Suzannah Pettigrew explores the distortion of memory in ‘A Sphinx Looking for a Poet’

London-based artist Suzannah Pettigrew displays her spectral imagery in an exhibition at Dover Street Market, Paris

Suzannah Pettigrew image of man reaching out to statue
(Image credit: Suzannah Pettigrew)

To visit ‘A Sphinx Looking a Poet’ by artist Suzannah Pettigrew, currently on view at Dover Street Little Market in Paris, is to step into a memory palace constructed out of sumptuous and haunted images. A secluded room above the Dover Street Market store – exuding industrial austerity with concrete walls and a floor with cracking paint –  is enlivened by the saturated tones of Pettigrew’s ‘photo-sculptures’: large-scale images printed on fabric and hung like curtains, depicting, variously, a bouquet of pink lilies, a winged sphinx at the base of a statue, and a tasselled canopy of a bed.

‘A Sphinx Looking a Poet’ exhibition by artist Suzannah Pettigrew

Untitled (Pink Lily), digital print on fabric, installation view, ‘A Sphinx Looking a Poet’ at Dover Street Little Market, Paris

(Image credit: Suzannah Pettigrew)

In Pettigrew’s hands these everyday details are given a new poignancy, transformed into diaphanous monuments to the fragility of time: these are the moments that disappear in a flash, that fade from memory and don’t return. ‘My relationship with memory is that it distorts over time and there are different versions of shared memory,’ says Pettigrew. ‘This idea of distortion influenced me to create the photo-sculptures and initiate the practice of decoding mediums. For example, can a photograph become a sculpture?’

'A Grand Canopy' by Suzannah Pettigrew

Suzannah Pettigrew, A Grand Canopy

(Image credit: Suzannah Pettigrew)

Also on display are four photographs printed on aluminium that emanate the same spectral beauty as the photo-sculptures. We see a hand lighting a pale yellow candle, a cotton puff cloud hovering above a Parisian rooftop, an ornate ceiling in a room that exudes emptiness even though we can’t see it, and a tattooed arm reaching out, Michelangelo-like, towards the open palm of a marble sculpture.

Suzannah Pettigrew photo prints on wall

Suzannah Pettigrew, Feed the Fire; Ghosting Hour; Ready to Receive; The Night of the 9th, of the 9th, all photo prints on aluminum, installation view at ‘A Sphinx Looking a Poet’

(Image credit: Suzannah Pettigrew)

These images, as well as the three works on fabric, are drawn from Pettigrew’s book of poetry and imagery, also titled  A Sphinx Looking a Poet, published in partnership with SITE Projects. The London-based artist composed the work when she temporarily relocated to Paris in 2016-2017. As she writes in the book’s introduction, ‘I left London to escape, to seek introspection…[A Sphinx Looking a Poet] is a mode of collecting and capturing events, exchanges and feelings that might have otherwise been forgotten. To draw focus on sensuality, both the thrill and the fallout. Often it's how I remember, through erotic markers of the past.’

hand on open book

A Sphinx Looking a Poet, a book of poetry and imagery by Suzannah Pettigrew

(Image credit: Suzannah Pettigrew)

Pettigrew’s pearl-like poems are small, luminous distillations of oceanic feelings – loss, loneliness, lust, love. Like their accompanying imagery, they are exercises in remembering those emotions before they disappear. Whether it is a pang of desire for a lover (‘I watch you get out of bed with anticipation/ to take in your physicality with my eyes/ and watch its unconscious ode/ to the renaissance’); or longing for their recognition (‘Sitting silent I observe/ emulating a structure/ in the room you can see me in/ the ceramic vase/ the bronze statue/ the marble pillar’). 

This latest exhibition gives Pettigrew a new opportunity to explore how words and images work together to document time, creating ‘a new dialogue between works’.

hanging fabric artwork

Suzannah Pettigrew, Untitled (Winged Sphinx), digital print on fabric, installation view at ‘A Sphinx Looking a Poet’ 

(Image credit: Suzannah Pettigrew)

‘A Sphinx Looking a Poet’ is on view at Dover Street Little Market in partnership with 3537 until 9 July 2023. For those who can’t make it to the space, you can find the stockists of Pettigrew’s book on her website.;

Writer and Wallpaper* Contributing Editor

Mary Cleary is a writer based in London and New York. Previously beauty & grooming editor at Wallpaper*, she is now a contributing editor, alongside writing for various publications on all aspects of culture.