The works of Camille Henrot tend to be epic in scope and ambition. ‘Encyclopedic’ and ‘cosmological’ are two adjectives often used to describe what are arguably her two most famous pieces to date: her Silver Lion-winning video Grosse Fatigue (2013), in which she attempted to tell the story of the universe, and its installation-based follow up, The Pale Fox (2014–15). It is unsurprising, then, that when given carte blanche to occupy the enormous Palais de Tokyo in her native Paris, Henrot went big. Four years in the making, ‘Days Are Dogs’ is densely populated, featuring 100 works, half of them new. The exhibition is structured around the seven days of the week, a device to represent the struggles of everyday life. The show reads like a retrospective of sorts, featuring much of Henrot’s oeuvre with the exception of her earlier anthropologically-infused films. Her work is punctuated by pieces from six guest artists: Jacob Bromberg, David Horvitz, Maria Loboda, Nancy Lupo, Samara Scott and Avery Singer. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Henrot herself; she’s cleverly used the work of her fellow artists as visual palate cleansers, installing them in the liminal spaces between rooms as a way to demarcate each day of the week.
The exhibition starts with Saturday (2017), also the title of Henrot’s newest film, a portrait of sorts of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA), which stresses the importance of observing the Sabbath. Shot in 3D, the film features scenes recorded at SDA churches in the US and Polynesia, intertwined with images of medical tests and natural and manmade disasters. The soundtrack – by her regular collaborator Joakim – is an ominous vocal drone that highlights the film’s sense of hope, redemption and futility.
Sunday is embodied by Henrot’s ikebana works, including a new, large-scale piece titled ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ James Joyce (2017), which mixes thin, spiky plants with metal panels and a reconfiguration of The Pale Fox. The impossibility of harnessing the passage of time and the fragility of life are dominant themes. Monday, meanwhile – a day which, for Henrot, is imbued with a sense of lazy melancholy – features a set of seven frescoes that the artist painted for her eponymous outing at the Fondazione Memmo in Rome in 2016.
In one of the institution’s curved galleries, Henrot has installed a scattered suite of bronze sculptures (all 2016–17). Among her better known, Henry Moore-inspired shapes, she has created a new strain of figurative works. One depicts an old mattress supported by two cheap plastic chairs, recalling Sarah Lucas’s Au Naturel (1994). At the end of the room is a group of highly eroticized forms including Drinking Bird (2017), a blown-glass sculpture in which a cyborg flamingo seems to be enjoying a rather large glass of whisky.
This aesthetic shift from the modern to the postmodern is even more evident in the large room devoted to Tuesday, lined with bright-red, cushioned gym flooring on which viewers are invited to lounge. On the floor and suspended from the ceiling are six polished new sculptures in aluminium, leather and rope – like creatures from a David Cronenberg film – a daring new departure for the artist. The eye seeks the human form, but conjures aliens. The result is beguiling, in the way that things that hover between beauty and abjection often are.
Wednesday and Thursday are devoted to the questioning of authority figures, through the repurposing of works the artist exhibited in ‘Bad Dad & Beyond’ at New York’s Metro Pictures in 2015 and at the 2016 Berlin Biennale. Henrot’s big hit Grosse Fatigue is also here. Seeing it again four years after its debut at the Venice Biennale, it struck me as oddly grating, an overly bombastic (though accomplished) attempt to explore the themes she would go on to tackle in a subtler, more successful way in subsequent works.
Eroticism, another recurrent topic in Henrot’s oeuvre, returns on Friday via her first film piece, Deep Inside (2005), for which she drew naive, almost childlike figures over vintage pornographic footage, an act of veiling that turns the explicit into something tantalizing yet forlorn. It’s a celebratory, visceral end to an exhibition that feels like a hike through the artist’s mind, making us privy to both her insatiable curiosity and recurrent preoccupations: the dance between life and death, nature and culture, and the importance of challenging our pervasive feelings of entrapment and inadequacy. As self-absorbed and controlled as it might be, ‘Days Are Dogs’ is undoubtedly a generous and rewarding experience; a portrait of an artist that can gracefully balance her urge for enlightenment and introspection with a drive to reach out and open up.
Main image: ‘Days Are Dogs: Monday’, 2017–18, exhibition view. Courtesy: Palais de Tokyo, Paris
First published in Issue 192