported by the MAHF director. A little stunned, he confided to the many journalists present for the occasion that he felt like he had come back “from another world” and was looking forward to eating a steak.

Poincheval sitting in front of the statue he just exited after seven days in isolation, answering the journalists. Photo Emilie Magnin.

While the museum field is more and more concerned with the display and preservation of performance within its walls, Poincheval’s confined performances are also reversing the conservation question: how to “preserve” the live body of the performer in museal conditions, with no possibility for movement, and almost no food over several days? This issue so worried the politicians involved that the performance almost didn’t happen, confided the museum director. Yet the artist is used to and prepared for this type of performance, and the dispositive of care required for the performance, specified in the contract between the artist and the museum, is consequent. It includes the presence of guardians day and night, an emergency line inside the cavity for the artist to ask for help, and medical devices to monitor his vitals. Undergoing a medical check-up with a specialized sports physician was also a condition for the performance to happen.

The wellbeing of the performer was also the main concern of the visitors asking questions. Many of them asked how he was feeling, if he was comfortable, hungry, scared, if he knew what day it was, or even what he was dreaming of at night. Even if invisible, care for the performer was therefore at the center of both the museum and the public’s preoccupation.

At the same time, Inside Saint-Barthelemy thematizes another side of conservation care that we have explored in our research project: conservation through performance or performativity. In this sense, Poincheval is also bringing the statue “back to life” by putting it under the spotlight, literally animating it from inside. In antiquity and early medieval times, deities and saints were believed to be incarnated in statues, so that touching them and praying to them represented a direct access to the divinity. Before entering the MAHF collection in the twentieth century, Saint Bartholomew must have played this function in a Catholic church in Fribourg. And thanks to Poincheval, for a week people started talking again to its statue (or its replica). It was indeed a very moving and intimate experience, seeing visitors timidly addressing the statue, unsure of where to put their gaze, and hearing the statue quietly responding. How will this change the perception of old Saint Bartholomew’s statue in its forgotten wing of the museum? Next time I’ll see him, will I remember our conversation?

The original statue of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, artist unknown, ca. 1480. Limewood with retouched old polychromy. Photo Emilie Magnin.

[1] The original sculpture of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, created by an unknown artist around 1480, is made of limewood and features retouched historical polychromy. It is just one meter high and is kept in the section Sculpture and Painting in Fribourg, 12th-15th Century of the museum’s permanent exhibition.

[2] Claire Bishop, “Delegated Performance : Outsourcing Authenticity,” October 140 (2012): 91–112.

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