Innocence on a wire
Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers in New York seems more potently poetic in the aftermath of 9/ 11, writes Sarfraz Manzoor
IT was one small step, but for Philippe Petit it was to be a giant leap into immortality. The date was August 7, 1974, the location New York City and the 24- year- old Frenchman was standing on top of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre preparing to commit what became known as the artistic crime of the century.
Petit, tousle- haired and baby- faced, had been planning this moment for the past six years and now, perched more than 400m above New York, he was about to take his first step on to the steel wire he had suspended between the towers. It was 7.15am when Petit slowly moved his foot and put it on the wire. For the next 45 minutes he walked, danced and lay on the steel wire, pirouetting in the clouds and talking to the seagulls as an astonished crowd gathered below. By the time he was arrested and charged with trespass, news of Petit’s performance had circled the globe, the most astonishing event in the young history of the World Trade Centre.
‘‘ O death in life,’’ wrote Tennyson, ‘‘ the days that are no more.’’ James Marsh’s feature documentary Man on Wire , which revisits Petit’s sky walk is, among other things, a joyous ode to living and a lament for the days that are no more. It makes no explicit mention of the events of September 11, 2001, but death hovers on the fringes, like distant dark clouds threatening the clear blue sky, and our knowledge of what later befell the towers coats the innocent lunacy of Petit’s actions with poignancy.
When he was arrested, the question everyone wanted to ask the young Frenchman was: Why? It certainly was not for the money; despite countless offers in the aftermath of his astonishing feat, Petit refused all opportunities to cash in on his fame. At the time he resisted any easy explanation for his acts. ‘‘ When I see two oranges, I juggle,’’ he told reporters. ‘‘ When I see two towers, I walk.’’
In Man on Wire he tells Marsh: ‘‘ I did something incredible and mysterious and the beauty of it was that I did not have any ‘ why’.’’ He may not have had a why 34 years ago, but today he seems more willing to offer an explanation. ‘‘ I was driven by a sense of artistic rebellion,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wanted to do something that was intriguing, surrealist and beautiful, a performance that would be out of this world.’’ In that he surely succeeded; the photograph of Petit floating above the city is like a Rene Magritte painting magically brought to life.
The walk between the twin towers was the high point in a career that began at 16. The self- taught wire- walker had already walked between the steeples of Notre Dame and above the Sydney Harbour Bridge even as he was preparing for his walk above New York. ‘‘ I didn’t choose New York, I chose the twin towers,’’ he says. ‘‘ Or, rather, they chose me.’’
I wonder if, stepping on to a steel wire 400m above the ground, he had death on his mind. ‘‘ I was not thinking about death,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was thinking about life.’’ Yet in the film he tells of how ‘‘ death was very close’’ as he began his wire walk, but ‘‘ I was not gambling with my life, I was living it fully. You will never feel yourself living as intensely as on the limit of life.’’
On the fifth anniversary of 9/ 11, The New Yorker magazine featured a two- part illustration on its front cover. On the first page was a drawing of Petit, balancing pole in hand, suspended in a sea of emptiness, walking across the blank page. On the second page was Petit again, with the streets of New York below him, but missing the twin towers, their only trace two square indents far in the distance. The cover brilliantly evoked what had been lost in the years between Petit’s walk and the terrorist attacks.
Since his walk between the towers, Petit has lived in New York. He is an artist- in- residence at the Cathedral of St John the Divine and he continues to practise for three hours each day on the wire. A day doesn’t pass, he says, when he doesn’t think about the fate of the twin towers: ‘‘ They were part of my life. To know that they are no longer there, it is like seeing a childhood home destroyed.’’
Man on Wire is careful not to draw explicit parallels between Petit’s artistic crime and the terrorist attacks, but they were both operations that required careful planning and involved teams of committed foreign participants for whom the twin towers were a symbolically resonant target.
Yet, watching Marsh’s documentary, what is most striking is how different Petit’s exploits were from the terrorists’ actions. Where Petit was giddy with the possibilities of living, the suicidal pilots were intoxicated with a death wish; he was driven by art and poetry, and they by religion and politics.
One of the most potent images in Man on Wire is a photograph of a crowded street of New Yorkers, their faces craning skywards. They are gawping in delighted astonishment at Petit, but the image recalls the horrified faces of those who witnessed the collapse of the twin towers. In another photograph we see Petit on the tightrope, and above him a plane hangs as if suspended in the sky, a haunting glimpse into a terrible future.
‘‘ The dreamers of the day are dangerous men,’’ wrote T. E. Lawrence, ‘‘ for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.’’ Both the terrorists and the tightrope walker were dreamers, but where the terrorists dreamed of death the tightrope walker dreamed of life. The wreckage of the towers revealed the depths to which the human heart can descend, the walk between the towers demonstrated the heights the human imagination can reach.
That image of Petit suspended between the towers that are now only a memory is not only an elegy to a vanished past but also a metaphor for how to live in the present.
In ancient Rome, Caesar would often be accompanied by a slave whose job it was to whisper in his ear, ‘‘ You too are mortal.’’ Petit’s walk was a poetic and profound work of performance art: he heard the whisper of death and it led him towards immortality.
Man on Wire is released on October 16.
Living on the edge: Philippe Petit in 1974 on top of the World Trade Centre, from the film Man on Wire
Like seeing a home destroyed: Petit in 2006