Air de Paris Florence Bonnefous Interview – Pigeons in the Square

Editor's Note: The interview was conducted in French, and translated by Picture This Post's trilingual editor, Mingyuan Dong. The original interview in French can be found below the English translation.

While this exhibit will be over soon, Air de Paris will be part of the new Paris+ of Art Basel, making its world premiere in October, 2022.

Why Pigeons ??

That was the question that Picture This Post put to Florence Bonnefous of Air de Paris about their exhibit, Pigeons in the Square.

According to the exhibit promoters, Pigeons in the Square (Les pigeons du square) is inspired by Jean Painlevé’s last film, of the same name. Running through July 23, 2022, it showcases both Painlevé’s works and other artists’ creations with a similar surrealist touch. Many works are black and white, bringing us back to the era of Painlevé during the advent of surrealist films. 

(Note: A concurrent exhibition Feet in the Water (Les pieds dans l’eau) shows Painlevé’s works in Jeu de Paume from June 8 to September 18, 2022.)

According to the founder of Air de Paris, Florence Bonnefous, “Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) was led to film the living world by ‘the profound beauty of nature in its colors and shapes’, but also, he admitted, by the fact that he drew very badly… As a student in the Laboratory of Comparative Anatomy at the Sorbonne, he became fascinated both by microphotography and by scientific cinema as a modern, efficient means of recording movement.

This initially scientific approach led him to discover ‘things nobody else had seen’. Scientific cinema was the instrument that enabled him to share his discoveries by rendering the invisible visible: opposed to traditional teaching, he saw cinema as a decisive vector for generating awareness, and ensured viewer interest by his attentiveness to aesthetics and rhythm, and the anecdotes and shafts of wit that accompanied his message. It was this injection of subjectivity into the scientific that gave a poetic dimension to his work. Since his time at the Sorbonne, he had been close to the Surrealists… ” such as Yvan Goll.

“In the course of over 60 years Painlevé made some 200 films, of which Pigeons in the Square (Les pigeons du square) is the last one, dedicated to physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey.” 

“In the film, Pigeons in the Square, ‘we can see Painlevé, sitting on the bench in a square surrounded by children, who teaches them how to observe the birds' morphology and imitate the way they walk. Beyond this film, the lesson that Painlevé always advocates is: to rely on direct, bodily experience. Pigeons in the Square conveys the value of synthesis, which is in fact, a conclusion just designated for his filmography.’ (Roxane Hamery)”

AIR DE PARIS Les Pigeons du Square
Jean Painlevé, Pigeons in the Square, 1982

Florence Bonnefous summarizes that this is “... an exhibition that is made up of small elements bouncing back and forth, jumping from the poetic to the comical, from the absurd to the serious, Air de Paris aims to bring visitors the creative freedom of contemporary artists with an echo to Painlevé’s surrealist practice.

Here, Picture This Post (PTP) speaks with Florence Bonnefous (FB) about the exhibition.

AIR DE PARIS Les Pigeons du Square
Florence Bonnefous

(PTP) Why pigeons?

(FB) For us, Painlevé’s pigeon is our neighbor at the corner of the street, in the square. We have a very close relationship with this animal, who is part of the urban landscape, but not really domesticated. It is less dominated than dogs, cats, rabbits, and animals that we call pets. For Painlevé, it is also a humorous way to go up from the bottom of the sea, afar, foreign and exotic, to the surface of the ground. Here, we encounter an ordinary animal without great beauty: the pigeons of the cities, always being hated, or better, ignored.

I also had the idea of migrants and beggars in my mind. They always exist, but we do not see them anymore, or it could be that we are offended by their untidy presence.

For me, the pigeon is an animal of politics and my interest was reinforced by reading Fahim Amir. 

How do you approach resolving the tensions in presenting the work of a historic artist such as Painlevé while at the same time bringing new works to light?

The exhibition project itself attempts to realize Jean Painlevé’s liberty of thoughts, the openness of his spirit, and his humor. Thus, there was no problem confronting his last film, which is between a documentary and a comedy (work of younger artists). Besides, this is nothing like a science exhibition, so we undertook less confrontation than addition. 

The exhibition was not finished when it was open. This is exactly the other idea involved – an exhibition that can evolve – that presents and represents a relationship with less possessive artworks, less domination of work by curatorial principle, freer, and more fun. It is a modest exhibition which does not look to prove, but instead, spark reactions and testimonies. It works out all the time!

How does the exhibition design evoke Painlevé’s surrealist practice?

The exhibition is perceived as a collage of an exquisite cadaver. In this sense, it could connect to the surrealist practice of Jean Painlevé without mimicking it entirely. It is also a sound collage; Painlevé’s film is placed at the heart of the exhibition, a projection among its surroundings, with two films on monitors. Two films are presented with earphones, and finally, two songs related to the two works go off to play once in a while (Pet Shop Boys et Kid Creole and the Coconuts). The soundtracks overlap with each other, producing an urban sound.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank Fahim Amir for his book Being and Swine (The End of Nature As We Knew It), Between the lines Books, November 2020 ; he came to confirm an intuition which allows me a temporary conclusion: 

When tigers are used as a selling point for cereals, and purple cows as a sign for chocolate bars .../... Who feeds the pigeons, feeds the resistance.

