A kairotic encounter at the Centre Pompidou, with the artist Patricia Diart

NB. I like to believe that life is sometimes guided by the “kairos”, that “opportune moment” that comes to us from ancient Greek thought; and I have a few examples in store. One of the most obvious (one chance in a million), occurred at the Centre Pompidou, in the last room of the Shirley Jaffe exhibition. Since the beginning of my visit, I had noticed the very formal passage from abstraction to something much more geometrical, almost constructivist, but dissipated, see? Still, I was very intrigued, astonished, by this very radical shift. Suddenly, I thought that I would like to share my astonishment with someone; to ask if he, or she, did also find this surprising transformation remarkable? I looked around at the visitors, looking for my potential interlocutor. Most of them were pacing the halls as if in a shopping malls, others were “selfiyng”… It wasn’t going to work. Soon enough, however, I spotted a woman who was looking at this and that. I kept her in reserve, and continued my way. When I reached the last room, a welcome bench was waiting for me. I sat down. Here came to pass the woman in the green dress. She was about to leave. Unless she also sat down. Which she did. So I thought about it, and I approached her, asking her if she shared my astonishment, once I had expressed it. Sure enough, she shared it. OK. We introduced ourselves. She was an artist! Here I am, curious to know more. And so here is Patricia Dart, artist, designer, and performer (among others); and she’s telling me about one of her performances, in San Francisco, where she comes from, and there is is, via a later interview, the extra-ordinary story of this performance, which lasted for years! Generally, I’m not a big fan of performance art; I find it often overplayed, or vague, or boring, or nonsensical, and then the term has become a real catch-all, an all-purpose word, in which one finds everything, and anything. Above all, what amazed me about Diart is the long-term investment and total involvement in her performance, that is to say, outside the comfortable framework of any institution, among other things, not taking into account any sort of timing, and then, putting herself in danger, through the venues where she went, and eventually facing up with the reactions of the people. And now, without further ado, here is this interview, re-read and amended by the artist.   

Léon Mychkine: I wanted to talk about this piece of styrofoam which you have found on the beach, from where it all started, alright?

Patricia Diart: Sure. I’ve been collecting found objects — I like this word a lot, “found objects” —, in the streets, from the late nineties to early two thousands. I was walking along a fort, in San Francisco, and I saw what appeared to be a rock-like shape

LM: Yes

PD:  in the distance. But I had an uncanny feeling about it, it was a kind of like a rock, and I was drawn to it. I kept walking, and as I came closer and closer to it, I still couldn’t figure out what it was.  It was intriguing to me. Even at fifteen feet away, I couldn’t tell what it was, and it was stuck in the sand dunes. When I finally got there, I touched it. It was styrofoam, a big piece of styrofoam.

LM: Okay

PD: So I took it home. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. And two years later, a series of events happened in my life, that were completely ridiculous, all at once. So as a response to the ridiculousness of my life — I had been fired from a waitress job —, I decided to carry this banal object to the unemployment office, in San Francisco.

LM: [Laughs] OK

PD: Initially I had it tied to my back, and I was a little bit hunched over, kind of play around with the idea of having weight, and I thought it wasn’t such a great idea. I thought it was better just to carry it, in my arm, using one arm on my shoulder.

LM: Like something alive.

PD: Yes it’s more alive that way.

LM: And when you’ve reached the unemployment office with your piece of work, if I can say that, did they say anything about it?

PD: No, they acted as if it had never existed.

LM: [laughs]

PD: You know, there’s lot of characters in San Francisco. At one point, I remember, when I’d carried it around, some passers-by said: “Oh, only in San Francisco!”



Patricia Diart, Untitled, 2011

And at the unemployment office, I actually wrote the whole story, about my experience there, because that and also the absurdity of the bureaucracy, for getting my unemployments benefits. You know, it’s a catch 22 to get unemployment benefit. 

LM: I guess so…

PD: So then, after that, I decided to carry it around to other places: grocery stores; I brought it with me  to the dentist, I carried it with me to see my shrink [Laughs] or therapist; therapist is more polite [Laughs]

LM: You told me that you went to the restaurant with it.

PD: Yes, I went to a fancy restaurant with it. You know, people would ask me what it was? And I said: “It’s something I found”.

LM: Yes.

PD: Yes.

LM: That’s all, that’s it, period.

PD: That’s it, yes.


— Sometimes they would ask me: “What are you gonna do with it?”, And I answered: “I’m not gonna do anything. I’m carrying it.”


Patricia Diart, Untitled, 2011

LM: The fact of your carrying this thing was a symbolic way of demonstrating the absurdity of your life in these moments, right?

