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The Eloquent Silences of Dominique Petitgand

by Anne-Sophie Miclo

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The sound of an electric impact, a voice, a murmur, silences, memories, an errant whistle – apparently in answer to the lapping of water – this is essentially what Dominique Petitgand’s exhibition at the Centre International d’Art et du Paysage de Vassivière comprises.

While they seem to be presenting nothing – if not for the exceptional site in which they take place – Dominique Petitgand’s sound installations provide “tales and inner landscapes” for the ear, which each listener is free to picture for themselves.

Since 1992, the artist has recorded and assembled vocal or musical fragments – all the diverse materials used to compose his works. These fragments are later isolated, questioned or associated with others and presented to the public in various guises: as sound installations, discs or at listening posts plunged into darkness.

While the artist considers sound to be “always in service to the story you’re telling”, we nonetheless do not find many (or any) linear narratives in his sound works – only sounds and voices that endow them with a human element. Most of the works he proposes suggest a sensitive, progressive approach through these disparate, distended or suspended compositions.
A narrative that the artist composes with words, bits of phrases interspersed with silences and that thus become potential fictions. We roam through the rooms and works, one after the other, and the assemblage takes form en route, from one sound installation to the next. It is up to visitors to construct their own “pick-a-path” story. This freedom is inscribed within the space: no listening bench, only information on the duration, no beginning, no end, and no specific predefined listening points. The artist presents unravelled stories that are sometimes hard to situate. To achieve this, he multiplies listening points and associates various temporalities and rhythms in order to reinforce the atemporal illusion, the here and now in which we find ourselves. Only the flow of audio actually creates the temporality and this is continually suspended or recomposed by the artist in order to modify our perception.
Its elasticity thus emerges in a very natural way. During the visit, listeners are free to discover an exhibition with a perpetually renewable program, depending on where they stand to listen and the amount of time they dedicate to each of the works. 

These potential and almost dreamlike narratives resonate within the space and inside of us through this seesaw between the unknown and the familiar. The works evoke mental states such as fear, forgetting or memory. These stories are often based on daily life and often ambiguous; we don’t always understand them, as though something was trying to slip our minds, and yet, it’s all there. The silence is communicative, the words and sounds leap out. 

The silences that play a central role in his sound works are a zone of permeability between the artwork and the context of presentation. During these interstices, we hear the footsteps of other visitors, our own breathing, and the sound of expectation – silences that are the same as in everyday life, sometimes awkward, sometimes eloquent. These silences make us listen but above all, invite us to wait for “what’s next”. With this system, the exhibition space thus becomes a sensitive space in service to the artworks.

In the exhibition " Il y a les nuages qui avancent " (There are clouds coming), everything starts with the voice that emerges from the top of the lighthouse among the prevailing sounds. It attracts the visitors, it seems to call them and becomes increasingly stronger and more distinct as they ascend. Once the visitors arrive at the top of the spiral staircase, still echoing with the sounds broadcast below as they fade, they hear the story that this voice tells, that of invisible connections: “from this difficulty in defining them, of saying where they stand within a set of things, people or bodies, a whole that we are apparently a part of.”1

The experience continues as far as the woods on the island. There, at the edge of the lake, Dominique Petitgand has installed Je siffle au bord du quai, a sound work comprising whistling interspersed with the passing of a high-speed train. This creation once again resonates with the site, settling into its midst and allowing everything outside the artwork to exist. The sound of water or the forest thus respond to the whistling and play a considerable role in the visitor’s mental projections.

From room to room, the public collects, here and there, the sound or musical fragments that punctuate the space. The visit end with the work Il y a, ensuite (1994), the only work with a beginning and an end, even if its rhythmic patterns are continually redefined and the end varies depending on the time of listening. Is this artwork the sum of the previous phases, which finally assume a form?

The relationship with the work is frontal and the two voices are broadcast at ear level. With their eyes locked onto the horizon – through the skylight overlooking the lake – visitors find themselves swept up, listening amid this quasi-theatrical setting to the description of a potential landscape. The title of the exhibition is also derived from this sound work. Visitors thus allow themselves to be caught up in this story in which “there is a house and a woman peeling potatoes.”2 Then what? 

“A kind of island emerging from the sea and that is all”2.


  1. Excerpt from Dominique Petitgand’s book Les liens invisibles, p.4-5, 2015
  2. Excerpts from the composition by Dominique Petitgand Il y a, ensuite, 1994

" Il y a les nuages qui avancent "
Centre International d’Art et du Paysage de Vassivière
22 March > 21 June 2015


Translated from the French by Anna Knight


Dominique Petitgand Anne-Sophie Miclo
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