Art and crime

Art and crime

different strokes

He is an artist of a different kind. His art involves walking, quite literally, on a tightrope. His passion is to live life on the edge. Known across the world for his exceptionally daring and perilous acts on the wire, Philippe Petit combines his unmatched skill and talent with abundant creativity.

extraordinary Philippe Petit, performing the tightrope walk on the twin towers.

Among his many standout acts was the 45-minute walk on a wire strung between the rooftops of World Trade Centre’s twin towers in New York City in the early hours of August 7, 1974.

Thousands of stunned people and anxious policemen watched Petit making as many as eight crossings on an illegally rigged 200 feet of 7/8" steel cable at a height of a quarter mile above the ground.

“After the first crossing, I look at the people, and that was fantastic,” Petit recalled later. “I was not scared because it was a precise thing. I was dying of happiness.”

After his act, which included several knee bends and other stunts, he was finally brought in by a policeman who threatened to get on the wire himself. Petit was immediately arrested by the police of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and booked for disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. By late afternoon, he was released on one condition: that he would give a free aerial performance in the city park for the children of the city!

By then, the nerve-wracking performance had made headlines across the world and been dubbed as the artistic crime of the century.

Dream come true

For the then 24-year-old native of Nemours (France), walking on the wire between the twin towers was literally a dream come true.  He knew he could not have achieved the ‘criminal’ act alone; so he had carefully enlisted a motley group of accomplices as his partners in crime.

Decades later, Petit wrote a book on his experience titled, To Reach the Clouds (North Point Press/2002). In 2008, he became the principal protagonist of Man on Wire — a 118-minute documentary film directed by James Marsh — which recounted how Petit had nurtured a dream for more than six years, before planning and executing to perfection the most famous stunt of his life.
“A work of art is its own explanation and Man on Wire leaves no doubt that Mr Petit’s coup deserves to be called art,” wrote film critic A O Scott in New York Times (July 25, 2008).

“And without making any grandiose claims, this lovely, touching film demonstrates that the World Trade Center sky walk was an important event... It is easy to imagine that, in contemplating the scale and solidity of those brand-new towers, Mr Petit saw them at least partly as the vehicle of his own immortality (whether or not he survived the crossing). No one looking up at the New York sky on a hazy morning 34 years ago and seeing a man on a wire could have suspected that the reverse would turn out to be true.”

Granting a five-star rating for the film, Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian (Aug 1, 2008): “Petit was an artist and a genius: the WTC exploit surely entitles him to both those descriptions... James Marsh’s documentary about this sublime piece of audacity does full justice to Petit’s vision… His sheer hypnotic self-belief meant that I found it quite impossible to imagine him losing his balance and plunging to his death: he defies gravity. In our world of elf ‘n’safety, a world where success and fame means working within very well-understood corporate structures, Petit is a rare, exotic beast, and a wonderful one.”

The film went on to win many international awards, including the Oscar (Best Documentary); BAFTA Film Award (Outstanding British Film); Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Best Documentary); and Sundance Film Festival (Audience Award World Cinema – Documentary).

Mesmerising magician

Petit calls himself a magician, and has for long been a juggler, card player, unicycle rider — and an incorrigible pickpocket. “I learned pickpocketing by myself when I was 17,” says Petit who immediately followed his twin tower performance by picking the watch of a policeman who came to arrest him!

In fact, Petit claims to have been arrested more than 500 times in his life. “I am proud of it... In Russia, Australia, Japan, mostly in Paris, in New York, in the UK, in Spain... everywhere around the world.”

A self-proclaimed engineer “from the school of daydreams”, Petit studied drawing, painting, sculpting, fencing, printing, carpentry, theatre, and horseback riding in his younger days, before becoming a juggler and a tightrope walker.

By the time he turned 18, he had been expelled from five schools for practicing the art of the pickpocket on his teachers and the art of card manipulation under his desk. He left home and became a ‘wandering troubadour, a street-juggler without a permit, who is arrested constantly... all over the world.’

In his book, he narrates how he also began ‘to write, play chess, learn Russian and bullfighting, discover architecture and engineering, invent hiding places, erect tree houses, train at lock-picking — to indulge my gourmandise for knowledge while honing my perfectionism.’

Still in his teens, he imagined ‘rigging a wire in secret somewhere and performing on such an imposed stage, out of reach, in total disregard of the powers that be. The adventure of the World Trade Center begins with the first appearance of such thoughts...’

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Petit is a worldwide celebrity and regularly lectures on creativity. For a person whose name is intrinsically linked to the Twin Towers, the 9/11 attack was devastating. “It is a very difficult thing to talk about... In my mind, when I recall my adventure, it’s joyful, even though now the object of my adventure is a subject of sorrow for so many people. But we have to be able to associate the good and the bad in life, and the tears and the laughter.”
Petit says that he likes things that are meaningful and is not interested in people who break records or do things senselessly to become rich and famous. “I will say there is a sickness of our century to not create but duplicate. This kind of art and performing doesn’t inspire me. But then, when you see a performer who does something that is the result of a lot of work and a lot of passion, that vision will inspire me to rush back to work.”