On April 1st, 2014, French performance artist Abraham Poincheval began his nearly two week long installation, “Dans la Peau de L’ours," in the Musée de la Chasse Et de la Nature in Paris. The title translates to “In the Skin of a Bear.” In executing his concept, Poincheval in fact lived in the carcass of a taxidermied bear. For thirteen days, Poincheval had access to food, water, entertainment and even a lavatory setup- all from inside the bear. And although the event may seem foreign to you or I, Poincheval has a lengthy background in performances of a similar gusto. The most well noted of these is his week-long stay inside a 12 ton boulder. Strange as the may seem, Poincheval’s feats always have an exact point of social commentary at their center– this one is no different.
The artist constructed the project in a way that he could utilize the bear's natural form, allowing inclusion for both necessities and amenities. Poincheval says he himself “excavated” the creature, although it hasn’t been explicitly stated where or how he got it. The bear is made up of different materials that create a well-reinforced and, more importantly, preserved space for the artist to reside within. Poincheval used a number of resources like plywood, plaster, foam, and polystyrene tubes to achieve this effect. Because of the strong outer frame, there is a sufficient amount of room inside to almost comfortably fit one adult man and a number of resources. He supplied the bearskin fort with food, water, first aid and other such survival tools. But Poincheval must have known that boredom would set in quickly, because he also rigged the structure with electrical wiring, giving him access to internet on the reading tablet that he also brought along.
Not only did Poincheval use the main abdominal space of the bear, but also used the hollow spaces of the legs. In the project's diagram, the four lower spaces are shown as designated “waste management” areas. This detail very well reflects the ingenuousness of the project's design. As even with the limited space allotted to him, Poincheval made sure to place the more unpleasant necessities a comfortable distance away from the main space- as they typically are in the average household. And even though you clearly couldn’t live here comfortably, Poincheval creates a space that plays to the natural habits and preferences of the average person (aside from the fact that most individuals would prefer not to live in the body of a dead animal).
Even with the specifics of his residency explained, the concept as a whole still seems to leave us a little bewildered (a commonality among the French artist’s projects, as the deeper meaning of the pieces typically take some effort to fully suss out). The commentary regarding the bear is a bit comedic. Just like the bear's long winter months of hibernation, Poincheval encloses himself within a space with only the supplies necessary to sustain himself for that time (in addition to some light reading). By doing so and almost mimicking the behavior of a bear, he feels he can experience an animalistic nature that is otherwise unachievable. In a press release, Poincheval stated: “The transcendence between man and bear endures since the dawn of time." He strongly feels that there is a palpable connection between man and wild animals, and that he wants to experience that connection for himself: “A profound symbolism has existed since the prehistory, a symbolism that is still gripping the Western world’s imagination today.”
Another aspect of his work includes testing the physical limits of the human body. This is shown by how limited his resources are and the small space in which he is confined. The human form doesn’t just rely on physical nourishment to stay healthy; your mental health is also a vital part to a healthy life. By being cut off from the rest of the world, even if only for two weeks, Poincheval further investigates the threshold of human limitations and the effect that isolation has on them.
Isolated as he may be, the exhibit is still placed in the center of one of France's busiest museums. In fact, utilizing the amount of traffic near the around the exhibit, Poincheval encourages visitors and onlookers to interact with him while inside the bear. The piece is on display 24 hours a day, but Poincheval has also designed it so that he can fully encase himself inside the structure, rather than have one side partially open.
Not only is he on display to museum goers, but he’s also made sure to livestream the entire performance online. Clearly, he wishes for the piece to have an effect on as many people as possible. By exposing the project to an endless number of people, he opens up the meaning of the piece to thousands of different interpretations. And while this may be the case with almost all works of art, his concept alone is sure to grab the attention of even those who have no taste for art.
Abraham Poincheval continues to amaze and amuse the art world with his ongoing series of physical and psychological tests. While painters and sculptors impress the world with their stationary works, Poincheval does everything in the moment. Poincheval communicates with this busy world through his art, and like the world, it is ever changing, ever moving, ever evolving.