In Conversation: Camille Henrot talks messiness and internet memes
When I was a child, I think aged about 8 or 9, I developed a fascination with story books that offered alternate endings. Amidst their pages, I experienced a rare sense of responsibility. While I wielded my newly-found power solely over fictional characters, my sense of personal agency felt very real. Unlike most things that I encountered – what we would eat for dinner, when I would do my homework, what time I would go to bed – nothing in the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books was set in stone. Reading them brought the rest of the world into question. And under scrutiny, the messiness of everyday life quickly became apparent. What had previously seemed solid - seemed certain - became soft and malleable. Stepping into ‘The Pale Fox’, a blue-painted room filled by French artist Camille Henrot with assorted objects, sketches and sculptures two years ago, I was reminded of this early impulse to ask simply, “Why this, and not that?” It is a question that runs throughout Henrot’s work.
The array of objects displayed in ‘The Pale Fox’, her 2014 commission at the Chisenhale Gallery, do not allow for easy categorisation. Like ‘Grosse Fatigue’ (2013), that won Henrot the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale for most promising young artist, layer upon layer of information is built up to the point of sensory overload. In both, connections are drawn across cultural customs, time periods and belief systems. East and west; ancient and modern; science and religion. For ‘Grosse Fatigue’, Henrot spent time in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, drawing upon its immense archive to create a film that attempts to tell the epic history of the universe from the desktop of a computer. It is an impossible task scaled down to the familiar aspect of the web browser, from creation myth to Wikipedia entry.
I ask Henrot if these co-existing narratives can be seen to represent the wider shift brought about by the advent of the internet. For example: on the morning that we meet, I have already bookmarked a recipe archived on the personal blog of a writer who I will never meet, read reviews of a play performed in New York that I will never watch in person, and followed a trail of links to somehow find myself skimming an article on the ins-and-outs of keeping a hedgehog as a pet. I do not own a hedgehog. This is all from the screen of my phone, in which an endless array of online pages and messaging apps warp my perception of space and time. Is the experience of being alive now both intimate and universal? “Of course. The internet means that we are super connected to each other, sharing the minor concerns and the major dramas of the planet, and it just makes us more disoriented, more disturbed,” Henrot says. “That’s what happens when you have too many options, you’re overwhelmed. The human brain is not really made to be confronted with so many options and heterogeneity. But then it adapts, and something new, a creative solution, comes out.”
We are meeting at the Serpentine Gallery on an overcast day in June, just a few days after the opening of the new summer pavilion by Bjarke Ingels Group. It is a tall, elegant structure made from fibreglass frames stacked together to form an ‘unzipped wall’; while its top appears as a seamless line, the bottom of it opens outwards in a cascading zigzag. Henrot is in the midst of preparing for a performance that will take place that evening in the pavilion, a prelude to her curation of the Fiorucci Art Trust’s annual Volcano Extravaganza on the Aeolian island of Stromboli. Later in the day, I receive a call from the Trust warning me to bring an umbrella to the performance in case of rain, due to the design of the pavilion that makes it at once transparent and opaque, solid and yet porous. It is a fitting analogy for the frictions present in Henrot’s work.
As informed by anthropology as she is by art history, she mixes the two to uncover the jagged disorder that lies just beneath the surface of civilisation. As she explains to me, “Anthropology teaches people that the minute you start exploring human culture you bump into a stone – there is a stone in your shoe. You get into trouble, you bump into a problem. And this problem is really what anthropology is about; it’s about unsolved problems, and it’s about accepting that you actually can’t define a culture, an identity, a nationality; that nothing is pure. There is no such thing as a national identity that exists as a pure and consistent. This is a lesson for politics of course, but it also applies to art. There is no such thing as a pure work of art, or as a masterpiece, or as an artwork that is not contaminated by another artist or another discipline.”
"The internet means that we are super connected to each other, sharing the minor concerns and the major dramas of the planet, and it just makes us more disoriented, more disturbed."
Henrot is relaxed in her manner as we both sit cross-legged on the ground, but that evening’s performance is visibly on her mind. Based on an old Italian folktale named ‘Buffalo Head’, anthologised by Italo Calvino in 1956, it contains many of the elements of a classic fairytale, from a prince to a maiden, a witch to an evil queen. Just as my early interactive adventure books offered crucial moments where the story could take a radically different direction, so does Henrot focus on the turning points in Calvino’s tale to create a hypertext that traces its many possible outcomes. “I thought that it was interesting to explore the political context of what happens if you make a different choice,” she says. “I feel like in the world that we are living in now with the internet, there is constant confrontation for our brain with all the different possibilities. It’s like a gym and we get used to exploring in a nonlinear way.” The audience will be able to vote on each option within the story, bringing to life the endlessly questioning nature of Henrot’s work. Call it antagonism or call it curiosity, she is casting doubt on the archetypes that we too often take for granted, showing how the tangled network of information available online can challenge our notion of truth.
