Conversation between Claire Kueny and Ismaïl Bahri

Comprising a series of pins, this line generates a continuous or fragmented shadow line based on the sun's movement. Over a decade later, the artwork is periodically reactivated, constantly evolving, and frequently remains imperceptible. It is a pivotal point in the artist's work. The following is a transcript of the discussion with Ismaïl Bahri about this ephemeral, infinite work.


March 31, 2016, République, Paris


Interview conducted as part of Claire Kueny's PhD thesis in art history, entitled “Sculptures d'ombres. L'ombre projetée dans la sculpture” (Shadow sculptures. Shadow projected in sculpture), presented in 2017 at Paris 8 University. Ismaïl Bahri, a recent arrival in Paris, conceived the "Ligne fantôme" (Ghost Line) in his bedroom. 


Translated to english from french by Hana Barhoumi


Can you tell me about the genesis of La Ligne fantôme 

Ismaïl Bahri : The Phantom Line is a research project I began in my dorm room in Paris. At the time, I was starting to work with what was around me, with very simple, elementary objects. If I remember correctly, I must have come across some pins, and that's how the piece came about. Initially, it was a contained work, a pure experiment, a domestic activity, and that's where it stayed. 

That summer, I realized how important it was to take the sculpture outside and test it out in the sunlight. So that's what I did when I returned to Tunisia. The result was incredible, because I was creating something with the movement of the stars, the movement of the sun, the movement of the earth, and that created a mechanism. A kind of immanent mechanics, internal to the sculpture, that immediately fascinated me. It was one of my first pieces that introduced the question of the work's autonomy, an idea that I continue to develop in most of my present work: initiating a gesture to then allow the work to activate and have a life of its own, a bit like acupuncture. This work then developed, moving out of the privacy of the bedroom into the light. This very simple gesture became an instruction manual for activities that I reactivated over the years. That's how the work began, and how it laid the groundwork for my future work.

So the question of time has become central to this work. 

IB : Yes. The question of time came into play from the moment the work started to function in space. It follows the rhythm of the day, then disappears at night... It also disappears if a cloud passes. It carries within it an astral rhythm, a natural rhythm that inevitably raises the question of time. And even when it disappears, it continues to exist, and you can still read the line. I was really struck by this imperceptible presence.

You often use the expression "publicly imperceptible” : how do you display a work to the public, while simultaneously underexposing it?

IB: When I took this piece out into the city, into public space, I began to take an interest in this idea of "publicly imperceptible." I roamed around the city of Tunis, planting these shadows. I began to interact with people wondering what I was doing, because from a distance, you couldn't tell that I was holding pins. The gesture resembles mime in a way, and that invites people to get closer, to be curious.

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Did being on the street and creating the work in a public space [which is also an intimate place since it's a daily commuter route] lead to discussions with passers-by and local residents?

IB: People used to come up to me and ask what I was doing, but at the time I shied away from discussions, because I wasn’t ready to face them and didn't realize the potential of such encounters. What does it mean to meet someone who walks to the rhythm of the sun's movement? That's what it's all about, slowing down, moving, evolving in the city on a scale of centimeters, from pin to pin, from shadow to shadow.

When did the Ligne fantôme become truly public and exhibited?

IB : I exhibited it for the first time in 2012, several years after it was initially made. I kept it a secret for a long time - like all my work, actually. I didn't feel ready to exhibit any of my work until 2010. 

It was exhibited for the first time in Tunis, at the Musée de Carthage. It was a wonderful experience, because the work was literally imperceptible. I'd been sticking pins in several places for three days. But at the opening, nobody saw them. It was only three days later that people started talking about it. A rumor started going around, and people began to see. I really liked this latent aspect.

As its form indicates, it acts as a line that also follows its own trajectory.

IB : Yes, it's very important to me that it's a line, something that continues. There's this real idea of construction, of something that rises and falls, centimeter by centimeter, day by day. I also like the fact that it's the same principle repeated, but each time, other shapes and reactions occur.

If I understand correctly, it’s a pivotal work in your practice, particularly in terms of its relationship to time, mechanics, and invisibility. Do you think shadow also played a role in your later use of video as a medium?

IB : Yes, there’s definitely a connection. I think the Ligne fantôme was the starting point for all the work to follow. I am currently exploring the question of the mechanical, but of a mechanism that eludes me, that is the result of withdrawal. If I use video, it's to capture this kind of thing. Questions of rhythm, kinetics, cinematic elements and so on, are already present in this work, which is a bit like chronophotography. You can see the decomposition of movement, the line is produced from its internal movement through a play of shadows. I see something reminiscent of the origins of cinema in it.

Have you used photography to capture the passage of time and the different moments highlighted by this work?

IB : I've documented very little of this work, simply because I didn't ask myself many questions about the work in the beginning. I never took the time to document its development over time. Perhaps I should have. But it's still possible.

I did wonder for a while about the status of the work, whether I should make a video of it, or take a photograph of it and consider the photograph itself a piece, etc. But it soon became clear to me that this wouldn’t be interesting, because you lose the dimension of time. Also, this work can’t really be photographed. If you photograph it, you only capture a moment. The line can't be captured in its entirety, because seen from afar, it becomes invisible. I love that! I have a special fondness for works that are difficult to document. All photographs of the work are only fragments, and are, therefore, deceptive about the relationship to time and space introduced by this piece.

