Camille Henrot l’utopie à l’ombre de l’échec
Camille Henrot The Dynamics of Exhaustion. Interview par Anaël Pigeat
Trained at the École des Arts Décoratifs, over the last ten years Camille Henrot has developed a dense, teeming body of work, including Grosse Fatigue, which won her the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Her tools go from experimental cinema to anthropology and she uses a mix of erudition and faux naivety to explore notions such as belief, maps, initiation, hybrids and alterity. Her initial interest in moving images has gradually shifted towards objects and the exhibition space, and her latest show at London’s Chisenhale Gallery (thru April 13) is indeed a spatial extension of Grosse fatigue. Adapted versions will show later this year at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen (June 20–August 17), the Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster and Bétonsalon in Paris (September– December).
Your first works are short films whose form and spirit harks back to the experimental cinema of the 1960s and 70s. How has this influenced your work? Two of my films refer specifically to Norman McLaren, Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits and Len Lye: Courage mon amour (2005), in which hair is stuck to the film stock, and Coupé / décalé (2010), in which the film stock is cut in two. But it’s not so much filmmakers as experimental cinema as a genre that has influenced me. My first exhibition, Room Movies (2005), was about the margins, about what is rejected from the everyday and has to express itself in sub-genres such as horror or porn movies. The installation The Minimum of Life (2006), comprising a film and bits of film stock, was also a humorous reference to Freud’s “magic writing pad,” with forms of amoeba and loud, unpleasant music. Like Art Brut or primitive art, experimental cinema is a deep-running current in the history of art.
You were interested in the work of Kenneth Anger, and in a way, too, Grosse fatigue recalls the cinema of Martial Raysse, who was himself influenced by Anger’s collages. What was it you saw in these works? I took a lot from the rhythm of Anger’s films, especially the editing of The Dream of Poliphilo (2011), and I appreciate the sensual experience they offer, as in Fireworks (1947). Then I discovered the films of Martial Raysse, notably Homéro Presto (1967) and Mon petit coeur (1995), which I particularly like. We are both fascinated by myth combined with the critique of consumer society. And we never reject a film’s visual aspects or seduction.
Your Film spatial, which shows the worldhouse of utopian architect Yona Friedman seen by his dog Balkis, seems to have enabled you to move from reflection on the moving image to questions about the exhibition space.
Yes, and that’s why the film is called Film spatial! That apartment eludes all attempts at conceptualization because the camera makes erratic movements, but also because it’s a mental space that appears in this accumulation of objects— something that protects the inhabitant of the place, but can also make visitors anxious. It is not very far removed from Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau. That made me want to explore the exhibition space as if it were a personal domestic space, and I made Le Nouveau monde, the exhibition about Yona’s apartment, a deconstruction made up of signs and images.
ENCOUNTERING THE OTHER
In King Kong Addition (2007) you superposed three versions of King Kong dating from 1933, 1976 and 2005. Did your work on alterity come from this idea of the remake? In a way, but alterity also means alteration. It has often been said that the story of King Kong was the story of slavery. The film is also about man’s relation to threatening nature, but the danger here does not come from nature but from technology, especially the bombers that we see for the first time on the screen in King Kong. The fact that the film, which shows a turning point in the history of humanity, was remade at intervals of twenty-five years
with very few changes is fascinating. It is the first specifically cinematic myth, invented by anthropology and not by literature. King Kong raises the question of the relation between the filming subject and an exotic subject, the way the one alters the other (King Kong is put in a cage on the boat) but is in turn changed by that other (New York is destroyed by King Kong). This is anthropology reflecting on itself and staging its guilt.
Your trip to Egypt was the first time you made films based on your travels. How did you start to combine the two? Cynopolis (2009) started with family holidays. I was thinking of Flaubert’s Voyage en Égypte, and at the same time I was uncomfortable because of the acute social tension—this was two years before the revolution. So, I went back to Saqqara. I wanted to show the simultaneity of different time frames: the lame dogs, the flying crisp wrappers, all the things that interfere with the romantic vision of an eternal Egypt, so that, for example, a dog lying on a heap of stones can become a sphinx. It’s the fantasy of the eternity of time coming back in a cyclical way.
Is your sculpture Tevau (2010) the image of a dialogue between East and West, something which runs through all your work? Exactly. Made from two fire hoses and inspired by a Melanesian object, the tevau represents money—”feather money” in English. It evokes the possibility of reinstating an equitable relation between individuals after prejudice of some kind. Its function is to make up for a loss or injustice.
