Camille Henrot’s Mind Altering Visual Poetics: Reviews, Images and Texts


Camille Henrot: Grosse Fatigue

Versatile, solitary, talented, the French artist brings an encyclopaedic video on the history of the universe to the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale, which awarded her a Silver Lion at the event.

Art / Federico Nicolao

Versatile, solitary, talented. Born in 1978. For several years now, French artist Camille Henrot has been exploring the multiplication of the illusion of power versus the actual control that is contained in the way we look at the world. Until now, she has done so from the position that France’s art world reserves for its non-militant female artists, which is to say the most uncomfortable one there is.


Women artists receive no forgiveness in this country lying just over the Alps from Italy — nor perhaps do they in most of “Latin” Europe. People smile, often with a bit of arrogance, at their projects, but had they been the work of male artists, they would cry out in marvel. And whenever women artists do finally receive recognition (often from foreign curators from other hemispheres or from northern Europe) people sputter about how their work is becoming weaker — no longer what it used to be when they started out.


Luckily, there are women who continue their work without allowing themselves to be pushed to the margins. If anything, they use the borders of where they have been confined to concede themselves total freedom to explore the fields that interest them most, which are often the most topical and least trite. They travel and often work abroad. They read. Their tastes meet those of the common people. They study. Very rarely do they become polemic.

Top and above: Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, installation view at the Arsenale on the occasion of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale

The list would be long. For one thing, it would bring us to think that the fall of French art on the international market is to be attributed exclusively to the unbearable insistence with which no one dares defend and promote women artists in France. So much so that Louise Bourgeois, vernacular and refined at the same time, has been the only great artist in the last decades to be recognised both intellectually and commercially. It’s not as if things are much better in the rest of the world, but it explains why the broad public of art exhibitions does not know much about Camille Henrot, despite that her several projects in recent years.


Almost as soon as she started working, Henrot decided to “penetrate” into the atelier of the architect-artist-utopian Yona Friedman, but she did it from the point of view of her dog. Then, when she began sculpting strange tribal forms, she made them from plumbing joints and water pipes or airplane wings. In one film projection, she overlapped the three King Kongs of cinema history — Peter Jackson’s 2005 movie, John Guillermin’s 1975 version and the 1933 original, creating a fascinating hybrid that led to a new film, populated by images that were at once in harmony and continuous contrast. These are simple yet powerful ideas, experiments undertaken in answer to the question: What happens when we experiment? To what degree does our conscience become refined and profound? And contemporaneously, how much are we losing attempting?

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

In recent years, Henrot’s projects have all been courageously diverse, defying the constant obstacle of the marketplace. She makes sculptures, films, installations, drawings, pictorial intentions for the future and, recently, even ikebana. The latter became a surprise hit of the last Paris Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo. A trace of each has remained in her “encyclopaedic” video Grosse Fatigue (2013) — about the history of the universe —, which won this year’s Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale.


Grosse Fatigue is a curious hymn to foundation and creation, but above all to death and extinction. The soundtrack was composed by French DJ and composer Joakim Bouaziz — Henrot’s companion — who leads music label Tigersushi, and includes a text that Henrot co-authored with her friend, poet Jakob Bomberg. All combine in what becomes a strange cauldron of myths and thoughts on the state of the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Like all self-respecting artists, Camille Henrot has two traits that irritate a certain type of art critic and spectator. These traits excite other non-prejudiced people. She has no problem with using popular codes. The use of rap in the prize-winning video at the Biennale receives a mix of enthused and negative reactions. She has no problem with quoting (sometimes explicitly, sometimes cryptically) complex, difficult books that are not read by the broad public but by sophisticated intellectuals. Here, she is demanding (for herself, and thus for artists in general) the right to break open the codes of academic citations in order to allow books to come alive without excessive complications. People have difficulty accepting this from a young woman who is the first to say that she has not yet found what place knowledge and instinct can occupy in the context of art. But that’s a mistake.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Grosse Fatigue is a meditation on creation. Who knows if rap aficionados not used to such unusual clips will like it? Thirteen minutes recount the birth of the world and its risk of dying. What does our desire to make a picture of the world bring us to? In a predominantly philosophical manner, Henrot answers this question by overlapping and intersecting different computer pages on one screen. Among other things, she invents a new way of looking at what happens when we navigate different roads on the same desktop.


Here, she does not play Jean-Luc Godard’s card of emotive fusion, but that of cataloguing and separation — of splicing. This time, Henrot is influenced as much by Matisse and his papiers découpés as by the Coupé-Décalé dance; by myths and humans’ compulsive obsession to catalogue the world. Jean Starobinski and his lucid, dramatic examination of the encyclopaedia is not so far away from Henrot’s universe with its Dionysian dismembering, the taking to pieces of the world by means of discovery, the interruption and caesura that become the orgasmic (here masturbatory) sexual love of those who are watching and reflecting upon themselves in the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

What collection are we part of and why do we, in turn, collect? What do we accumulate and how long does what we accumulate live? Each of us is a succession of cross-sections of the world. But what happens to our life when we explore it and reveal it, from window to window? Moments of joy, festivity, colour, but also exertion and death. With love and desperation, Henrot filmed the wonderful and sinister embalmed animals of Paris’s Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute, where she spent broad swaths of time. Camille Henrot will continue to elicit excessive approval and instigate discussion. And that’s a good sign. Federico Nicolao

Camille Henrot at the awards ceremony of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale. Photo by Italo Rondinella




Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox

28 February — 13 April 2014, Chisenhale Gallery, London

By Louise Darblay

French artist Camille Henrot has received much attention since she won the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale for her film Grosse Fatigue (2013). Translated as ‘great exhaustion’, it consists of a 13-minute video in which a rap voice attempts to tell the story of the universe, combining mythical, religious, historic and scientific narratives, while a flow of images flash by simultaneously on a desktop computer.

Taking over the Chisenhale Gallery, Henrot builds on this previous work to create The Pale Fox, in which a similar narrative unfolds, but into space rather than on a computer screen, and that turns the feeling of exhaustion into a meditative and enveloping experience. The walls and carpet are coloured in a deep soothing blue reminding of Yves Klein’s monochromes, while atmospheric, ambient music plays in the background, periodically punctuated by coughing sounds. In this enclosed cosmos, Henrot presents what seems to be her very own universe, including found images, objects such as books, educational CDs, digital tablets, coloured feathers and a snow globe, some of her ink drawings and sculptures, as well as a polymorphous set of undulating aluminium shelves that run across the walls. Creating an uneven visual frieze, the images and objects cover the gallery walls, occasionally overflowing on to the floor, on which a radio-controlled snake slithers around.

Dogon mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative

Behind this apparent chaos lies what Henrot calls a ‘crazy schematic map’ which, drawing on different systems of knowledge, apparently describes the cyclic creation of our universe. The disparate objects are there to represent both a point on the compass and one of the elements, one per wall. This spatial map also corresponds to stages in the development of human life, technological progress or mythological genesis.

The north wall for instance relates to the element water – the artist informs us in the press release – where objects and images are gathered that are associated with creation and fertility such as gourdlike calabashes, an apple, or Gabagunnu, the womb matrix of the world, as featured in Dogon mythology. Frequently referred to throughout the installation, this West-African mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative.

