The Pale Fox
The Hugo Boss Prize 2014
The messenger’s impression of foreignness comes from contradiction.
Camille Henrot’s installations and moving image works act as sites of rupture and reorganized looking that realize complex descriptive comparisons between gesture, object, image, and artifact via sequencing and composite image-objects. Enacting an intricate proximity of distinctions rather than courting the sweep of generalizing cultural abstraction, Henrot seeks context from editing. Importing and exporting from a wide range of interests and references, Henrot’s studio inventory is constantly shifting, borrowing promiscuously from literature, cinema, ethnography, natural sciences, pop culture, art history, and philosophy. And yet she always works between actual things as well, like a bricoleur, keeping her hands in the mix and picking up and discarding what she needs to keep her restless mode of inquiry haptic and materially relatable. An early work, IRS Office, 2009, for example, captures a miscellany of cheap goods on display at an illegal sidewalk flea market in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. Taken in front of a tax office, each photograph in the series features objects purchased by the artist that were later incorporated into a sculpture titled Augmented Objects, 2010. Everyday, discardable things got coated with multiple layers of earth, clay, and tar until Henrot’s assortment of eBay and street sale purchases resembled a gathering of anthropomorphic relics.
Embracing sculpture, drawing, collage, the moving image, and photography, Henrot traverses mediums with a speed and ready inventiveness reminiscent of what French philosopher Michel Serres has identified as the sign of the deviant classical figure Hermes. “He invents and can be mistaken,” warns Serres of Hermes’ deployment of analogy and metaphor as experience-based heuristic tools for producing new knowledge. And so it is with Henrot’s installations and video works. By embracing metaphoric sequence as leading up to an event rather than assuming that structure precedes events, Henrot responds with editorial agility to the digital fatigue that increasingly conditions our time: constantly updated information, the flatness of visual compression and image production, ever widening abstractions of finance, the atomizing nature of networked communication, and presumed control of vast quantities of data. In Henrot’s universe, the cacophony and peripheral discord produced by our increasingly cross-referenced and sortable digital age is exactly what allows us renewed permission to more fully re-engage comparative critique and symbolic thinking. Undaunted by modish rhetorical and ideological promises that knowledge will be made commensurate with neatly visualized and surveyable data, Henrot’s versioning of information storage and data retrieval is unruly, sensual, and beautifully contradictory.
A recent installation, The Pale Fox, at Chisenhale Gallery in London, demonstrates just how cerebral yet tactile and idiosyncratic Henrot’s approach to data flow can be. Braced by an aluminum shelf that undulated, spiked, and stretched across the perimeter of a painted allover blue gallery, Henrot compressed a wild assortment of digital imagery into her display. Sequenced alongside magazines, books, and newspapers, as well as organic material (including egg and calabash gourd forms), bronze and ceramic sculpture, ink drawings, collage works, ingot-like castings, online figurine purchases, the nearly farcical digital imagery of animals and humans was forced into relational proximity with stacks of the ephemeral, all viewed through an impossible window frame with blinds propped up in the middle of the room. Titled after the somewhat controversial anthropological study of the West African Dogon people of Mali published by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen in 1965, The Pale Fox riffs off the erudite and monumental synthesis of Dogon cosmogony, asserting Henrot’s own syncretist inclinations and comparative flare to be unfaithful to any particular methodology or output.
Embedded within the sequencing of images and objects that make up The Pale Fox installation were new and preexisting Overlapping Figures (2011-), bronze and plaster sculptures indicative of Henrot’s penchant for a visceral and affective connectivity. Slumped tight over wooden and plaster blocks, these slug-like bronze forms appeared to inch everywhere amid the proceedings, as if issued from a primordial imprint. Tangled up with readymade units of building material meant for support or casting, the figures overlapped with plaster and wood blocks, behaving as if bronze were an afflicted, contagious material. Shaped to imply creature-like behavior, Henrot’s molten figures appeared as if they may have once slithered across and dominated every surface of the earth and might yet do so again. An extension of her now signature video, Grosse Fatigue, 2013—for which Henrot received the Silver Lion for most promising young artist at last year’s Venice Biennale—The Pale Fox translates an aesthetic of contagion and excess from the video, echoing Henrot’s syncretist styling into three-dimensional space.
