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
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.
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).
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.’
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.
First published in Issue 161