Philippe Petit: Knotty by Nature

The 'Man on Wire' reveals the arcane tricks of tying knots

On the morning of August 7, 1974, a young Frenchman took a stroll in New York City and danced his way into the collective imagination of the world. By rigging a high wire between the twin towers of the not-quite-finished World Trade Center and then traversing that daunting space, Philippe Petit did more than merely make popular history. His action took the emergent practice of performance art to a new level of spectacle and awe, it brought an elevated esthetic to the art of trespass (or street art), and it transformed the World Trade Center into a property that could be understood on a human scale.

Petit's famous high-wire walk across the World Trade Center in New York on August 7, 1974.

Petit’s famous high-wire walk across the World Trade Center in New York on August 7, 1974.


A self-taught wirewalker since he was a teenager, Petit continues to practice his aerialist craft for hours each day, sometimes performing his anti-gravity choreography in public. He also juggles, rides a unicycle, and acts out other simple amusements as precious miracles of wonder. What he has most become—and really always was, even if few understood him as such—is an artist. Petit has authored ten books, starred in the documentary Man on Wire, performed and lectured extensively, and turned his hand to visual art with his ongoing series of poetic and meticulous drawings on the somewhat esoteric subject of knots.

Drawings from Phillipe Petit's book Why Knot?: (Left) Farmer's loop, (Right) Seizing and lashing around a marlinspike.

Drawings from Phillipe Petit’s book Why Knot?: (Left) Farmer’s loop, (Right) Seizing and lashing around a marlinspike.


A number of his most eloquent knot drawings—along with more diagrammatic illustrations—punctuate his latest book Why Knot? How to Tie More Than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Lifesaving and Secure Knots!, published by Abrams Image. (The volume comes with a length of red rope so readers can practice their loops.) Here, Petit reveals not only the arcane tricks of the craft but provides a wider view on just how fundamental to civilization this bit of opposable-thumb dexterity has been through the ages. Like all of his art, this is magic at its most comprehensible and practical. As Petit told us with a kind of alas, “We used to know how to fly, but we have forgotten. Life has made us oblivious.”

The artist at Niagara Falls in 1985.

The artist at Niagara Falls in 1985.


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