Unexpected Directions: Camille Henrot’s “Days Are Dogs” and the Erasure of the Meaning of Difference




WALKING THROUGH Camille Henrot’s exhibit Days Are Dogs, which fills the entire Palais de Tokyo (in what the museum calls a “carte blanche”) can be as dizzying as it is invigorating. A French native, Henrot is a New York–based multimedia artist whose work touches on mythologies, religions, and technologies of communication from a perspective not dissimilar to current academic debates in Anthropology and the History of Science. She is most famous for Grosse Fatigue (2013), a film financed in part by a Smithsonian grant, which won Henrot the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale (more on this below). Henrot’s oeuvre constitutes a kaleidoscope of media, subject matter, and, arguably, styles, though a play on the classical and the modern might be thought of as an aesthetic through-line. A less generous reading might fault Henrot for insufficiently developing and filtering her ideas — indeed, her latest exhibition reads more like a record of a brainstorming session than a honed essay, metaphors that are apt given the number of works that riff on ideas of script and scripture.

This variation (or lack of focus) is a luxury afforded Henrot by what must have been a ginormous production budget: a substantial number of works are dated 2017, and the number of bronzes alone (15, five of which were made in 2017) is astounding. In light of the museum’s commitment to giving its carte blanche to a woman artist under 40 (as stated in The New York Times’s review), Henrot’s chameleonic nature and the universal scope of her subject matter seem like feminist moves: the artist achieves the status of a god or Philosopher (in the Platonic sense, with all the weight that implies), creating worlds viewers inhabit as they move through the space that pose fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the body. This turns out to be a dangerous game (at least in the way Henrot does it), but one worth investigating.

These worlds — i.e., the rooms of the museum — are organized, rather loftily (is it hubris or tongue-in-cheek?), according to the days of the week, starting invertedly with Saturday, the day of rest according to the Seventh Day Adventists Henrot features. A 3D video about praying and being born again is spliced with footage of a Botox injection and a depiction of a colonoscopy (Saturday, 2017), suggesting the continuum between the practical and plastic branches of the medical industry. In the next room (on “Sunday”), an abstract, multimedia sculpture titled A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man (2017), after Joyce’s novel, Henrot picks up the religious theme (i.e., an individual’s examination of the meaning of life, moving toward God in the Adventist case and away from God in Joyce’s artist’s) but adds a modern twist. The literary reference adds a layer of complexity impossible to glean from just looking at the work, drawing out a tension between a bodily existence and the stickiness of desire on the one hand, and the disembodiment and self-denial often espoused by monotheistic eschatologies on the other. But where Joyce’s work delves into trenches, the rather restrained and dry abstraction of the multimedia sculpture seems more in line with the latter, threatening to render the title a misnomer. Nevertheless, the sculpture’s title suggests a broader narrative, loosely framing the exhibition as a journey into Henrot’s mind and making as an artist.

Appropriately, then, the next room (“Sunday Night”) seems a perfect manifestation of the imperfect creative process. The large-scale installation, The Pale Fox (2014–’15), puts found images and objects in contact with original works in a fun, if a bit pretentious, symbiosis. According to the label outside, each wall in the room represents a life stage and a cardinal direction, moving us from “in utero” to “childhood/adolescence” through “adulthood” and “old age.” The room is replete with works that reference texts: a sculpture on the South wall (“old age”) looks like an open book whose pages are being fluttered, while reams of newspapers sit on the floor at the middle of the room; streams of plain paper hanging from the West wall (“in utero”), by the exit, seem like either the beginning or the end, at once the erased pages to disaggregated books and the Platonic form of books yet to be written — or in other words, lives yet to be lived.

It is a cliche of literary studies that everything can be compared to a text. Yet there is a way in which the concurrent treatment of “The Text” and “The Body” (I mean these in the broadest way possible) as leitmotifs in Days Are Dogs constructs a thought-provoking parallel between the two: Henrot reveals each as an object overburdened with myth and meaning. Where she falls short, however, is in pushing us much beyond that anodyne observation.

On the exhibition’s lower floor, as we move into “Tuesday,” issues of gender and desire come to the fore, with an eye to masculinity and the homoeroticism of sports. A series of sculptures displayed on thick exercise mats or chained to the ceiling represent intertwined legs and body parts in elegant, abstracted outlines. Exhibition-goers are requested to remove their shoes as they walk around, an intimacy that hints ever so slightly at the blurring of viewer and voyeur. In Tuesday (2017), a 20-minute-50-second video on loop displayed alongside the sculptures, men’s bodies intertwine as they compete in martial arts. These shots are interspersed with others of horse grooming, invoking the man’s man of the open field and the eroticized aura of the cowboy, suggesting that both are ways of sculpting the body (in the case of the rancher, not just the man’s but also the horse’s), and thus, in some basic way, artistic practices. As a friend with a better ear pointed out, the R&B-inspired score loops each time just before climaxing, so that as listener, you never quite get what you want. This is a smart, thinly veiled metaphor for the sort of sexual frustration men’s homoerotic socializing is presumed to represent. Tuesday thus follows a common line in progressive circles: men roll around on mats together because they really want to be rolling around on mattresses.

