A pulsing flower, a botox injection, a watery baptism: through this collection of images, Camille Henrot’s Saturday (2017) explores the tension between the unfolding of biological life and the human inventions (scientific, religious, cultural) that frame and regulate it. Loosely centred on the practices of Seventh-day Adventists, the film is Henrot’s most significant contribution to the moving image since Grosse Fatigue, completed in 2013. It is the first work encountered in her recent exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, ‘Days are Dogs’ (October 2017 – January 2018), and articulates a tension that runs through the show’s narrative. ‘Days are Dogs’ was the third instalment of Palais de Tokyo’s ‘carte blanche’ series, which invites a single artist to take over the building’s entire 13,000-square-metre exhibition space. This expansiveness is fitting: although Henrot studied animation at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, her work now spans moving image, installation, painting, sculpture, and drawing. Bringing together different modes of representation and their attendant ways of knowing allows Henrot to interrogate her subject within the context of our digital age.
For ‘Days are Dogs’, the exhibition space was carved up into seven sections, each dedicated to a day of the week. This temporal structure, Henrot reminds us, is both a regulatory construct and a lived experience – a site of manifold contradictions. Beginning with Saturday, movement through the exhibition was structured in chronological progression. As I travelled from Saturday [Saturn, Chronos, god of time] through to Friday, however, I became aware of other chronologies, and cartographies, which lay dormant yet palpable beneath the surface. ‘Days are Dogs’ lays out a reverse progression of Henrot’s work in moving image: Saturday (2017) to Grosse Fatigue (2013) to Deep Inside (2005). The work itself moves from 3D, to multi-window desktop interface, to felt-tip marker on 35mm film stock, revealing Henrot’s evolving concern with the materiality of the screen image. Yet, as a backwards trajectory through ‘Days are Dogs’ suggests, this materiality has less to do with the texture of the image and more with the manipulation of its density.
In/on ‘Friday’, you enter a viewing room. Inside, red shapes shift and twist against a black screen, pulsing and vibrating as they become faces or flames, ghosts or hands, letters spelling out a-m-o-u-r. The shapes reveal slivers of a moving image, encountered in fragmented close-up: a woman and man having sex, their bodies bathed in red candlelight. These animated shapes act as cut-outs, windows onto the scene underneath. They graze the surface of the screen, exposing skin, a clenched hand, the thrust of penetration. Your focus oscillates between these two moving surfaces: one animated, one pornographic. While the latter shows the meeting of two bodies, the animated surface traces a continual movement between proximity and distance. You watch as the shapes meld and dissolve into another, only to split apart, to become other.
Deep Inside is one of three short pieces, collectively entitled Room Movies, in which Henrot used the technique of drawing on a film roll to refigure the narrative of an existing film. For Deep Inside, Henrot used felt-tip marker on a 35mm pornographic film from the seventies: the animated red shapes are the only areas of the frame not blacked-out. This manipulation of the image creates a density, a layering of affect. The shapes intensify a sense of voyeurism, focusing our look through their microscopic openings. At the same time, the animated surface and haunting score – a ballad, composed by Benjamin Morando and written/performed by Nicolas Ker – filter this experience through the narrative they trace of unrequited love. The lyrics recall the story of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), a film about cannibalistic sexual desire similarly shot through with hues of black and red. I am reminded of what Jean-Luc Nancy wrote after watching Trouble Every Day: “[the film] is about the kiss that bites, but not a kiss unlike any other: the kiss in as much as it bites, the kiss as power of the bite.”¹ The way the shapes in Deep Inside shift and transmogrify, as if in response to the other’s contact, approximates this zone between desire and carnal destruction. The ballad dissolves into single notes; a plaintive “my love” resonates in the space between them. The animated surface transforms the performance of pleasure underneath: an open mouth begins to resemble a cry.
Thursday presents the Silver Lion award-winning Grosse Fatigue: a film that emerged from Henrot’s residency at the Smithsonian Institution and in response to the theme of the 55th Venice Biennale, ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. Shot in the collections of the Smithsonian, Grosse Fatigue takes us on a 13-minute journey through the creation of the universe. The film opens with the sound of an inhalation, and then the image of a desktop screen: galactic wallpaper dotted with file icons. Two windows fly out. Percussive beats begin to intensify as we focus on the overlapping images: hands flipping through books – one on modern art; one ethnographic. Cut to the institutional corridor of the Smithsonian: a woman leans against the storage lockers writing notes; a Google search window opens in the corner of the frame. The search box begins to fill (“history of the universe”) as a low, rhythmic voice intones: “in the beginning there was no earth, no water, nothing.”
This spoken word voice-over, performed by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh and infused with hip hop music, guides us through the subsequent accumulation of images, which comprise footage from the Smithsonian (specimens, art objects, texts) as well as found images from the internet (Wikipedia pages, the IKEA monkey, an ad for a Samsung Galaxy). Henrot presents these images through the manipulation of multiple windows on a desktop interface. They appear and disappear, are minimised and overlap, moving to the fluctuating beat of the voice-over, which interweaves various, often contradictory, stories of creation. Yet, whether mythic, religious, or scientific, these stories are positioned in Grosse Fatigue’s strategy of montage on a lateral plane. The film’s climax, for example, arrives with a breathless listing of scientific disciplines and the classification of sexual practices. The accumulation of windows builds, framing an image of a woman masturbating, until the screen becomes mere abstraction, noise: a rectangle composed of moving lines.
Through this density of the screen image, Grosse Fatigue stages a confrontation between the Smithsonian as a physical site of knowledge, and Google as a database of information. How do technology and digital culture change our ways of knowing? Are they just other stories, new inventions that we reach towards to make sense of the unknowable? Saturday circles back to this question through its framing of the Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination of Protestant Christianity that observes the Sabbath and practices immersion baptism. Shot in 3D, the film begins with the directional energy of an unfolding flower, pulsing out and towards us. The screen takes shape.
Saturday moves between scenes of Seventh-day Adventist groups in the United States and Polynesia and clinical settings of scientific laboratories and medical offices. Images of nature punctuate the film; a baptism scene dissolves into oceanic waves. Our vantage point is continually defamiliarised. In worm’s eye view, we watch as a baby and various animals move across a glass surface, encircled as if on a microscope lens. The film’s most arresting shot confronts us with a close-up of a woman’s brow and a 3D needle, administering a botox injection. In a call room for the Hope Channel, a Seventh-day Adventist television network, we watch as employees take prayer requests via telephone. As the film progresses, television news tickers begin to multiply across the screen. The 3D image allows bands of text to run across each other, overlapping around objects, at various levels of depth. This layering of information, while made possible by the medium’s technology, effectively renders it unreadable. Whether through density of affect (Deep Inside) or of knowledge/information (Grosse Fatigue and Saturday), Henrot’s work points towards the potential of the screen image – analogue and digital – to embody multiple, often conflicting logics.
- Jean-Luc Nancy, “Icon of Fury: Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day,” Film-Philosophy 12, no. 1 (2008): 2.