Further on, there is the unfolding and evolution of human life, bringing about technological progress, as symbolised by the tablets and the accumulation of photographic images, and which leads to photographs of sunburnt bodies, a metaphor for man’s overexposure. Elsewhere a newspaper cutting, on the archaeological discovery of a Greek statue, hangs next to biblical crosswords, while a Silver Surfer Marvel comic is placed alongside an image of a Buddhist ritual.

The logic is sometimes hard to follow, and the references not always easy to decode without a press release to guide us through. Although captivating and absorbing as an environmental installation, it is the different layers of meaning and symbolic references interwoven together that make this complex work interesting, even when those references are cryptic and reliant on the viewer having some familiarity with Griaule and Dieterlen’s anthropological study of Dogon mythology, Leibniz’s philosophy or Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue.

That being said, once you have read the artist’s statement, Henrot does manage to make these overlapping narratives work together in one great cycle, without them seeming contradictory. She reminds us that disorder and entropy are the origin and condition of creation and evolution, just like the ambivalent figure of the Pale Fox in Dogon mythology is both destructive and creative. In a world where we are constantly overwhelmed by images and information, Henrot’s installation is an impressive attempt to make this excess and chaos productive again.

7 April 2014





Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs?, installation view at La Triennale “Intense Proximity”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris. Photo: Alexandra Serrano

Relations de Traduction

by Cecilia Alemani

Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers? This enigmatic question is the title of the latest project by Camille Henrot, and it is the practice of Ikebana that removes any reservations about the floral passion: an entire library is translated in arrangements; the reciprocal positionings, the Latin names of species that speak perceptibly of trade, pharmacological properties and history.
Cecilia Alemani meets with the artist to talk about the translative qualities of her work, ranging through anthropology, archaeology and sociology.

Cecilia Alemani: In the last two years you have been focusing on the practice of Ikebana. How do you relate botany and floral decoration to contemporary sculpture?

Camille Henrot: Flowers belong to a time that is not secular (like history) but seasonal.
They address two major expectations of our time. Creating continuity in an era of ruptured temporality, they act like an antidote to the anxiety of living “in history.” At the same time they represent renewal as we wait for change. That’s why I called the project Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?).
My initial attraction to Ikebana had to do with how it corresponds to the idea of a healing object. The practice of Ikebana has the role of creating a ‘privileged space’ just as much for the person who views the arrangements as for the person who composes them.
By translating books into flower arrangements in a single gesture, the aim is to concentrate in one object the entirety of a thought, brining together disparate fragments—reconciling opposites in a whole of global dimensions. The approach finds a cohesion (of sorts) in the presentation of several Ikebana. The aim is to build an ‘environment’ within the image of a library that would be simultaneously out of time and connected to the Western fascination with knowledge and its expectations for a revolutionary change.

CA: Your work is bound up with systems of organization and taxonomy. Your Ikebana sculptures are each visualizations of books in your library and your videos often deal with the construction of racial identity. Can you talk about some of these aspects in your work?

CH: I like the serenity brought about by the image of an organized system, but I don’t like simplification and authority. I’m fascinated by unifying systems because they are fragile and appear like ordered complexity.
Regarding categories and racial identities I am interested in ‘Taboo’ objects, the use of which is coded; these can stir a lot of misunderstanding because they continually defy categorization. The idea of culture as “translation relationships” (relations de traduction) was my starting point. We could see the history of Art as a history of misunderstandings. That history would follow the same schemes and patterns as intimate relationships: desire, possession and miscomprehension.

My practice of Ikebana—even though it belongs to a current that is itself non-traditional (the Sogetsu school)—contains interpretive mistakes and naiveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project—and more generally of the whole of my work.

I often think of that quote from Frantz Fanon: “As soon as I desire, I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. (…) In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.”

Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (L’entretien infini), 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: Anthropology, archeology, and sociology all seem to play a role in your work. How do you see your role as an artist in relationship to these disciplines?

CH: I am very interested in the ‘status’ of objects and the ideas of people like Viveiros de Castro, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Monique Jeudy-Ballini, Pascal Picq, Roger Bastide… I find these writers inspiring and sometimes disruptive.

In the case of anthropology, I am compelled by certain almost incompatible desires and undercurrents within the discipline, which for me are also quite present in the artistic process and experience. In this regard, I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.

I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias. Somehow one could say I have developed a ‘cargo cult’ for anthropology. (The ‘cargo cult’ originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behavior that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.)

I am not equating myself with anthropologist; I do not want to claim that authority. I am more interested in the character of Marcel Appenzzell, the anthropologist in check, mentioned in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I know that when I’m in Vanuatu, for instance, I am a ‘white man’ above all, and I am conscious of what this means: the vanity of my motives, the voyeuristic aspect of my attitude, the guilt, the self-disgust and self-mockery, which are actually all the subject of the “Tropics of Love” drawings I started after that trip.

CA: Rites of passages and initiations have a strong presence in your work, such as in Coupé/Décalé and in The Strife of Love in a Dream. Can you tell us a little more about the background for these two videos, how they were realized, what was the subject?

CH: The Strife Of Love in a Dream was a project commissioned by Centre Pompidou in Paris for an exhibition about India. I was pretty afraid to go to India and tried to understand why.

The film’s title comes from a book written in the Middle Ages, Hypnerotomachia.
One of the stories, named “The Strife of Love in a Dream” tells of a monk who crosses The Dark Forest and finds himself facing a dragon. He is tempted to escape, but were he to turn back, the adventure would be over. This tale emphasizes the film’s central notion: the necessity of facing one’s fears.
I was struck by the paradox of India being often imagined as a cure against the Western world’s feverish agitation and at the same time being the number one manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. I imagined the film like a series of hallucinations that would create physical sensations and psychological imprints while showing very physical aspects of reality (the manufacturing of anxiolytics).

Regarding Coupé/Décalé, the project started after I found images by coincidence on the web of the Naghol ritual or “Land Diving,” and it made me think of Le Saut by Yves Klein. Thirty years ago this ritual had inspired bungee jumping and is now practiced as a “performance” for tourists visiting the island attracted by the similarity they see with a practice they connect to modern way of life (and need for strong emotions). There’s a ‘back and forth’ movement within the gesture of the ritual itself as well as in its history. But how to escape archetypes when you bring images back from the other side of the world?
I wanted to tackle that issue by creating a rough patchwork of deconstructed hybrid images in which the idea of ‘reparation’ is visual. The process implemented here is illustrated by the title Coupé/Décalé (literally “cut/offset”).

Camille Henrot, Coupé/Décalé, 2010
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: You have just started a fellowship at the Smithsonian that deals with systems of knowledge and organization of information; can you talk about it? Can you explain your approach to the research for new works and in general the importance of research within your practice?