PD: I wouldn’t use the word ‘demonstrate’, but I think there was a feeling in my life of things being rather absurd. I had this feeling since I was very young, so it’s nothing new. If you know why you’re doing something as an artist, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. [Laughs] I think that, as artists, we do things to find out about ourselves and the world. Of course, there are different levels about “knowing”.

LM: Sure

PD: The fact of being an artist is to delve into the mysterious, and to not know.

LM: Yes. You just have to do it, and then, that’s it.

PD: Yes, I mean, it’s worth taking a risk. It’s important to take a risk in your work.

LM: And then, for how long did you walk along with your piece?

PD: About two years, on and off.

LM: And you told me also, that once upon a time someone stole your piece.

PD: Yes, someone stole it in the end. You know, I had fantasies to bring it to Paris, to a beautiful restaurant. I was going to carry it more consistently, everywhere. But then it got stolen.

LM: So you went to the police.

PD: Yes, I called them, and I told them that my artwork had been stolen, and four cops showed up. They’ve asked for a description of the man, however it was a couple that had stolen it.

LM: So…

PD: I went to this bar, with the “thing”; it was to my left side, I was talking to my friend, another artist friend, and suddenly, I looked to my right — the doorway’s there —, and a tall man in a blue sweater had the “thing” in his hands. I jumped off the bar stool to ask him “what he wanted”, and before I could get the words out my mouth, he was out the door, and, on a Vespa. His girlfriend was waiting for him, without a helmet, which is illegal [Laughs], so they really wanted to get away, and he jumped on the back, and they drove down California Street. It was gone. The bartender said that this couple had been in the back of the bar, drinking for a while. I guess they wanted it, and they took it.

LM: That’s insane.

PD: Yes, it is [Laughs] — and because it was stolen I knew it was a valuable piece. [Laughs]

LM: I mean, how someone would want to steal a piece of styrofoam in a bar next to a person who owns it? This is crazy. [Laughs] Of course you would have had, I don’t know, say, a sculpture of Giacometti or a painting by Picasso, alright, OK, but a piece of styrofoam, the idea of stealing it, it’s very weird.

PD: Well, I think it attracted a lot of attention. So, the police asked me how much it was worth? I made up a number in my head: $3000 [Laughs] now it was considered a felony. They asked me if I would be able to identify this person in a lineup, and I said “yes”. I didn’t actually see his face but I wanted to see how far this could go, in terms of  “What is the value of art?”, and “What is deemed to be an art object?” I had started to have fantasies, about, a trial, having a debate about art. You know the art world is now such an elitist monied circus… And this was becoming a kind of circus, now that this was stolen, and since I’d called the police, I was entering another reality.

LM: Sure. [Laughs] Did they ask you for photos of the piece?

PD: They didn’t actually. When I talked to them they didn’t bat an eye. I thought for sure that they would consider this to be preposterous. [Laughs] But they didn’t, and they could have found this person within two days because they talked to the bartender. He had a credit card number on file. So the police called this fellow, and asked him: “You need to return this object back to her in the condition it was in. If not, she’s going to press charges”.[Laughs] and he said: “I’m gonna get a lawyer” [Laughs] And another thing: I put signs around the city: “If you have seen this object, please call this number”… and I got pranksters. The Sergent called me for a lineup, to identify the person, but I said: “No, I don’t know who he is”. I hadn’t actually seen his face. Later, the bartender identified the person. So now we had a Criminal Case. The Sergent called me and said: “If you go through with this felony case, you gonna have to prove that this piece is worth what you say it is”. And I said: “That’s fine”. Then I called a curator, at the San Francisco Arts Commission to see if she could help me find a lawyer in the arts. Now I was ready for this to transform into another whole performance art piece that was gonna be a discussion about the “Value of art”, “What is art?” So now, the randomness of this was really great. I got a case number, and it was sent to the DA’s office. Four days later I called them to see what happened with it. They said it wasn’t on file and I said “well there must be some kind of mistake because I know there’s a case number”. They said “no, it’s not here. Call back in a week, I’m sure it’s around”. Two weeks later, I called, and they said “oh no, that case doesn’t exist”. So I figured they disappeared the case.

LM: Yes.

PD: They didn’t have the time and energy to deal with it, so I decided to make drawings about what happened. Later, I made an animation, and the animation turned into something else, but, you know, the story’s a pretty good story!

LM: Yes it is.[Laughs] 

Patricia Diart, Untitled, 2011

More about Diart’s work : http://www.diartprojects.com/about/ and https://thecape.substack.com/about

Version française très prochainement

Next article: A critical examination of Diart performance.

Léon Mychkine

art-critic, AICA member, Docteur of Philosophy, independent researcher



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