The dog (or wolf) as intermediary is very prominent in your work, as in Wolf Eyes (2008), Film Spatial, and Cynopolis. Does it also stand for the initiated artist? The dog affords access to the two worlds, especially in Cynopolis, near the pyramids, which are tombs, but I don’t really use the term “initiate.” For the Indians, the dog is too close to the world of men to be a totem. It is a conceptual tool, an almost metonymic one, which enables us to think about animality because for us it is not quite an animal. As for the figure of the artist and creation, before Grosse Fatigue I hadn’t treated the subject directly. But it is very much present in the film, and in the exhibition I ’ m working on f or t he Chisenhale Gallery.
Your journey to India resulted in the film Songe de Poliphile (Dream of Poliphilo). In this montage of scenes showing pilgrimages, tranquilizer factories, sculptures, painting and cartoons, you j uxtapose different kinds of belief systems and means of defense against fear. Here the snake, discussed by Warburg as an image of death and fertility, replaces the dog figure. What role do you see it as having? The snake is very far from human beings, and it’s difficult to anthropomorphize. I like the fact that it’s both a dangerous animal, a sign like a letter of the alphabet, and a symbol. In the film, the serpent is like a thread running through and linking disparate images.
In Coupé / décalé, which you shot in Vanuatu, and in which the film stock is cut in two, there is also a line running through the image. It’s not serpentine and doesn’t connect images. On the contrary, it casts doubt on them and underscores the film’s per- vasive ambiguity: seeing young people leaping out of a bamboo tower, we wonder if this is an authentic initiation or simply a tourist attraction. The two films almost form a diptych together: one is about belief, the other about doubt. That’s quite right. One is the antithesis of the other. Coupé / décalé is a return to experimental cinema and the consciousness of the cinematographic image as a process. I was interested by the reversal of the cargo cult, by the idea of an altered ritual. The Melanesians transformed this custom into a tourist attraction but the inventiveness of the people has turned this “ritual for tourists” into a real performative creation which raises the question of the way two cultures coming together project onto each other. In the film, the feeling of authenticity comes from the sensation of danger, from the dirtiness of the film, which I cut. At the end we see a digital camera but we know very well when the film dates from. This work calls into question the genre of the ethnographic documentary, which fascinates me, and raises the big question of the image.
What did New York give you, this new world? Le Nouveau monde was the title of my exhibition about the apartment of Yona Friedman and, in the end, seven years later—seven is a magic number—I was there! I wanted to leave Paris and I was attracted by New York because it is a world-city.
The Ikébanas, the series of flower arrangements symbolizing the books on your shelves, which you started making in New York, seems to correspond to a period of meditation, almost a kind of personal revolution. Its title, Is it possible to be a revolutionary and love flowers? comes, in fact, from a book by Marcel Liebman about Leninism. Michel Leiris said that we have to “apply the notion of permanent revolution to our inner life.” I need change and, at the same time, it makes me suffer. For Yona Friedman, collecting objects from all around the world is a way of keeping himself from moving. His apartment is a time where all times come together. In New York I missed the objects and books I left in Paris, so I thought of Zen as a consolation. That was the starting point for the Ikébanas. In that series the flower is both consolatory and revolutionary. It expresses a pleasure. That is not the case with Jewels of the personal collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan, a herbarium of flowers stolen from the beds of an upscale neighborhood in New York and flattened—like the animals in Grosse Fatigue— and then dried in the catalogue of the princess’s je-
wels, which were sold when she divorced. These withered flowers are images of the riches that must be blown, spent on useless things, to refer to Georges Bataille’s notion of expenditure in La Part maudite.
THE VANITY OF UNIVERSALISM
To me there seems to be a connection between there videos which are an attempt at a visual encyclopedia: Film Spatial, Psychopompe (2011), inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Grosse Fatigue, the story of the creation of the world. Yes, it’s true. Indeed, they will be shown together at Tate Modern this spring. They are three exhaustions: in Psychopompe, physical exhaustion: at Yona Friedman’s place, the saturation of space; and in Grosse Fatigue, the exhaustion of natural resources, an encyclopedia without glory, a melancholy vision of failure.
When you see those pink flamingoes folded in four and those flattened penguins, you understand that the act of classifying and naming is already a form of destruction, making things appear and disappear. At the Smithsonian, which is the biggest group of museums in the world, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington is emblematic, especially its very rich and venerable collection of Indian objects. My sponsor for making Grosse Fatigue was the National Museum of the American Indian, another museum, dedicated exclusively to Indians but created much later, with a different ideological basis. The objects in the natural history museum were collected mainly during wars against the Indians, as were the recordings of songs and narratives: while America was killing off its indigenous peoples, emissaries were sent out to preserve their heritage. The awareness of this destruction motivated this collecting, but it’s hard not to conclude that this conservation hastened the disappearance of these cultures.