CH: As an artist, I have the freedom to browse through ideas with the curiosity of the amateur. I’m allowed to have an irrational approach to knowledge, which is a privilege I appreciate a lot. I see the world as a fragmented ensemble and that fragmentation is harrowing. Through the research implied by my projects, I can establish some continuity.
The more you progress in research the more categories appear to be arbitrary and oppositions collapse. That’s why Zen irrationalism and thirst for knowledge are not contradictory in the end. I think the starting point of a new research or project should always be too broad. That way the research process is not only about aiming at a goal but also about being open to what you can learn by accident, new opportunities of new findings.
My research will be focused on all-encompassing projects meant to achieve an image and/or a history of the universe compressed into a singular object, a total contraction of knowledge within representation.
To my mind, there is a form of over-communication and over-saturation in our efforts to gather and structure knowledge into a completely globalized worldview, which, by all appearances, as subjectivity inevitably creeps in, seems to finally resemble an artistic goal or artistic project. Even though such processes and intentions might border on the irrational, I do feel that they are necessary for an understanding of what (and who) we are. This global approach and aspiration is to me ultimately parallel to a kind of subjective structuring of knowledge—what John Cowper Powys calls “a personal philosophy of solitude”—where the totalizing or universalizing image perhaps bears more the individual desires and consciousness of the one who attempts to complete it.

To the top


The Wall Street Journal

Life & Culture

Arts & Entertainment
Camille Henrot: An Art World ‘It Girl’
Inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, a solo show opens at New York’s New Museum

RESTLESS ART Camille Henrot says she’s inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, among other sources, for her videos, like ‘Grosse Fatigue,’ above. © Camille Henrot/ADAGP/Silex Films/kamel mennour, Paris
By Ellen Gamerman
May 1, 2014 11:01 p.m. ET

Turtles figure prominently in artist Camille Henrot’s ambitious video chronicling the history of the world in 13 minutes. She sees the creatures as symbols of a prehistoric past and a burdened future. “The turtle, she’s slow because she is carrying this massive round thing—it’s like a figure of Atlas,” she says.

Thinking hard about reptiles—and most everything else—is a hallmark of the 35-year-old French intellectual’s work. On the heels of that video, “Grosse Fatigue,” which won her the Silver Lion award for most promising young artist at the recent Venice Biennale, the artist is unveiling her first comprehensive U.S. museum exhibit. “Camille Henrot: The Restless Earth” opens Wednesday at the New Museum in New York.

The show features her abstract video telling the story of humankind through quick cuts of images like turtles and eyeballs, dead birds and oranges, fizzy water and the cosmos. Other pieces on view include her works on paper and a new installation of literature-inspired Japanese ikebana flower arrangements.

This spring, the New Museum is dedicating separate floors to three young artists rather than doing a group show. “It’s a way to give exposure, to show the artists who are changing how art is being made,” says curator Gary Carrion-Murayari. “Camille was a very easy choice for us in that respect.”

Ms. Henrot created “Grosse Fatigue” during an artist fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington last year. She scoured the collections, filming employees opening drawers of exotic-bird specimens, flipping through files filled with dead bees, and so on. The film advances quickly through time by using overlapping windows on a computer desktop—search results from the Smithsonian’s database. She incorporated her own footage and studio shots of brightly painted fingernails—a nod to her discovery that even the weightiest words in a Google search often seem to match the name of a nail polish.

It wasn’t a solitary effort: Ms. Henrot worked with a cinematographer and film editor, as well as a makeup designer, models and production assistants. A writer created the text, which is performed like a spoken-word poem, and her partner, a musician named Joakim Bouaziz, created the score.

Ms. Henrot finds inspiration from disparate sources including eBay, where her purchases range from firemen’s boots to nude vintage photographs. Sometimes she buys an item just because she likes the picture of its seller. After moving from Paris to New York in late 2012, she says the cargo container with all her stuff was held up by authorities for months—she suspects because its contents were so weird.

As a child, she wanted one day to have a “real job,” eager to distinguish herself from her mother, an artist. Nevertheless, she attended art school in Paris, studying animated film. She took a job in an advertising agency, where she learned tricks like how to shoot a piece of cake to make it look more delicious (blow it with a hair dryer so it seems fluffy). Along the way, she was making films on her own, including an inventive music video for the band Octet in which the musicians were rendered as half-real, half-animated bodies. The film was shown in a 2005 exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, a contemporary art center in Paris, and her career as an artist was launched.

Ms. Henrot didn’t grow up traveling—she says her mother was afraid of flying—but now her experiences in foreign cultures feed directly into her work. The videos featured at the New Museum include “Coupé/Décalé,” an experimental film illustrating a coming-of-age ritual on Pentecost island in the Vanuatu archipelago where young people jump into a void while being held by liana vines around their ankles.

Sometimes her images can be hard to watch. Those turtles in “Grosse Fatigue” are featured with close-ups of their slick tongues and stony eyes. Ms. Henrot, who as a child had a pet turtle named Zoe that escaped through a window of her Paris home, shot the creatures during a vacation in the Seychelles. She filmed a little girl giving a huge turtle a banana and included the footage in her video. “I was interested in the stupidity of man feeding wild animal,” she says.

Ms. Henrot brought home a souvenir from that trip: A scar on her hand from a turtle that bit her when she too tried to feed it.



Issue 161 March 2014 RSS

Known Unknowns


Useful mistakes, ikebana and messy cultural assumptions in the work of Camille Henrot


Sunburns, detail from the exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’, 2014. Previous pages courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, kamel mennour, Paris, and Johann König, Berlin

One of the marvels of the universe is that it makes amateurs of us all. Educational qualifications are only a measure of the negative space of how much you don’t know. Expertise is defined by an expert’s limits. Your art history PhD has taken you to a profound level of understanding about abstract expressionism – you can even tell us what bourbon Jackson Pollock liked to drink for breakfast – but you’re a numbskull around runic alphabets. Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, is pretty vague about runes too, but he’s the go-to man for particle physics. Higgs can wax expert about the origins of the cosmos, but can he name the players in the French squad who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup? Neither can I, but one of the team at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can probably rattle off those names without recourse to Google. Unfortunately that same scientist falls into awkward silence when it comes to cocktail-party conversation about tuning systems in Javanese gamelan music. The composer Steve Reich could tell you a thing or two about gamelan because it’s been a major influence on his work, but he’d be a dead loss in a pub quiz about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. I have some back-of-an-envelope knowledge about ikebana only because it’s an aspect of the work made by Camille Henrot, who practices Sogetsu school ikebana. The French artist knows little about me, beyond my job, but knows a tonne more than I do about ikebana. However, she does admit that her approach to it ‘contains interpretive mistakes and naïveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project – and, more generally, of the whole of my work.’1

The ‘whole’ of Henrot’s work is a project about the impossibility of ever knowing the whole – the whole universe, the whole story, the whole of you, me, us and them. It’s about the impossibility of plugging the hole in the doughnut. Her project is shaped by alterity, entranced by cultural disconnections and a little gleeful about the shortcomings of anthropology. Her films tell us that a mess of cultural assumptions, projections, fears and desires gets churned around in the unlit spaces between anthropologist and subject, producer and audience. The artist knows that we know that she knows this, as she once said in an interview: ‘I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.’2

Coupé/Décalé (Cut/Offset), 2010, 35mm film still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

