Walking into Camille Henrot’s first UK solo exhibition feels like walking into a storyboard of one of her haptic montage video works: a mishmash of images, advertisements, books, magazines, sculptures and anthropological artefacts are laid out in an entirely blue space.
The Pale Fox is indeed an 'installation version' of the acclaimed film Grosse Fatigue (2013), which was presented at the 55th Venice Biennale last year. The two works are the outcome of a long research process at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Henrot got lost in this ambitious institute’s corridors and archives; and between exotic taxidermied birds to foraminate invertebrates, she decided to focus on two parallel narratives – that of humanity and that of the universe.
In the perfect rectangular shape of the Chisenhale’s space, Henrot’s dual narratives unfold clockwise, following a linear structure made of aluminum shelves – a time line. A soundtrack accompanies the exhibition, which is, like music, a timely experience. The four walls represent the stages in a human lifecycle, philosophical principles of Gottfried Leibniz, and the four classical elements: air, water, earth and fire.
The west wall is the beginning, and relates to Leibniz’s ‘principle of being’. Representing the element of air, this wall is indeed the most ‘airy’, and contains only a few works, among them a single brush stroke made with Chinese black ink on white paper (Primordial Sign), paper sheets resting on aluminium poles just waiting to be used (Possibilities), and an image of a baby – the ultimate schematic shape (all works 2014 unless otherwise mentioned).
Along the long north wall Leibniz’s ‘law of continuity’ stretches. Represented by water, this is where things unfold. Here Henrot’s crafted sculptures Overlapping Figures (2011) start to appear. Henrot chose the blue background to give all objects a sense of equality and an aesthetical appearance; but the obvious artistic air of these sculptures is surprisingly comforting, seen amongst all the anthropological artefacts. Development becomes excess, as this wall ends on a pessimistic note, with a pile of found objects followed by large images of sunburnt skin – a scorching warning of the result of man’s greediness and its overexposure to the world.
Just when things start to get messy, order comes in. The east wall represents Leibniz’s ‘principle of sufficient reason’, wherein everything exists for a sufficient reason that makes it so and not otherwise. For the artist, this is the age of matured consciousness to limits, represented by earth. But the images on this wall show the exact opposite. They describe pollution of air, hunting and fighting – the exhaustion of the earth’s resources.
Along the south wall, representing old age and dominated by fire, technology takes over. Empty Perspex image frames stand neglected, as the images are now stocked into time capsules and digital picture frames, and the objects appear as eBay purchases. Although her works may sometimes suggest it, Henrot does not see the Internet as a confusing vertigo of information, but rather as forcing us to find a solution for efficiency beyond limits – to find order in the chaos. The relation of this wall to Leibniz’s ‘principle of the indiscernible’, meaning that there are no two completely identical particulars (as is the relation of the rest of the walls to his philosophy) seems to be a bit of a stretch.
The title of the exhibition is taken from Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s anthropological study of the West African Dogon people (1965). Dogon mythology is thought to incorporate the belief systems of several different cultures. Henrot is haunted by the ‘dirty shadow of colonialism’, and is obsessed with ethnographic representations, as can be seen in her previous works filmed in Egypt, India or Vanuatu.
Following this obsession, Henrot attempts to lay side-by-side differing historical narratives and belief systems, much like the Dogon Mythology. This is where the relation to Leibniz truly lies, for Leibniz believed that no single perspective holds the absolute truth, and that one should always strive for multiplicity.
The cycle finishes at the very beginning, with a sculpture of two ostrich eggs resting in a ceramic stand. Is The Pale Fox pessimistic, optimistic, or merely kitsch? Blue is also known as the ‘blue screen of death’, which appears when a fatal system error occurs. And yet, in Henrot’s microcosms, everything appears to be in the right place, for the right reasons. Leibniz’s final principle could have concluded this exhibition: our actual world is the best of all possible worlds.
(All images: Camille Henrot, The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Courtesy kamel mennour, Paris and Johann König, Berlin. Photo: Andy Keate. © ADAGP.)