Reminded of my storybooks, themselves a prelude to a host of internet-based hypertexts that emerged in the 1990s, I ask Henrot about her own childhood memories, wondering if she remembers when she first felt skeptical of the narratives laid out in history textbooks and museum displays. “My father had all these books about Native Americans, these poems that were very pro-Indian, and I remember wondering what would have happened if the colonisation had happened differently, or if the Indians had won their wars,” she recalls. The influence of this early exposure to another side of history is clear to see in Henrot’s interrogation of the misguided and biased motivations that lie behind the accepted transcription of Western culture. Across her varied projects, she consistently holds a mirror up to the cycles of appropriation and reinterpretation that govern our understanding - and misunderstanding - of the world. “Sometimes I wonder what the circumstances would have been for patriarchy to not win over matriarchy. Or I wonder what would the circumstances have been that nomadism could dominate over a sedentary way of living?” she says. “It’s interesting to think about what the consequences of an event are. Everything that happened even centuries ago has an impact.”
Looking backwards in order to imagine a different way forward, Henrot reframes objects, images, signs and symbols. In turn, the stories that they hold are teased out to show how cycles of knowledge are repeated over time. In her latest exhibition at Fondazione Memmo in Rome this summer, Henrot’s first in Italy, the construction of weeks and months as a method of keeping time is explored. Titled ‘Monday’, the show focuses on the first day of the week and its association with melancholy and disorder. Anthropomorphic figures rendered in bronze are shown to be caught between hope and disappointment, unable to rise from their bed, or waiting endlessly for a text message that will never arrive. Do these modern dramas, often played out via the virtual realm of the online world, represent a new form of mythology? Henrot is firm in her response. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as modern mythology. There’s mythology, that’s it. I don’t believe in breaks. I don’t believe that the situation we are in now is dramatically different to the situations of the past. I think there is belief, and this has always been irrigating how people think, how they make decisions, and how they feel they are part of a community or not. Mythology is also storytelling, it’s knowledge, it contains things that are history, and it’s also a set of rules on how you should behave.”
"It’s interesting to think about what the consequences of an event are. Everything that happened even centuries ago has an impact."
She describes how mythology can be “very relevant and totally in touch with daily life, even its most banal aspects. Think of your father or your mother having a new partner and you not getting along with them, worrying about losing your beauty because you’re aging, losing your lover’s interest, cheating on each other... all these things happen to basically every human being in their life. This is the story of Helen and Paris, of Jupiter cheating on his wife. This is mythology.” She pauses for a moment, and I glance around us at the surrounding trees and flowerbeds of Kensington Gardens. I spot a squirrel not far away and think back to the shapeshifting figures of ‘Monday’. The zoological archives shown in ‘Grosse Fatigue’ come to mind, and then the high resolution, digital images of a tiger and a shark displayed in ‘The Pale Fox’. Henrot’s ink drawings too often depict strange, entangled scenes of human and animal figures. I ask her about this recurring motif in her work. What is it about animal impulses that she finds so compelling? “I think that animals carry a great load of mythology and fantasy; a lot of our emotions are projected onto animals,” she says, picking up on our previous discussion once more.
Suddenly she reaches for her phone, and I wonder if she has remembered somewhere else that she needs to be. Instead, she brings up an image of a goat sitting in a bright yellow rubber dinghy. The text beneath it reads: ‘When you thought the Ark was leaving at 11 but it actually left at 10:30’. We both stare at it for a second, then at each other, and burst out laughing. “We were talking about what modern mythology would be, and perhaps it is the meme. I have tons of them on my phone because I screen-capture the ones that I like,” she says. “This one is very symptomatic of the relationship between mythology and the internet. This is a very good example because it’s mythology and it’s the Bible, but it’s also about being late. It’s using the myth of Noah’s Ark to talk about the feeling of being late. Maybe that is modern mythology.”
We flick through more memes, including one that shows a dog in sunglasses, a monkey giving a thumbs up and another of a beady-eyed bird. What is it about the animal allegory, from the goat who is late to the endlessly dissatisfied ‘LOLcat’, that captures popular imagination so directly? “Projecting human behaviour onto an animal is a very natural human impulse – from Aesop to La Fontaine,” Henrot replies. “Memes also reconcile people with failure. Most are about being too fat, not having a good job, being lazy, not being able to engage in a relationship, your friend forgetting your birthday… there is something very consoling in it, which storytelling offers too. It’s not only about giving you good advice for life, it’s also about consoling you from the deception of life.”
It occurs to me that Henrot’s work has always been centred around the deception of life. In the place of a fixed reality, she shows our existence to be multifaceted and highly subjective. Stories, customs, symbols and myths are no longer anchored only in their provenance, but rather are defined by how each person accumulates and absorbs them today. Just as the internet has ushered in a new era of mixing and remixing, so does Henrot embrace a plurality of perspectives. Not limited by format, she moves easily between installation, video, sculpture, painting and performance. Her outlook is one of convergence rather than separation, collapsing the boundaries between old and new, near and far, right and wrong, until their common ground is revealed between the cracks. She shows the deception of life to be the illusion that there is a singular truth to be found. Instead, there is only our belief.
Louise Benson is the Editor-in-Chief of POSTmatter.