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Yes, absolutely. The images are very surprising and sometimes give the impression that you're working with a fixed artificial light. Have you ever made this sculpture with a static light to somehow freeze it for the duration of an exhibition?

IB : No, I’ve done it for myself, but never for an exhibition.

So there's never a "pure", complete line?

IB : Outdoors it's possible to have a perfect line if you only use six pins. But beyond that, it's impossible. In this sense, long lines are interesting. They really mark the passage of time.

It seems to me that one of the great strengths of this work is the inseparable relationship it brings into play between the infinite and the ephemeral.

IB : Yes, absolutely. I've never put it quite so simply, but the Ligne fantôme has the particularity of inscribing something ephemeral, and at the same time, for me, all lines follow the same path in some way. Some are invisible, others are potentially there. This work acts as a time marker: the passing of the sun, the cycle of the day, the moment it is created, but also the line and all its actualizations, in their infinite variability (in terms of length, the shape of the curve, its positions, its time of visibility...). It feeds on its surroundings to transform, while at the same time crossing and modifying its surroundings. The Ligne fantôme is also like a sensitive surface that is exposed to the sun and does not become fixed: it is ephemeral and potential. Once I'd realized that this work was a work in progress, I kept a box of pins in my bag for a long time, just in case.

So the Ligne fantôme is a kind of virtual "pocket sculpture" that can be updated at any time, in any place?

IB : Yes, in a way. When I did my exhibition in Tunis, while everyone was focused on voluminous works, I was unencumbered, with a box of pins in my pocket.

Are you okay with the idea of the Ligne fantôme as a sculpture? I read that you consider it more as a drawing… It seems to me to be a sculpture (a shadow sculpture), not out of conservatism for this term,  but because it uses objects to reveal a relationship to time and space, to memory and the movement of bodies, that, to me, is characteristic of sculpture. What do you think?

IB : It’s somewhere between the two, because the work operates by shifting between the second and third dimension. Speaking in terms of sculpture means highlighting the question of volume, of the object, which shadow questions. But speaking in terms of drawing means forgetting a large part of what makes up the piece. When I say drawing, I mean paying attention to the shadows, not the pins, which I think is a mistake. Besides, there is very little shadow. 

And I imagine that depending on the distance between pins, even without shadow, there is a line drawn, simply by anamorphosis.

IB : Yes, absolutely. So it’s even better to say“shadow sculpture ”. I wonder if we need to invent another word. Because when we talk about sculpture we automatically imagine three dimensions even if something is also happening in the second dimension. It’s between the two. Maybe two and a half?

Yes, but shadows counterbalance the three-dimensionality of the sculpture and comment on liminality. Speaking of shadow, what is it to you? Is it a material? Something to be manipulated? An image?

IB : I don’t know. What’s certain is that it lends solidity to things. For example, in the Ligne fantôme, shadows contribute to the materialization of both the pins and the wall, revealing their rough edges, etc. It enhances their material presence. Shadow is also important because it questions something about the order of nativity, the nascence of art. Working with shadow is very risky, but once established, it can produce something very powerful.

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And metaphorically? It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that this line of shadows raises the question of ghosts.

IB : Perhaps this line is a revenant. I forget about it, and it returns each time in a slightly different form. Why is it that a gesture made more than ten years ago, in the privacy of a bedroom – an act that could have remained confined to that space and amounted to nothing – has now become a topic of discussion today? I have the feeling that this encapsulates the very essence of artistic practice: proposing something that provokes different configurations over time.

Does this relationship with the stars, this question of the shadow as "cosmic writing" that you revisit frequently, hold only a scientific value, or have you also understood it in a more metaphysical, spiritual sense?

IB : What interested me was the more scientific side of the work. I loved feeling like I was recreating part of the potentially infinite celestial geometry on a small-scale, in just a few centimeters. I was very interested in these shifts in scale and read Blaise Pascal on this subject. Planting these pins means, in a way, replaying on a perceptible, human scale, this hors champ that goes beyond us. It's something I've kept up in my work: how to take an interest in details, in a kind of very close, almost intimate proximity, to summon the form of our surroundings.

It's absolutely fascinating that a gesture so fragile, so small, so imperceptible, can summon such great powers as the movements of the sun and the earth. Shadows really do have incredible potential, when they're noticed and manipulated with as much subtlety as in Ligne fantôme. I was also interested to hear you describe the piece as "saying something about Tunisia".

IB : Tunisia is where my work develops. I'd say that France is more the camera obscura, where things mature, and when I go [to Tunis], they project themselves. This is particularly true for this piece, because of the light in Tunis. There's an incredible, frank, incisive light, which creates and passes on a certain materiality.  With Tunisia, I think there's also something of a certain incompleteness that plays on the question of nativity. We say “pays natal” (the country you are born in), but I'd say it's more the place where something can appear. I feel there's a big difference between the two, but I can't pinpoint exactly what it is. Let's just say it's a distinction I'm obsessed with at the moment. It seems to me, in any case, that with the native, we move away from the origin to enter into another relationship with time, into something more energetic, more elemental. And it is precisely because I had not grasped this distinction that I long set aside Tunisia, even though it’s fundamental to me. So, to come back to the question, if this work says something about Tunisia, it is more related to energy, to the light I've been exposed to. The Ligne fantôme is a fundamental work in my practice that has sprouted themes that are still present in my approach (the relationship to time, the question of exposure and underexposure, the question of mechanics, module, projection, Tunisia...) and that continue to accompany me.