Wryly cosmic right from the start, Grosse Fatigue is a signature work for Henrot that begins with a desktop screensaver of the Milky Way and visible hard drives titled DATA A, DATA B, DATA C, and HISTORY_ OF_UNIVERSE. Immediately picturing things that defy straightforward classification, magazine-like images appear onscreen only to morph and renegotiate their assumed status in what establishes a clearly shape-shifting scenario: an image of a pair of eyeglasses without lenses adorns the smiling face of a young African boy, while a young African woman is seen adopting hair curlers into a newly improvised sculptural hairstyle. Flipping through images of similarly displaced boundary objects, Henrot transitions almost instantly to the moving image as browser windows multiply profusely, and a voiceover narration and propulsive beat-laden soundtrack begins to narrate the hybrid origins of the universe. Advertorial still imagery is replaced with Henrot’s own montage of footage as the narrator recites and raps his way through fluid quotations from various cultural creation myths. Based on a residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, Grosse Fatigue primarily features footage the artist shot within the Museum of Natural History’s storage facilities as well as the archives and offices of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Mixed with online moving image appropriations and additional sound stage scenes, Grosse Fatigue delves into the deep storage of these renowned research facilities to trouble their empirical and indexical research claims.
Turning over specimens to show them off for the camera, a woman’s manicured hands continually pop up in a secession of desktop windows frames, caressing and handling a wide sampling from the institutional hoard. As the high-density mobile storage units of the Smithsonian repeatedly take center stage, an array of animal specimens, including birds but extending to insects, penguins, and beyond, recurrently appear from the drawers and shelves of a seemingly endless cache of filed away and forlorn samples. Quickly immersed in a plethora of burgeoning pop-up footage and screen captures, Henrot’s video tells a story of creation, expansion, and eventual dissolution. Accompanied by a propulsive soundtrack and vocal performed by musical artist Joakim Bouaziz, the scripted narration is a collaboration by Henrot with the poet Jacob Bromberg, intoning early on that “from the prozoa comes the animal,” before unleashing a litany of clips from across the animal kingdom, all proceeding at a fervid pace.
The captivating and disturbing surfeit of scientific pursuit and man’s desire for knowledge includes footage throughout of scientists and researchers shown gesturing, illustrating, attempting to articulate, but always without their voice included. Decoupled from their language and the context of research, Henrot’s interviews with thirteen Smithsonian employees and one cryptologist exist only in the background, contributing to the chorus. Rather, it’s the hand of the artist that is in control, indicated early on via a staged shot of a woman dipping a paint brush into a glass of water: from the here the ink flows and the visual connections daisy chain together, multiplying and fracturing into a teeming multitude. Cued up by intermittent shots of a woman’s hands throwing many-colored marbles across a metal surface shot from above, followed by soap bubbles lathered across a naked male torso, and waves crashing ashore in spumes of foam, Henrot signals a partial joy in the mania of likeness and similitude, positioning the manic release of creativity and genesis in contrast to the glut of the evidentiary and indexed.
Indulgent audiovisual play reigns as Energizer batteries mingle with images of an artificial eyeball, and Charles Mingus appearing briefly in a notebook page only to flip to the briefest of citations from the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. Effigies of man multiply and trade places with a maelstrom of verbal metaphors, as the climax leads us to a cascade of inevitably hybrid images, including a fluorescent green frog placed atop an iPhone as a text message announces itself just behind the amphibian gaze. The virtuoso editing throughout seems to repeatedly imply that one can take in about seven simultaneous windows of moving images before the viewer loses their grasp or begins to prioritize what to take in. While the phrase “The nucleus is the heart of this” hangs over the final sequence of the video and “the universe continues to expand and distend indifferently,” according to our narrator, it is the slow-moving carapace of a sea turtle that provides one of the closing images. Going out to sea, it’s a nod to Darwinian evolution. And yet the last image returns to the feminine manicured hands, painted throughout with varying brash nail polish finishes. Rolling an orange, the elliptical final image returns to these demonstrative yet isolated hands as if to a screen test for product placement. Once again placed against the screensaver firmament of the Milky Way, Gross Fatigue sounds a final note of melancholic weariness, human appreciation of artifact and symbol at risk of being subsumed into pervasive flatness and a final withdrawal into the distanceless aesthetics of endgame consumerism.
