Culture

Art

Simultaneous persuasions: ‘Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow’

By Quentin Sprague

Radical difference and radical proximity are hallmarks of the French-born artist’s NGV exhibition

Installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Not so long ago I found myself, as one too-often does, pursuing a moment of diversion on the internet that opened onto another moment, and then another still, until some time later the rabbit hole I was following led me to something quietly and unexpectedly revelatory. It was a YouTube video, no more than five minutes long, and titled, with an appealing sense of confidence, “The Most Satisfying Video in the World”. The claim is not unwarranted. Set to a softly propulsive soundtrack – consisting of a 2011 song by electronic musician Macintosh Plus that features little more than a slowed-down sample of Diana Ross’s 1984 cover of “It’s Your Move” – the video comprises a series of mesmerising short clips anonymously harvested from the internet, and linked only by the mild and confounding sense of euphoria they somehow manage to evoke. It’s a quality best captured by the video’s description: “Have you ever seen something that makes your skin tingle and for some unknown reason provides you with a sense of unbridled peace and happiness? Gears working in perfect synchronization, a cake frosted with absolute precision, marbles rolling so smoothly it hurts … Well here’s five solid minutes of that feeling.”

I am nowhere near online enough to be characterised, in the writer Patricia Lockwood’s recently ubiquitous phrasing, as “extremely online” – I eschew most social media and prefer the now firmly old-school pleasures of email for correspondence – but I am still just young enough to understand that the internet has granted our culture both an aesthetic and a form, and that this aesthetic and this form are nearly inescapable in the overlapping worlds of contemporary art, literature and music. But, beyond the fact that such forms often echo the kind of video described above, that ubiquity doesn’t mean they’re easy to fully grasp. In the art world, for instance, internet-adjacent art is only hazily defined. Is it a distinct movement, or just one of the many threads of contemporary art? Does it have to be entirely produced and disseminated online, or should it break the threshold into the so-called real world of the gallery or museum? Is it an art made solely by algorithm, and thus by the internet itself, or is it an expression of human communion with that ever-present worldwide network, which, since at least the late 1990s, has arguably come to define us more than any other technology since the printing press? Is it art about the internet, or simply art made in its long shadow?

One answer among the many possible answers to such questions is provided by the National Gallery of Victoria’s Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow, an exhibition of work by the French-born, Berlin-based artist, the subtitle of which recalls a viral tweet by one of Lockwood’s characters, which reads, confoundingly, “Can a dog be twins?” Both phrases are perfect expressions of the thin line between profundity and vacuity that both characterises this territory and provides it with meaning. Henrot, like Lockwood, walks it confidently. At a casual glance, her work is all surfaces and knowing asides – instantly alluring yet frustratingly obscure, à la “The Most Satisfying Video in the World” – but it is more consequential than first appearances might suggest.

One room – by far the most conventional, and thus the most surprising in light of the rest of the exhibition – features pleasingly washy paintings in watercolour alongside a scattering of cast bronze sculptures. A characteristic sculpture, Contrology (2016), which is emblematic of Henrot’s playful approach to form (and, by the way, is in the NGV’s permanent collection), depicts the upraised legs of a cartoonish half-frog/half-human as it melts backwards into a low oblong that appears suspiciously like the screen of an iPhone, but which could equally be a yoga or Pilates mat. The surrounding paintings deftly deploy the translucent liquidity of the watercolour medium and in bright tones depict things not unrelated to the sculptures, but not entirely similar either. According to a wall text, the works are concerned with a string of amorphous-sounding ideas – contamination, dissolution, loss of agency, youthful exuberance, aging bodies etc – that perfectly fit their untethered and vaporous qualities.

In a darkened room nearby, another work takes another form, this time deploying the medium of video. Titled Saturday (2017) and shot in 3D, it takes as its subject the Seventh-day Adventist Church, an evangelical denomination popular with millennials across the globe. A soundtrack shifts in intensity, building hard before dropping suddenly into gospel-lite, while the images move between footage of protests, cosmetic surgery, breakfast cereals and baptisms. For at least some of it, chyrons of the kind familiar to cable-news viewers scroll across the screen’s bottom, imparting a sense of vague dread. Even before viewers see the rest of the exhibition – the centerpiece of which is The Pale Fox (2014), a gallery-sized installation of more than 500 seemingly disparate objects arranged in operatic configuration – a pattern is clear. If Henrot can be said to have a style, it is one of radical difference and radical proximity: everything, it seems, is available to her. She only needs to reach out and it’s hers.