Two years ago at LACMA, a two-part show featuring artists from the Middle East included a work on similar themes: Abbas Kowsari’s “Tehran Azadi Stadium – National Championship of Iranian Body Builders” (2006). From the artist’s Masculinity 2 series, this photograph shows four men on stage, two kissing one another on the cheeks in a customary congratulatory gesture. The men’s unnaturally sculpted bodies are oiled and nearly naked with the exception of small black speedos. The intimacy of their bisous and the even number of men, which easily imagines coupling, reflect a homoeroticism comparable to that invoked by Henrot. In both, we see a sexual (or sexualized?) interrelationality. But whereas the bodies of Henrot’s athletes are veiled in loose uniforms and hardly visible, Kowsari’s work more distinctly puts the masculine body on display, subjecting it to our (desiring) gaze. Rather than a dry joke about gay sex, we engage with the male body in order to contemplate beauty (Are these bodies beautiful? Do we value their plasticity?) and the natural (Are these steroid-injected bodies artificial or natural? Is that distinction meaningful?). These are timeworn questions — one might think of the image of male bodybuilders in light of a tradition of the male beloved in Persian poetry but also Greco-Roman sculpture. Given the context (hijab is mandatory in public in Iran), Kowsari’s photograph also stages an implicit contrast between these men’s bodies on exhibitionistic display and the publicly covered female body. This lack of visual parity, dramatized by absenting the female body altogether from the photographic frame, appears as an injustice — and as is often the case, putting masculinity under the microscope serves as feminist critique.

Though I found the sculptures and video in “Tuesday” visually and aurally captivating, thinking more about the work and its relationship to Kowsari’s, I wonder about the politics of Henrot’s art. Isn’t such a literal take on homoeroticism as the underlying impulse of masculine relationships ultimately more limiting than broadening in the way it suggests that the only significant desire is that which ends in sex? Who is served by such a teleological view of sex and desire? (I would venture to say: a rather conservative project and sexual politics.) Further, doesn’t Henrot’s reading sex into each practice mean that the video poses an uncomfortable, arguably offensive analogy between homoerotics and bestiality? (What is Henrot getting at? Days are Dogs or Gays are Dogs?)

I had a similar reaction to Henrot’s much-celebrated short film Grosse Fatigue, whose success at the 2013 Venice Biennale marked a turning point in the artist’s career. Like The Pale Fox, this work manifests a process — in this case, a Google search, as the artist explains in a Vimeo interview — and engages a recurrent set of concerns: cultural narratives. The film is about creation stories, with videos of the vaults of the Smithsonian interspersed with an anthropological haul of images of native peoples and representations of various global religions. Henrot has a real eye for color and composition, and the juxtapositions and layered frames she offers the viewer are absolutely striking. One is — or at least, I admit, I was — entranced by the visuals and the soundtrack, the latter of which is a hip-hop and spoken-word inflected recitation of a scripture-like script by a deep black male voice. But even a moment’s pause forces one to face the fact that the film smacks of the sort of imperial universalism the French are famous for. Like the colonial institution of the metropolitan museum (the Louvre is, after all, just down the bank from the Palais de Tokyo), the video mashes together objects (and people as objects) that are hollowed out through their decontextualization, floating signifiers severed from the signified and reduced to form, with the veneer of spirituality. “In the beginning there was no earth, no water — nothing…” it goes, decentering the logocentricism of the Biblical creation story to clear the way for the reign of the image, or the Western-dominated international art world’s version of Unitarian Universalism, without even the benefit of any of the sincerity of the latter. On the artist’s website, the video is described as “mix[ing] scientific history with Creation [sic] stories belonging to religious (Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.), hermetic (Kabbalah, Freemasonry, etc.), and oral (Dogon, Inuit, Navajo, etc.) traditions in a joyous syncretism.” The digital blackface (or in this case, blackvoice) is clearly meant to lend credence to this feel-good mythology: evidently such “truths” spoken by a white woman would not be believable. (And why not, if they’re truths worth telling?)

This is, of course, the dark side of the seemingly “feminist move” of Henrot’s exhibition, and the consequence of the type of feminism that uncritically attempts to replace white men with white women (as feminists we should not want to occupy positions taken by men but rather to rewrite the very positionalities). Henrot’s philosophizing and universalizing is guilty of the same imperializing as the larger tradition of modern Western philosophy from the 18th century to the present, an intellectual tradition that was forged alongside and in support of European colonialism. Grosse Fatigue moves us to ask: What is the line between a reference and appropriation?

To define and identify appropriation, one has to think about the power gradient at play: a reference implies a lateral borrowing between equals, while, as the theorist Homi Bhabha has suggested in his account of colonial mimicry, an oppressed subject’s taking from the position of power is not only not appropriation but an important decolonizing tool. Here, however, a white artist tells “the” story of life and, under the guise of inclusion, erases not only difference but also meaning. In fact, all the religions and cultures (these are vague terms and I use them only inasmuch as the artist’s work suggests such a vocabulary) cited in Henrot’s work have very specific, sophisticated ideas about how the world started, how it will end, and how people should live in the meantime. Many of those ideas conflict with one another: these “traditions” are not interchangeable, as suggested by Henrot’s use of “etc.” in the parenthetical inserts in the quote above. Moreover, not all ideologies are the same, and not all beliefs are equally beautiful (as a secular Muslim, for example, I reserve the right to critique major Islamic jurisprudence in the same breath that I rail against Christianity’s colonial past and present). Such relativistic whitewashing acts in service of whiteness’s homogenizing reach and is ultimately dehumanizing: to respect these “traditions” one would have to take them seriously enough to recognize their differences, and if warranted, to disagree. One wonders: When will the international art world stop celebrating politics that are not merely irresponsible but reprehensible?

Henrot’s Days Are Dogs is thought-provoking, to be sure, but perhaps not in the ways the artist and museum may have intended.

¤

Mariam Rahmani is a brown feminist scholar and fiction writer.


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