Fig. 1, Coupé/Décalé (2010): 35mm film, duration five minutes 20 seconds. Made in a style that could have been lifted from a 1970s ethnographic documentary – rich colours, a little verité camera shake, a conflicted feeling of voyeuristic fascination and armchair guilt compacted by having little clue about what’s being filmed – Coupé/Décalé is shot on Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu archipelago. It shows young men, their ankles tied by liana vines, jumping from a tall wooden platform. This rite is said to have inspired bungee jumping, and is now performed largely for the benefit of tourists, modified according to Western fantasies of Melanesian culture. The film’s title translates literally as ‘Cut/Offset’, and the image is ‘cut’ into two halves, with the left-hand side of the film running a fraction of a second faster than the right-hand side – the ‘offset’. That slippage is the key to the work: it’s the gap between what we see and what we know – always a step behind the action. Things get even more interesting when you learn that Coupé/Décalé is also the name of a dance originating in the Ivory Coast and imported to Paris by Ivorian immigrants. In Ivorian slang, the title means to cheat someone and run away. Pentecost Island is a long way from the Ivory Coast, even further from Paris. Henrot’s ‘cheat’ is to dress her film in the vestments of anthropological documentary, to ‘run away’ with the aesthetics of the form and repackage them with her own concerns. But it’s more complicated than that. As a white European wielding a camera in the South Pacific, she’s subject to just the same ethical quandaries about the gaze, race and the inscription of identity as the filmmakers that interest her. (Robert J. Flaherty, who bent a few truths in making his beautiful 1934 documentary Man of Aran, is currently a touchstone for Henrot.) It’s less a film ‘about’ anthropology than a film made inside anthropology, operating a couple of clicks out of phase with the discipline itself. And, like the figure of the anthropologist that Henrot tries to emulate, she will never be properly assimilated with the objects of her study.

Is ‘emulation’ the right word? Not quite. Nor is ‘critique’, which affects moral distance. ‘Act’ is better. There is a knowing pretence at play here; acting a part in order to pull focus on a certain aspect of human behaviour. ‘I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias,’ she says. ‘Somehow one could say I have developed a “cargo cult” for anthropology. The “cargo cult” originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behaviour that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking, sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.’3 Henrot understands the original meaning of her sources perfectly well; she takes them and assigns new roles to suit her own purposes. She uses the symbolism of ikebana arrangements to describe books she’s read (the series ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing), pulls pictures from eBay to build a delirious essay on the Western imagination’s persistent fascination with ancient Egypt (the silent slideshow Egyptomania, 2009), and fakes anthropology films in order to make a film about anthropology (Coupé/Décalé). For her exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’ (2014), Henrot has used a specific work of anthropology as her starting point: Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s eponymous 1965 book, which explains, in great depth, the cosmological beliefs and creation stories of Mali’s Dogon people. (Controversially, it argues that the Dogon possessed detailed knowledge about the orbital patterns of Sirius before Western astronomers did.) Henrot makes associative leaps of imagination using objects and images of eggs, planets, turtles, foxes and flexing biceps. She turns Griaule and Dieterlen’s book inside out, showing that the work of the artist and the anthropologist are not so different: both are looking to find meaning in the world, whether or not it exists there.

Femme allongée et dents de requin (Woman Lying Down and Shark Teeth), from ‘Collection préhistorique’ (Prehistoric Collection), 2009, c-type print, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

The promiscuous moves that contemporary visual art pulls on other cultural disciplines make it the most syncretic of the arts, and these days we’re all-too-used to hearing artists tell us how they’re ‘interested in’ this, that or the other. With all her talk of ‘cargo cults’, we could dub Henrot’s work a form of syncretism, creating new rituals from discrete belief systems. Syncretic religions can evolve for a number of reasons: the trace memories of long-gone civilizations; a means of forging cultural alliances or attracting a broad base of followers; a tool of assimilation used by an evangelizing or colonizing power. A cynic might accuse Henrot’s ikebana and quasi-ethnographies of dilettantism. I’ve always liked what Brian Eno has to say about dilettantes: ‘For me the great strength of dilettantism is that it tends to come in from another angle […] an intelligent dilettante will not be constrained by the limitations of what’s normally considered possible; he won’t be frightened, he’s got nothing to lose.’4 Everyone is an amateur at something, and the amateur is, in some respects, a far more liberated figure than the professional.

Fig. 2, ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’: mixed media, dimensions variable. (The title is borrowed from Leninism under Lenin, written by Marcel Liebman in 1973. The Belgian historian went on to answer his own question by arguing that: ‘You start by loving flowers and soon you are seized by the desire to live like a property owner, stretched out lazily and reading French novels in a hammock set amid a magnificent garden while being served by obsequious servants.’ Liebman must’ve been a laugh at parties.) Ikebana is a highly codified art form, based upon the idea of objects consoling the soul. It’s a complex interplay between the shape of container, stem heights, the angles at which flowers or branches stand, and the harmony of lines created by the plant materials and their arrangement. Over the past two years, Henrot has made more than 100 arrangements, some of which she then exhibits and photographs, reassigning traditional ikebana codes in order to make a series of homages to books in her library. (‘To make my formal language I use the Latin and common names of the flowers, the names designed for their commercial exploitation, their pharmacological power and sometimes even the history of their travels.’)5 It is an act of translation, of recoding literature and giving it a form that privileges impermanence, the everyday and the domestic. Her approach to ikebana has been one of mastering codes, then breaking them in order to make the arrangements her own.

Anthropology has been a hotbed of arguments about essentializing difference, about controlling the Other, so isn’t it dangerous to start making the codes of that discipline one’s own? Let’s move to fig. 3, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream (2011): video, duration 11 minutes 40 seconds. Shot in France and India, the film braids vivid imagery of pilgrimages and ritual theatre with comic books, statues and pharmaceutical laboratories synthesizing anti-anxiety drugs. A work about fear, including Henrot’s own anxieties about visiting India, its soundtrack marries serpentine drones to thunderous kettledrums, evoking atmospheres of dread and climaxing in hedonistic abandon. Throughout, the snake is used as a metaphor to symbolize both fear and healing. We see snakes crawling across rocks, snakes represented in classical sculpture, snakes wriggling through hands, snakes sliding through Tintin books and Fritz Lang’s Indian Tomb (1959).

Heart of Darkness, 2012, from ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing, ikebana arrangement, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Opening with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s line that ‘India is the unconsciousness of the West’, Le Songe de Poliphile … at first seems to herald a troubling Orientalism both old and new, as ‘spiritual’ India is juxtaposed with scenes of technological, business-minded India. (The country is one of the major suppliers of psychopharmaceuticals to the West.) In some respects, the film skirts a lyrical universalism that privileges generalized similarities over the specific historical, economic or cultural conditions under which a group of people are acting. Henrot produces an entrancing parade of images, ‘assembled in a network of meanings, somewhat based on the principles in Mnemosyne [1924–29] by Aby Warburg, by merging them into an atlas of images of different cultural and worldly references, all according to the principle of elective affinities’.6 Magnetic as the imagery is, the experience of watching Le Songe de Poliphile … is a dangerous seduction. The audience is never allowed to know what kind of rituals we’re looking at, what pharmaceutical drugs are being made or where the snippets of found source material come from. Only Henrot knows its inner workings. Le Songe de Poliphile … is about privileged knowledge. It moves and feints as if it were documentary, but it conceals risky subjectivity.