By contrast Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers? (2011–ongoing) cites the traditional Japanese art form of flower arrangement ikebana as a resilient and generous inspiration, particularly its manifold emphases on the selection of stems, leaves, and receptacles as well as how blooms, petals, and the color variation of different floral species draw attention to the shape, line, and form of a given alignment to provide a potentially consoling and contemplative activity. In Henrot’s self-styled flower assemblage sculptures, the insistence upon floral artifice as a space of translation began in 2011 when she responded to a personal loss and being distanced from her library by making more than 150 flower arrangements dedicated to this displaced reservoir of intellect and self-selection. The practice then continued into discrete and elaborate flower sculptures that now refer to quotes from the artist’s readings in their titles, pushing the ruminative into a hothouse balancing act.
From an early minimal homage to Aimé Césaire’s 1955 text ‘Discours sur le colonialisme’—comprised of a palm tree branch (alma armata) and an upturned tulip (tulip retroflexa)—to her most recent expansive installation at the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin, flowers are combined with everyday materials and urbane quotation rather freely, arranging combinations by associative logic rather than encoded contrast. This is not unlike “the secret of great communications and great combustions” that Césaire writes of elsewhere in his poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, an unencumbered willingness to take notice and likewise play off and enjoy the symptomatic errancy of cultural life, to place oneself directly in the mistranslation of things as an emancipatory potential.
Eia for those who never invented anything
for those who never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything
but yield, captivated, to the essence of things
ignorant of surfaces but captivated by the motion of all things
indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world.
This readiness on Henrot’s part “to yield, captivated, to the essence of things” in the image-saturated, info-commodity condition of contemporary culture finds resonance with Césaire’s “Eia” leap into the postcolonial “motion of all things,” as Henrot gathers up false dualities and reveals them to be unexamined cultural projections eliciting the desire to maintain spectral fantasies of authentic otherness. In the short video Coupé/Décalé, 2011, for example, Henrot works with 35mm footage shot on Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean east of Northern Australia. Young men jump from wooden towers with only the calibrated spring of two vines tied to their ankles keeping them from injury and death. The supposed Ur-site of bungee jumping, Vanuatu has been a destination for shooting exotic footage for decades. By splitting the screen to include an edit of the footage where the left side is slightly ahead of the right, Henrot creates a doubling “offset” and distortion of time. Made to watch the spectacle of the renowned “land-diving” in slow motion and beside itself, the modified version reveals the constructed nature of the ritual, including a revealing shot of tourists capturing footage from below as the native young men supposedly jump into manhood while also ineluctably diving into the waiting arms of a peculiar identity economy. It is a facsimile or copy of what may be the vestige of a Melanesian cargo cult or a much longer-standing initiation ritual, or likely both. Regardless, it is what remains of a once ecstatic practice and the gesture has attained the anxious status of both quasi-ritual and ethno-commodity. Positioned here as a stutter in time, the unsettling replay of Coupé/Décalé further illuminates Henrot’s incisive tactics of overlap, offset, and augmented montage, laying bare a restive search for meaning in an increasingly flattened cultural landscape where lucidity glows in algorithms, desire is predictive, and connectivity has replaced geography.
 Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 66
 Aimé Césaire, ‘Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,’ in Aimé Césaire, he Collected Poetry, translated by Clayton Eshleman (University of California Press, 1983), p.69