One of the Ikébanas represents À la Recherche du temps perdu. For me there’s something very Proustian in Grosse fatigue. When I made the film I had just moved to New York. My things were all in crates. My dog had died. The contraction of my work space inspired the form of the film. This tension between the domestic space of the computer desktop and outside space. I started a collection of images which I classified by theme: roadkill, anorexia, writers writing standing up, artists working lying in their bed. In La Recherche, a text that I really love, society is changing around Proust, who wrote this enormous work in a position of withdrawal, in his bed. Grosse Fatigue, too, has that aspect: the heaviness of a withdrawn, flattened time. Further, the computer also has a baroque dimension, in the sense that everything in it is folded up, as in a book, and in old pieces of papyrus.
There is often sound in your films, but not so often words, as in Grosse fatigue. In that film I wanted to show the capacity of non-material forms such as oral culture to survive in our written and museological culture of inventory. Later, I thought of the spoken word, which is the origin of rap. Then I worked with a writer to put these bits of mythological narratives together. The performer is Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh. I chose him because his voice can go from the vulnerability of a child to the authority of preacher giving a sermon in his parish.
You took an interest in the Houma, a tribe of Indians in the southern U.S. who speak a language mixed with eighteenth-century French, whose land is being eroded by the Gulf of Mexico. You compared their history to the town of Ys. That fluidity, it seemed to me, is rather close to your way of thinking. This project with the Houma at the New Orleans Museum of Art was very instructive for me. Because of their particular culture and history, and particularly their friendship with the French, the Houma make the traditional categories and systems of interpretation redundant. They are holding on to their heritage but refuse to make a fetish of the past. The traces of their identity are not necessarily visual, or what one might expect. Their culture stays alive in a more underground way.
Doesn’t this project offer a kind of map of your work, as in those pages of notes where you articulate notions as if they were islets? It’s true, the aerial view of the Houma territory looks a bit like the mental map of my work, with bits that are visible and hidden channels. My films don’t follow a narrative or graphic logic. That’s how I work.
Your exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery puts into practice the idea that a museum collection reproduces the functioning of the universe. What you’re doing there is unpacking Grosse fatigue, right?
Visually it will be very different, but the exhibition will in effect extend the underlying ideas in Grosse fatigue. I wanted to examine the role or order and disorder in our lives. Symbolic structures bring us together but the reality is that there is no order. In Le Renard pâle by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, which was a great inspiration for me on this project, each new figure is always the sum of the two preceding figures—it’s a sequence, a model of metaphysical mathematics. The pale fox is the one that introduces disorder. For me, the name also evokes the sickly curiosity of the fox who rummages through dustbins. This exhibition will be a representation of the world through disparate objects and artworks, organized in a space oriented by the cardinal points, associated with Leibniz’s four great principles, an age of life, a sign, and one of the four elements. I also thought of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of “cataloguing psychosis” in “Books by the Mentally Ill.”
Née en / born 1978 à Paris Vit et travaille à / lives in Paris et / and New York Expositions personnelles récentes (sélection) 2012 Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs ?, kamel mennour, Paris ; Jewels from the personal collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan, Rosascape, Paris 2013 How to live together ?, Slought Foundation, Philadelphie ; City of Ys, NOMA, New Orleans Museum of Art 2014 The Restless Earth, New Museum, New York ; musée du château des Ducs de Würtemberg, Montbéliard ; Le Renard pâle, Chisenhale Gallery, Londres ; Bétonsalon, Paris ; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhague ; Westfalen Kunstverein, Münster.
Which brings us back to the total artwork idea present in experimental cinema.
Absolutely, but, once again, with the shadow of failure and unresolved problems, which elude the system.
Translation, C. Penwarden
« Cities of Ys ». 2014. Vue de l’exposition au New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, 2013
« The Pale Fox ». Chisenhale Gallery, Londres, 2014. Vidéo, couleur, son. (Court. Johann König, Berlin). Video (color, sound)
« À la recherche du temps perdu ». Marcel Proust (Série « Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d'aimer les fleurs? »). 2012. Pavot, lisianthus, cattleya, lys, lavande de mer, dalhia, vase en céramique 80 x 110 x 80 cm. (Ph. A. Serrano) From the series“Is it possible to be a revolutionary and love flowers.” Poppy, lisianthus, cattleya, lily, sea lavender