But artists who are working with risky subjectivities strike me as far more interesting than those picking over land that has been thoroughly mine-swept by scholars and dealers alike – those who collect the metadata that enables them to predict patterns and relationships. ‘If you like Arte Povera then you’ll love Mono-ha!’ ‘Customers who bought Francis Bacon also bought a large Caribbean island.’ Who knows what, and who you tell it to, is the name of the game in 2014. Measuring, listing, annotating, networking, storing, referencing rather than producing: the quantified world seeks to turn our subjectivities into objectivities of data sets, from which can be extrapolated behaviour patterns. Knowing how to game the knowledge industry and lighting firewalls around personal knowledge – rather than giving up to the world, like spoiled narcissists, information about what’s on our playlists – is a political act. As Morrissey put it in The Smiths’ ‘Cemetery Gates’ (1986): ‘There’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows.’

Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired), 2013, video still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Right now, that big nose is Big Data. With that in mind, there is something poignant about watching fig. 4, Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired, 2013): video, duration 13 minutes. Set entirely on a computer desktop, Grosse Fatigue begins with a Final Cut Pro file being clicked open against a backdrop photograph of the Milky Way. Two windows pop onto the desktop: each shows a large coffee-table book on a yellow tabletop – one depicts native tribespeople, the other a contemporary art catalogue – being leafed through by a woman’s hands wearing bright green and red nail varnish. The scene cuts to a young woman in a grey institutional corridor opening a locker. The corridor is in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In the top right of the screen appears another window showing the phrase ‘the history of the universe’ being typed into Google. A kick-drum punches in groups of three and a voice-over begins: ‘In the beginning there was no earth, no water – nothing. There was a single hill called Nunne Chaha.’

There follows an elegant dance of windows popping in and out, layered and scaling back and forth on top of each other. They open onto a succession of extraordinary images shot in the Smithsonian’s collections: drawers full of neatly arranged toucans and macaws, ancient fertility statues, X-rays of seahorses. We see turtles burrowing into sand, naked bodies showering, ostrich eggs being peeled, a frog sat on an iPhone, a man looking at the inside of a bomb then a telescope photograph of the universe, a glass eye, eyedrops falling onto a real eyeball, a woman masturbating, someone doing calligraphy, an iguana, a man falling over, the back of a bald head, a zebra, a boulder, an angry chicken, paintings of fish, a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald doctored to make it look like he’s in a band with his murderer Jack Ruby, an orange, an inflatable Earth. The voice-over continues over sparse hip-hop rhythms. It synthesizes creation narratives from all over the world, moving chronologically from the beginning of time to the origin of planets and life, through to their death. Each vignette is framed by a computer window. There to be stopped, started, opened or closed, these windows represent knowledge packaged flat – the reference not the thing.

Grosse Fatigue is a powerful work about the vertigo of information, about how too much knowledge turns it weightless, turns it into image and evacuates experience and substance. It is profoundly of the moment, and profoundly sad. But what do I know?

Camille Henrot is a French artist based in New York, USA. In 2013, her work was included in the 55th Venice Biennale, where she was awarded the Silver Lion, and she had solo shows at the New Orleans Museum of Art, USA, and Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, USA. Her solo exhibition, ‘The Pale Fox’, is at Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, until 13 April. It will then tour to Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; Bétonsalon, Paris, France; and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Munster, Germany. Her exhibition ‘The Restless Earth’, is at the New Museum, New York, US, from 7th May to 29th June.

1 Cecilia Alemani, ‘Relations de Traduction’, interview with the artist, Mousse, issue 35, October–November 2012
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Brian Eno, ‘Interview’, from the album From Brussels with Love, 1980, Les Disques du Crepescule, Brussels
5 Camille Henrot, talk given at the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 3 December 2012
6 Camille Henrot, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream, director’s note for 2011 Cannes Film Festival

Dan Fox

is co-editor of frieze and lives in New York, USA.


-yerba buena san francisco


Mar 30, 2014

'The Pale Fox' (2014), Camille Henrot. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2014.

In Pursuit of an Idea: Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery

French artist Camille Henrot’s first solo UK exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery is like asking a question and receiving a million answers. She’s trying to get to the bottom of things – the show is full of references to origins – but this seems at odds with the dizzying array of stuff that fills the gallery space; abstract sculptures, glossy images torn from magazines, second-hand books, tacky postcards, puzzle pens, kitsch mugs, stacks of National Geographic, retro movie posters, a remote controlled snake. A deliberately overwhelming and seemingly random installation, the result is an excessive theatricality. It’s a hoarder’s paradise and a minimalist’s nightmare.

The title of Henrot’s show, The Pale Fox, is borrowed from a 1965 anthropological study of the West African Dogon people, whose complex mythology – incorporating astronomy, mathematics and philosophy – informs Henrot’s own convoluted study. Here the artist is anthropologist, only her subject is the whole of human evolution, the universe, knowledge itself. This whistle-stop tour through the history of the world takes in art and culture, science and myth. Here are books, the internet, babies, eggs, foxes, wolves, cities, global warming. Wikipedia gone mad.

Yet this totalising project and its chaotic barrage of objects and images – made more fractured by the discordant, looped soundtrack – is not without structure. Each wall corresponds to an element and there’s a timeline of sorts that sees objects arranged along a constructed metal grid. So in the midst of chaos is an evolving order, albeit with many knowing narrative asides.

In this way, Henrot looks to the archive and its attempts to categorise and make sense of the world. In Grosse Fatigue (2013), the film that won her the Silver Lion for most promising young artist at the 55th Venice Biennale, Henrot attempts to process the overwhelming collections held in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC – one of the largest museums and a vast repository of knowledge. Her almost childish desire to capture it all means bombarding the viewer with a mix of quick-fire spoken word and disparate, disconnected imagery. No wonder it’s titled Grosse Fatigue; it must be a tiring experience trying to tell the story of the world’s creation in just 13 minutes.

Both this and The Pale Fox obsess over how we store information, how we retrieve it, and how we understand the objects around us. And in Henrot’s storytelling there are no hierarchies; she exhaustively admits multiple thought systems and accepts myriad ways of comprehending the world. The archive, it seems, is much more productive in its very falling apart.

So if Grosse Fatigue is the script then The Pale Fox is the performance. In the Chisenhale, the thoroughly immersive experience of seeing Henrot’s work is made more intense by the blue paint that covers the gallery’s walls. Like being underwater or in the sky, it feels endless. And blue is often associated with calm, which is a necessary antidote to the jumble of disparate works assembled here. It’s also impossible not to think of Yves Klein, and in fact Henrot is deliberate in her references to creativity and art history. Her abstract brush drawings conjure Picasso and in the midst of the second-hand images and eBay purchases are Henrot’s own bronze and ceramic sculptures that draw inspiration from both tribal art and 20th-century modernism. If she turns to creation myths she also looks to the act of creation more generally, to that elusive and age-old creative impulse. It reminds me of how it feels to write – to frustratedly attempt to say everything and to capture something totally.