What was the process of selecting the artists for this exhibition?

All the works are related to pigeons, so I started with Painlevé. Then, I invited Jochen Lempert, with whom we had agreed to do a “project” one day. Then, I invited some close artists to participate. Some created unedited works (for example, Jean-Luc Verna). An artist talked to me about another artist, and I made progress little by little…

Artists in order of appearance:

Jean Painlevé
Christiane d'Hôtel
Jochen Lempert
Jean-Luc Verna 
Mrzyk & Moriceau
Liam Gillick
Scott King (with Jonathan de Villiers)
Vincent Gernot
Eric Giraudet de Boudemange
Remy Drouard
Thomas Geiger
Rob Pruitt
Mark Dion
Bertrand Planes
Maïa Lacoustille
Boris Achour


For more information, visit the Air de Paris website.


Original Interview in French:

“ Dans le film, Les pigeons du square, ‘on y voit Painlevé, assis sur le banc d’un square, entouré d’enfants à qui il apprend à observer la morphologie des oiseaux et à imiter leur marche. Hors les murs, la leçon se base sur l’expérience directe, corporelle, qu’il a toujours prônée. Les pigeons du square possède cette valeur de synthèse qui en fait une conclusion toute désignée pour sa filmographie.’ (Roxane Hamery)”


(PTP) Pourquoi les pigeons?

(FB) Le Pigeon de Painlevé est pour nous le voisin au coin de la rue, dans le square. Nous avons une relation de grande proximité avec cet animal qui fait partie du paysage urbain mais qui n’est pourtant pas vraiment domestique, il est moins dominé que les chiens, les chats, les lapins et les animaux qu’on dit de compagnie. Pour Painlevé c’est aussi une façon humoristique de remonter du fond des mers, lointain, étranger et exotique, vers la surface de la terre à la rencontre d’un animal prosaïque et sans grande beauté, le pigeon des villes, souvent détesté, au mieux ignoré.

J’avais aussi à l’esprit les migrants et les mendiants, ils sont là mais on ne les voit plus ou bien on s’offusque de leur présence non-toilettée. 

Pour moi le pigeon est un animal politique et mon intérêt a été conforté par la lecture de Fahim Amir. 


Comment est-ce que vous arriviez à résoudre des tensions en présentant le travail d’un artiste historique, tel est Jean Painlevé, et en même temps, montrant de nouvelles œuvres?

Le projet même de l’exposition tente de rendre compte de la liberté de penser de Jean Painlevé, de son ouverture d’esprit et de son humour. Il n’y a donc eu aucun problème à confronter son dernier film, qui oscille entre le documentaire et la comédie (au travail d’artistes plus jeunes). Ce n’est en rien une exposition scientifique, d’ailleurs nous avons procédé moins par confrontation que par addition, et l’exposition n’était pas achevée quand elle a ouvert. C’est bien ça l’idée d’ailleurs, une exposition qui peut évoluer, qui présente et représente une relation aux œuvres d’art moins possessive, moins dans la domination de l'œuvre par un principe curatorial, plus libre et plus amusante. C’est une exposition modeste et qui ne cherche pas à prouver mais plutôt à susciter des réactions et des témoignages. Ce qui a fonctionné à plein !


Comment est-ce que la conception de l’exposition évoque la pratique surréaliste de Painlevé?

L’exposition est conçue comme un collage et un cadavre-exquis et en ce sens rejoint peut-être la pratique surréaliste de Jean Painlevé sans tenter de la mimer pour autant. C’est aussi un collage sonore ; le film de Painlevé est placé au cœur de l’exposition, une projection en son ambiant, ainsi que deux films sur moniteurs. Deux films sont présentés avec des écouteurs, et enfin deux chansons se déclenchent de temps en temps, qui sont en lien avec deux œuvres (Pet Shop Boys et Kid Creole and the Coconuts). Les bandes sons se superposent et produisent un son urbain. 

Je remercie beaucoup Fahim Amir for pour son livre Being and Swine (The End of Nature As We Knew It), Between the lines Books, November 2020 ; il est venu confirmer une intuition qui m’offre une conclusion temporaire :

Quand les tigres servent d’argument de vente aux céréales, et les vaches violettes d’enseigne pour les tablettes de chocolat …/… Qui nourrit les pigeons, nourrit la résistance.


Quel est le processus de choisir les artistes dans l’exposition?

Toutes les œuvres ont un rapport avec les pigeons. Donc je commence avec Painlevé, puis j’invite Jochen Lempert avec qui nous avions convenu de faire un « projet » un jour, puis j’invite des artistes proches à participer, certains créent des œuvres inédites (Jean-Luc Verna par exemple). Un artiste me parle d’un autre artiste, j’avance ainsi peu à peu…

Mingyuan Dong

About the Author: Mingyuan Dong

Ming has lived in China, the United States, and France. She speaks the languages of all three of these countries, as well as German. With these tongues, Ming enjoys traveling, visiting art museums around the world, and discussing all kinds of art with fellow art enthusiasts.

Ming grew up studying drawing in studios. Today, Ming spends most of her time making art, or studying the arts. She especially enjoys making works about linguistics, the natural environment, and living situations.

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