Much of this would risk affectation if it weren’t all linked by an underlying form. It’s a form that’s not unlike the internet itself: one of collage and pastiche, of differences pushed up against each other, of original contexts stripped away and flattened. Here the jump cut is everything. In the writing of figures like Lockwood it manifests most obviously in a style constructed of short passages separated on the page by gaps, the cumulative effect of which can be seen to echo that of a cascading series of open browser windows arranged, however loosely, around a central theme or character – a series of staccato glimpses of ideas, feelings and impressions. In literature, it’s also a style marked by the almost neurotic self-reflexivity of autofiction: in her novel No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood’s author-adjacent protagonist – who refers to the internet as “the portal” – asks:

Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.

As a recent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books noted, there are in literature roots to this style that far predate the advent of the internet, but the fact that its expression finds such resonance there is nonetheless compelling. So too it is with art like Henrot’s. As with much contemporary practice, the roots of her work run to the peripatetic qualities of conceptual art, but it is equally an expression of the internet’s capacity to make all things, or at least appear to make all things, simultaneous. Henrot may or may not agree with such a conception of her work, and Is Today Tomorrow isn’t framed through the internet’s fractured lens, but the parallels are clear. The different rooms of the exhibition, for instance, can be seen to act like the short passages of writers like Lockwood: the proximity of one part of Henrot’s practice to a (radically different) other part, charges it with meaning, real or imagined. It’s the real-world equivalent of Instagram’s endless scroll, or that of Tumblr before it, but Henrot is far too incisive to let such references subsume her. Lockwood recently described herself in generational terms as “between the books and the ether” (the ether being the internet), and the same could be said of Henrot. Born in 1978, she came of age before those subsequent generations for whom the internet is simply there, and has never not been there: the objective distance she can thus maintain is key.

It’s likely for this reason that Is Today Tomorrow so rewards deeper engagement. Serious concerns and ideas run throughout the exhibition – whether it’s the dehumanising effects of contemporary technology addressed by a series of interactive wall sculptures in Interphones (2015), or the brilliant meditation on value and wealth that underpins the installation Jewels from the Personal Collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan (2012–14). Even The Pale Fox, which in its sprawling and free-associative reach seems so obviously an expression of an online consciousness, is simultaneously concerned with deeper ideas. Per a wall label, the work is about “our shared desire to understand the world intimately through the objects that surround us”. Presented in a gallery carpeted in a plush deep blue, the work ebbs and flows through a series of linked shelves upon which is displayed a carefully curated selection of just about everything – some of it clearly made by Henrot, but much of it simply gathered from elsewhere. If one object could be said to stand in for the whole, it’s a small and exquisite modern-esque bronze sculpture that has been re-purposed as a tape dispenser – a meme-like visual pun that somehow manages to evoke thoughts of value and history, of once tightly held ideals about art and life washed away by the crippling spoils of an ever-present now.

In reference to The Pale Fox, Henrot has said she “intended to mock the act of building a coherent and peaceful environment”, which is of course something that the internet achieves through the very chaos of its form. Is Today Tomorrow attests that she has nonetheless managed to achieve what for many remains elusive: wresting a meaningful narrative from amid the tangled web of our over-mediated lives.

 

Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow is showing at the NGV in Melbourne, until October 24.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Read on

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best

Image of Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Venice International Film Festival 2021 highlights

Films by Eric Gravel, Bogdan George Apetri and Gábor Fabricius are among the stand-outs in a program of unusual abundance

Image of Covid-19 vaccines

Dissent horizon

Why do we object more to mandated vaccination than mandated lockdowns?

Detail of cover image from ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’, showing a woman’s head resting on a pillow

Living to regret: ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’

With an exasperating but charming protagonist, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s episodic novella demonstrates faultless comic timing