I write down a quote from a page that Henrot has torn out of one of the National Geographic and stuck on the wall: ‘I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts.’ Written by journalist Paul Salopek, it refers to his journey retracing the route taken by ancestors who discovered the Earth 60,000 years ago. Salopek’s desire to return to the beginning and his compulsion to connect with a world that is now defined by speed, technology and inattentiveness seems also at the heart of Henrot’s project. In attempting to unravel the history of the universe, we are left with just that – an unravelling. A blue room that, in the end, throws up more questions than answers. It’s a lot to take in. But that, it seems, is the point.

‘Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox’ runs at Chisenhale Gallery, London until 13 April 2014.


The Pale Fox. Camille Henrot

Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_09When Heinrich Wölfflin makes concluding observations on the nature of history in Principles of Art History (1932), in spite of himself, he cannot help reaching for images of complexity. How do we account for cessation and recommencement of art historical periods? ‘Only a spiral would meet the facts,’ he writes. How do we speak of the relations between art of different nations? ‘Not the line but the web of lines,’ he admits. ‘Not the established single form but the movement of form.’ There is tension between linear ways of telling and complex, multiple being. The old and the new, the historian tells us, ‘dovetail’.
These are a few of the ‘big questions’ — unfashionable in contemporary art — French, New York-based artist Camille Henrot poses in her exhibition The Pale Fox, installed at Chisenhale in London’s East End. With The Pale Fox, a commission that developed out of her film Grosse Fatigue (2013) (for which she was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for most promising young artist), Henrot poses perhaps the biggest question of all: ‘what is creation?’ From the macro to the micro, the artist’s studio, to the universe, how do things come into being, live, and die away?
The title of Henrot’s exhibition is taken from an influential anthropological study of the Dogon people of Mali, co-authored by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, and published by the latter in 1965. Through his multiple initiations by an elder, Griaule exposed the Dogon’s world view, cosmology, and philosophical system with unparalleled completeness. For the Dogon, he learnt, a creation myth served as a blueprint for all facets of society. Within this myth a fox, borne of thwarted intercourse with the earth, represents disorder and chaos but also creation, bringing about the formation of the sun.
At Chisenhale Henrot has painted the walls a rich blue; these are matched in colour by the carpeted floor. For Henrot the blue references Yves Klein and his eponymous tone of blue, but also, as a ground, enables an ambivalent relation between intimacy and universal distance. Upon entry ambient music envelops the viewer, initiates them into this total environment. (Sinologist François Jullien on blandness comes to mind: blandness is ‘the embodiment of neutrality… at the point of origin of all things possible’.) Following the space’s walls is a band — a more or less continuous structure — that twists, turns and flattens out into shelves. Uneven accumulations of E-bay found objects, loose Chinese ink drawings, ‘primitive’ Surrealist bronze and ceramic sculpture, and digital prints and images, often by Westerners looking at non-Westerners, displayed on tablet devices cluster at the foot of the shelves, or are displayed on its polished surfaces.
The shelf is a timeline, activated to represent periods in cosmic and human history according to Henrot’s alignment of the gallery to points of the compass. Each point is further associated with the four Classical elements of air, water, earth and fire. The West wall Henrot names ‘The principle of being (air): How things start.‘ The North wall, immediately in front as you enter the gallery, ‘The law of continuity (water): How things unfold.’ The East wall is ‘The principle of sufficient reason (earth): Where the limits are.’ And, finally, the South wall is ‘The principle of the indiscernible (fire): How things disappear.’ ‘I decided that there would be a different age of humanity attributed to each of the different walls,’ Henrot explained in the gallery interview. ‘I was already very interested in how the age of humanity can be related to the age of the universe.’
Henrot’s accumulation of objects and images achieves a global image willfully reminiscent of the great museum collections of the world. However, against an accumulation that might dedifferentiate, produce a kind of ambivalence to things, Henrot seeks to particularise, to emphasise unresolved complexity in heterogeneity. There is a will for objects and images to retain their aura, their special powers within a field of others. ‘Synthesis,’ Henrot says, ‘is never really interesting, it’s almost like a bourgeois solution. It’s the dynamic between thesis and antithesis that is interesting.’
For Henrot the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the fold is an ideal image of complexity. Speaking of the fold Deleuze invokes a world of superabundance, with no boundary between the organic and the inorganic. Each folds into the other in a continuos ‘texturology’. Henrot’s assembly of images and objects — her art — is able to evoke a span far exceeding the limits of art history’s knowledge, while, irresistibly, holding a mirror to contemporary Western society.

Jonathan P Watts

The Pale Fox by Camille Henrot
Chisenhale Gallery, London
Through April 13
Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_00 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_01 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_02 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_04 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_05 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07b Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_08 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_10 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_12 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_13 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_14 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_15 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_16 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_17 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_18
Camille Henrot, The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Courtesy kamel mennour, Paris and Johann König, Berlin. Photo: Andy Keate. © ADAGP


A Savage Mind: Camille Henrot’s Primitive Thinking

Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue (video still), 2013

By Anna Watkins Fisher, as published in Camille Henrot, éditions kamel mennour, 2013.

There is something ‘out of time’ about the world of Camille Henrot, something the artist readily admits. “My relationship with reference has always been very traditional. I’m sorry!” she says, adding with Latourian irony: “I should be more modern.”

The artist’s œuvre visualizes an acute and resplendently beautiful sense of historical dislocation, her syncopated aesthetic conveyed through a set of representational paradoxes that repeat across her intermedial recombinations of film, sculpture, photography, performance, and drawing. Such work formalizes Henrot’s steadfast embrace of old-world craftsmanship recast with high production value and a cool attention to detail. Its disjunctive effect is also largely the result of her persistent examination of non-Western subject matter through an optic of polished cosmopolitanism.

Her soft spot for expressly utopian projects, like Esperanto or Henri Van Lier’s anthropogénie, is apparent in her recent films (especially Psychopompe and The Strife of Love in a Dream), which were inspired by French experimental filmmakers like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Abel Gance and the idea of cinema as a ‘total art.’ It should come as no surprise then that Henrot spent her tenure as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow in Washington, D.C. working on what she describes as “a project about everything.” The result was Grosse Fatigue, a 13-minute short film the artist made for the 2013 Venice Biennale International Exhibition. A mashup of cross-medial forms — part film, part slideshow, part computer animation — the project draws on her extensive research into the various strategies that African, Western, Melanesian, and Asian cultures have sought to tell nothing less than the history of the universe. Grosse Fatigue visualizes this impossible task in its explicit enactment of screenal psychosis. The film intercuts images of artifacts from the Smithsonian collection and everyday objects (e.g. chromatic scales, early personal computers, sponges, a glass eye) with oversaturated images that highlight procedures of archiving, systematizing, and exhibiting (online databases, screenshots, image searches)1. Unleashing the infinite capaciousness of the historical catalogue, Henrot gives us a taste of the archival sublime in the ecstatic age of digital media.

Her engrossment with the “total work of art,” however, should be read less as an interest in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (the comprehensive or all-encompassing capacity of the work), than an imaginative attachment to systematicity as utopian fantasy, as a “timelessness” and “spacelessness” that could accommodate incommensurable orders. One perceives her aesthetic preoccupation with such zones of contact or sites of mutual attachment in works like the Janus-headed Arrivals/Departures or Tevau. Her mischievous testing and breaching of epistemological boundaries may be most apparent in Tropics of Love and Collection préhistorique. In both series, the artist splices up and reassembles images from ethnographic archival imagery and pornography — signifiers of geography, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and special difference — for her drawings, multimedia collages, and photographic still-lives. These works visualize Henrot’s preoccupation with the nature/culture divide, particularly with the increasingly ambivalent status of nature in our hypertechnologized moment as what we mean by ‘natural’ has become ever more uncertain.

