French artist Camille Henrot’s sculpture and video installations reveal a desire to both find an alternative existential meaning and to challenge certain social narratives; thought patterns that we have constructed, that make up our world.
In Million Dollars Point (2011) which is the name of a beach in the south pacific island of Vanuatu, the audio recording of a Hawaiian preacher exhorting his local congregation with love and care is juxtaposed with silent footage from an old Hawaiian song and dance video from the 1980s and recent scuba diving footage of US Army equipment and vehicles that were dumped into the sea here at the end of World War II.
The euphoria of listening to the charismatic preacher preach with love and the Hawaiian dancers joyfully dance slowly fades as underwater footage of army jeeps and other heavy military equipment lodged in the seabed spoil this pristine environment.
As the preacher starts singing a gospel song, and the underwater footage goes deeper and more detail oriented, the film slowly takes on a sordid sensation; viewers realize that this junk has been here for over 60 years, and that the previous scenes and audio clips have all but duped us into a false sense of security.
While Hawaii is not the same as Vanuatu, these seemingly happy or joyous scenes are a ploy used to depict a sad reminder of what life used to be like some Pacific islanders, implying that their way of life has been eroded over time. It is also ironic that the place is named Million Dollar Point, as while the underwater scenery might have, once upon a time, been a real ‘million dollar’ view, the junk dumped here by the US Army was also because of money squabbles with the British since they didn’t want to pay for it, thinking at the time that they could get it for free.
This use of visual language, of using disparate images and audio as a type of language in itself would be fully utilized, matured, in Grosse Fatigue (2013), a film that delves into the origin of life, life structures, of signs and their meanings, which incidently won the Lion Award for most promising young artist in the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Gleaned from mountains of pictorial information from the Smithsonian Institute, the film seeks to provide an overview of the origins of life, narrated by an educationally didactic sounding hip hop artist, which in itself is a paradox, since conventional wisdom dictates finding an authoritative figure to narrate it.
It thus seems to provide an alternative reading to various predominant narratives that we hold, such as patterns found in abstract expressionism and ancient tribal body paint patterns, the shape of chickens feet and a woman’s fingers scrunched together or mental disease and squeezing out water from a wet sponge or that educational videos have to be narrated by an authority figure.
The underlying meaning seems to be that these predominant narratives have become a box; that we have become boxed into these modes of thinking, holding it as undeniable, an unquestionable truth, when in fact if seen in another light or context, its unassailable position is not so unassailable after all.
For example, the forms found in abstract expressionism may not be so new after all, and may actually have existed in ancient tribal costumes and body painting. And, the fluidity of paint dissolving in water and slowly spreading can be also be found in nature and ultimately in our own bodies, or that the illusion of an image may not be as illusory as one might think; conversely that reality as seen may not be as real as one thinks.
The Pale Fox (2014), which is named after a 1965 anthropological study of the West African Dogon people, could be seen as a reprise of Grosse Fatigue (2013) in sculptural form; a dizzying array of consumer and household stuff that chaotically fills the gallery space.
What appears to be a random assortment of abstract sculptures, glossy magazine pictures, second-hand books, tacky postcards, kitsch mugs, retro movie posters and her own childishly painted paintings belies a vague order imposed over the chaos, as one begins to sense a relationship between a picture and the ones adjacent to it.
As a bird’s foot skeleton relates to a metal equipment stand in a dentist’s clinic, to an old woman’s hand up in the air to a baby monkey’s head being held by a scientist, there are references over and over again to the origins of things, as well as an old veterinary book that espoused a line of thinking that might seem quite absurd nowadays. But unlike Grosse Fatigue (2013) and its rapid-fire bombardment of images and voice, here the viewer can take time to contemplate the meaning and relationships between images.
Why the 4 walls of the gallery and floor are painted in royal blue is quite mysterious; does it relate to computer blue screens when windows crashes, or to the blue screens used in film background special effects, which means one is free to superimpose whatever background desired behind these objects – an allusion to the construct of virtual reality in our world.
And just like Grosse Fatigue (2013), here we see things being related to one another through exterior form, or through certain descriptors, adjectives, like ‘baby’, ‘old’ or ‘sharp’ and ’rounded’.
This tour, a timeline of our civilization ends with one of her childish brush artwork which, while it is unclear whether it is a drawing or a painting, seems to be a commentary on the effects of commercialism in the contemporary art scene.