Some grappling with her deconstructive approach to totalizing systems is crucial for resolving the postcolonial politics of her work. Her practice explores an aching desire for cross-cultural connection, across geopolitical differences and platitudes, historical epochs and orders. The artist has said that she finds methods of knowledge acquisition that tend toward globalizing or universalizing “both absurd and moving”2. With this in mind, her art practice would seem to be indistinguishable from what she has described as her abiding attachment to objects. Camille Henrot doesn’t like to throw anything in the trash3.

These works are typical of her process: research-intensive and ambitious, yet winning. Henrot — an obsessive researcher, collector, and bibliophile — strikes a balance between the epistemophilia and archivistic inclination that drives her. Approachable and unaffected, her work rests at the interstice of erudition and naïveté. For each new work, she produces copious notes — diagrams of intellectual histories and genealogies of the mythological, historical, literary, and philosophical themes she sets out to explore. These rhizomatic “thought drawings” constitute an important, if undisclosed, archive of her artworks.

Given her inclination toward aesthetics of abundance and forms of seriality, it is fitting that the only stand-alone piece that Henrot, a self-described accumulator, has made is nevertheless a replica. Upon seeing a small anthropomorphic sculpture of Le Balafré in the Louvre, the artist felt a strong urge to possess it. Knowing this was not possible, she decided to make one for herself, only to find that she was disappointed by the result because it looked nothing like the original. Touching it more forcefully, she began making marks with her fingers on his face and torso, only to realize that these imprints captured what the original sculpture was about in the first place: “Balafré means ‘the scarred,’ a person who has a scar on the face… The scar has been made by a very important goddess [who decided] not to kill him but just to make him weaker, to teach him to be less powerful… I kind of like this kind of ‘in-between’ solution,” she says. “I like that it is a small man. It reminds me of a photograph of Matisse in his bed that I love. He is in his bed, and he is making a very small woman.”

Concerned with epistemological practices, Henrot’s works attest to a relationship to knowledge that is characterized by an unquenchable desire for more. Her interest in accumulation is, in many ways, a countervailing force to her fascination with totality. The drive toward a total work is never finished and perhaps more accurately reflects her investment in the work of failure in impossible projects. For the artist, a good work has to be extremely difficult, close to impossible, “or maybe even better if it’s impossible.” “I like approaching anthropology in a critical way precisely because anthropological thinking, in its somewhat tenacious aspiration to connect different cultural spheres or knowledges seems to me to index a ‘pensée sauvage…” she has said4.

The keystone to Henrot’s aesthetic philosophy, the concept of pensée sauvage is one she imports from the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of modern anthropology, who argued, contra progressivist dogma, that “primitive thinking,” rather than a pre-logical stage, is profoundly rationalist5. What is most striking about her yearning for the mythical potentialities of totalizing endeavors — such as those exemplified in postcolonial critiques of the discipline of anthropology — is how the artist seems to have found, in her aestheticization of these, a counterintuitive point of entry into an important conversation about the ambivalent forces of postcolonial fantasy (developed by figures like Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant with respect to the French context). Moving between Paris and New York City, Henrot is attuned to the cultural differences that have marked the reception of her work and most significantly, the relatively wider institutionalization of postcolonial critique in the United States.
When I first showed [Coupé/Décalé in France] few people really understood what it was about. People were telling me ‘Oh the music is good,’ ‘Oh the images are beautiful,’ ‘It’s a nice film you shot of Africa.’ The film was not shot in Africa but in Oceania. This idea of the vision from the outside and the construction of the identity of the other… I was thinking it was a little too obvious.

Her practice may thus be described as one of recontextualizing and disseminating Lévi-Strauss’ insights into a contemporary visual vocabulary — coupage et décalage. Her appropriation of pensée sauvage from the anthropological lexicon encapsulates the artist’s conceptual stake in the interdependence between man and things and compulsion to explore the structuring causality that links actions and events in the world6. Anthropology is thus the structuring ethos of her artistic praxis, and “primitive thinking,” or the idea that everything has a meaning, is the ethical imperative of her work (one that remains consonant with her interests in Eastern philosophy and the posthumanist turn).

The French title of Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée sauvage (1962), which many consider to be his most important work, contains a pun that is untranslatable in English. The Savage Mind fails to capture the polysemy of the French pensée, which means both ‘thought’ and ‘pansy,’ the flower, whereas sauvage translates less equivocally as ‘wild,’ ‘savage’ or ‘primitive.’ The French edition still retains a flower on the cover, and Lévi-Strauss is said to have suggested Pansies for Thought for the English title, a reference to a speech by Ophelia in Hamlet. The problem of failed translation offers an insight into an artist who appears to thrive in the space of the untranslatable. Henrot has said, “I think it is always good not to be understood very well. Especially for people like me who have a tendency to complication, it’s better.”

In 2011, Henrot began Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?, a two-year-long intensive period of making ikebana, a virtuosic Japanese practice of meditative and studied floral arrangement. Henrot describes the project as an elegiac ritual that she invented in response to the deaths of several loved ones. The artist, who claims she is a bad cook, was tasked instead with organizing flowers for the bereavement. As a result, she grew to feel revolted by what she calls “the consoling power of flowers.” “They are consoling you,” she explains, “but why should we be consoled? Maybe we should just be angry, you know?” The project’s title — a reference to Marcel Liebman’s book Leninism Under Lenin in which one of Lenin’s lieutenants asks, “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” — alludes to this compensatory promise of flowers.

Around the same time as the funeral, Henrot became interested in ikebana. She had just moved to New York and ikebana seemed a way for her to remain connected to the books from her personal library still in Paris. Over the course of two years, she composed 150 ikebana arrangements, paying tribute to volumes such as Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, André Gide’s L’immoraliste, and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. She also made ikebana inspired by books that she hadn’t yet read, such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit.

For Henrot, the flower — with its manifold significatory power (as a symbol for vanitas, revolution, beauty, mystery, and so on) — symbolizes the ambiguity of aesthetics, as subversive potential and/or apolitical consolation prize. “I don’t mean I want to do revolution and stop making bouquets,” she explains. “I just want people to be aware also that beauty has this perverse effect. You think it is nice, but maybe it’s not nice. Maybe you should just not look at art or flowers and you should just be acting against something.” For the artist, a good work of art resembles a flower in that it “has to be like a prism, like a fan. It has to be as open as possible.” Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers? thus maintains the ambivalence that the project explores as an open question: “You can think it is ironical and you can think it’s not and this is good because flowers can be seen as a luxury, a capitalist symbol, but they can also be seen as a symbol of revolution…,” she says alluding to a number of civil resistance movements that have adopted the flower as their symbol (e.g. the Jasmine Revolution, the Carnation Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Tulip Revolution, etc.).
“One ikebana is consoling (it is the sacred ritual to do one ikebana in the house), but what happens if you have many ikebana in just one single room?” Taking Lévi-Strauss at his word, Henrot literalizes pensée sauvage in her intensification of the elegiac dimension of ikebana, turning it into something else, “something more obsessive.” Not interested in just one ikebana, she creates rooms full of them. Her manic accumulation actualizes the pun of Lévi-Strauss’ title. Bringing together flowers and thoughts (ikebana and her personal library, the intimate ritual of mourning and the public practice of art making, nature and culture, East and West), she engages in primitive thinking as an exquisite work of untranslatability.

1. Camille Henrot, Email to author, 30 April 2013.
2. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 Mars 2011.
3. Camille Henrot, Interview with author, Skype, 3 April 2013.
4. Ibid.
5. Alan Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, “Claude Lévi-Strauss,” Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Routledge, p. 335, 1996.
6. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 March 2011.

Camille Henrot
Grosse Fatigue, 2013
Vidéo (couleur, sonore) / Video (color, sound)
13 min
Musique originale de / Original music by Joakim
Voix / Voice by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh
Texte écrit en collaboration avec / Text written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg
Producteur / Producer : kamel mennour, Paris ; avec le soutien du / with the additional support of : Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris
Production: Silex Films
Lion d’argent – 55e Biennale de Venise / Silver Lion – 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
Projet développé dans le cadre du / Project conducted as part of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship Program, Washington, D.C.
Remerciements particuliers aux / Special thanks to: the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
© ADAGP Camille Henrot
Courtesy the artist, Silex Films and kamel mennour, Paris



CAMILLE HENROT The Restless Earth


Camille Henrot’s solo exhibition The Restless Earth made full use of the New Museum’s second floor, leading viewers through a loop of rooms with diverse characters, plots, and settings. A sharp contrast to the gestalt experiences presented by Ragnar Kjartansson and Roberto Cuoghi on the surrounding floors, Henrot covered broad expanses of time and space in four videos, 46 flower-assemblages, a 135-plate adaptation of a jewelry auction catalogue, numerous mixed media drawings, engravings, and two sculptures. All works were accompanied by extensive wall labels that traced and analyzed each project’s evolution, providing facts and details usually absent from the works themselves that added useful layers to a progressive unfolding of meaning. Without names, dates, and places, our assumptions and associations run wild, as they are wont to do in today’s media landscape where seductive pictures are often detached from, or misaligned with, factual information.  Consider Google image searches, Facebook, Instagram, and even, where a slow load or a pop-up ad might obscure or stagger our absorption of the most reputable journalism. These questions of how stories are told, how information is gathered and assembled into knowledge, and how rapidly this process is changing, are central to Henrot’s project.

Camille Henrot, “Coupé-Décalé,” 2010. Video (color, sound), 3 min 54 sec, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

“Grosse Fatigue” (2013), which earned Henrot the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Biennial, is an epic film compressed into 13 minutes. Its title, translated as “Dead Tired,” is shared with a 1994 French satire about celebrity identity theft. In Henrot’s opening sequence, the phrase “in the beginning” introduces a torrent of interwoven creation myths presented in response to a Google search: “the history of the universe.” This dream-like composite is accompanied by a succession of images: flowing veils of ink, rushing water, the Milky Way, a “Buddha’s Hand” citrus fruit, all of which send us thinking back eons in pursuit of the ultimate beginning. The familiar Biblical phrase repeats again toward the middle of the film while an image of an early computer lingers on screen. Here, “the beginning” is connected to a cumbersome machine that feels as ancient as an early species. This artifact illustrates the origin of the digital age, which has accelerated in its relatively short history, and will only accelerate more. Even the Energizer batteries neatly lined up by fingers with matching blue-polished nails are like an archival display, once marketed to “keep going and going” on a scale that shrinks in comparison to today’s unbroken connectivity, at least for parts of the world’s population.

Camille Henrot, “Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?” 2012. Installation view. Courtesy New Museum, New York, 2014. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

But Henrot is no stranger to other parts of the population. Many of her films are set in locations remote to Western society where rates and patterns of acceleration are different. “Coupé/Décalé” (2010) records a tribal ritual on 35mm film, giving it the appearance of historic footage. While watching N’gol land-diving (a precedent to Western bungee jumping), the viewer is lead to make many half-conscious assumptions about the subjects and the environment, all of which are called into question when a girl in a T-shirt and jeans with a digital camera comes into view. “The Strife of Love in a Dream” (2011) offers a similar moment of surprise, when a bonfire ritual begins and hundreds of glowing screens pop up to document it. Only when assumptions are refuted do we become aware of them: why do Western viewers often confuse distant places and distant times? And what happens when we realize, as we must, that one or the other is not so distant after all? Most of the exotic objects showcased in “Grosse Fatigue” are in fact located right here in our nation’s capital at the Smithsonian Institute, where Henrot held an Artist Research Fellowship last year. The debris shown resting at the bottom of the ocean off the Vanuatu island Espiritu Santo, which couldn’t be farther from our shores, was actually left by American troops during World War II.

Notions of otherness are further complicated in “The Strife of Love in a Dream” as the footage, shot in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu in 2011, offers conflicting associations. While crowds climbing a mountain for a ritual seem set back in time, factory workers packaging the anti-anxiety drug Atarax feel flung into a dystopian future. These scenes have the eeriness of a science fiction film: all characters covered entirely in white except for their eyes; gloved fingers operating controls on plastic-wrapped dashboards; larger-than-life machinery; masses of white pills; expressionless faces. The factory, shown in fast-moving, clinically anonymous fragments, recalls the immaculate outer-space interiors of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the line between human and machine famously dissolves.

Camille Henrot, “Grosse Fatigue,” 2013. Video, color, sound, 13 min. Original music: Joakim; Voice: Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh; Text: written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg; Producer: Kamel Mennour, Paris, with the additional support of Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris; Production: Silex Films. © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist, Silex Films, and kamel mennour, Paris.

2001 was made in 1968, a prophecy of the future that is now the past. That same year, Leo Steinberg gave a lecture at MoMA introducing the “flatbed picture plane,” a change of “psychic address” in which the painted surface was “no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature, but of operational processes.”* He cited newspapers, maps, tabletops, and studio floors as models of pictures that collect data instead of representing worlds. This theory may be as easily applied to “Grosse Fatigue” as to Rauschenberg’s work of the early 1950s, only we might now replace the flatbed with the screen, our new interface that addresses the body from any position. By moving between the physical desktop (with drawing tools, rulers, and X-acto knives) and the computer desktop (with icons, folders, and windows, and windows, and windows), Henrot explores this same matter of “psychic address” and its relation to perception. Phones, GPS devices, tablets, and TVs address the body/mind at increasingly close range. With the rise of Google Glass, the “desktop” (or picture plane) merges directly with vision itself. Data-collecting surfaces have evolved and proliferated since Steinberg, and Henrot shows us the results in 2013: somewhere between euphoria and madness, empowerment and exhaustion.

Upon entering The Restless Earth, one is immersed in an installation of flower-assemblages that translate texts from Henrot’s library into the language of Japanese ikebana. It is a poetic play on the shifty relations between text and object; to identify the logic of each match demands close reading and looking, which might be Henrot’s mandate for all forms of interface.


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