Camille Henrot: Restless Earth at the New Museum
May 7 to June 29, 2014
235 Bowery (between Rivington and Stanton Streets)
New York City, 212 219 1222
“In the beginning everything was dead,” chanted a voice from Camille Henrot’s mesmerizing video Grosse Fatigue (2013) as it leaps off to 13 minutes of throbbing inquiry. There is something slightly contradictory about this statement: death is the cessation of life, so how could death precede the existence of living things? An attempt to trace the history of the Universe usually leads to a brutal confrontation with the limits of one’s perception and ability to comprehend infinity, and describing the endpoints of a creation story seems essential and grounding. Or perhaps this doesn’t matter so much.
Henrot’s exhibition at the New Museum, “Restless Earth,” is one of the most energetic and rejuvenating installations to visit New York this season. It expands upon her explorations of culture, history and informational systems in her earlier works, deliberately toying with the artificially established boundaries between disciplines of study, research and perception as Henrot masquerades as anthropologist, scientist, librarian, sociologist and artist. She explores how the material world and culture is formulated, acknowledged, recorded, organized and standardized, but more prominently, it demonstrates all the chaos and energy these processes exhale.
A large section of the exhibition is filled with sculptures inspired by various works of literature, guided by Ikebana, the Japanese practice of flower arrangement. In these engrossing displays, Henrot attempts to visualize literature through slightly absurd compositions of flowers, grocery vegetables, other seemingly arbitrary ingredients, such as USB cables, Japanese newspapers, sheet moss — all exposing their physical and socio-economic connotations, their roles as food, decoration or mechanical devices, the stories of their discovery or their taxonomy. Each work is labeled with a quote from a work of literature, as well as detailed, hilariously scientific lists of its components — this interest in cataloguing and factual archiving is noticeable throughout her exhibition. These terse, contemplative canopies sprout from countertops, drape from the ceiling and crawl past the walls (Melville’s epic Moby Dick, 1851, is reduced to a few scattered crescent-shaped palm leaves), to form a little jungle ecosystem of their own, a buzzing room of dialogue. There is something strange and attractive about nature jolted into unnatural juxtapositions, considering these fragrant, vivacious arrangements are of amputated flowers and leaves nearing the end of their lives — “at death’s door” would be melodramatic, but their drying edges and fading color carry a hint of ephemerality and urgency.
Her fascination with appropriation and biological material is extended to another room of the show, containing a long table of neatly arranged pages from a 1995 Christie’s catalogue, Jewels from the Personal Collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan. Henrot illustrates the descriptions on each page with dried bookmark-like flowers and leaves stolen from residences on the Upper East Side. The magnificent gems and luxury uptown urban herbarium are both deliberate demonstrations of excess, but also, to their owners, decidedly necessary measures that define their social status. The catalogue pages only note estimated prices, rendering the values of the jewelry — and whatever they signify — speculative until juried by the auction attendees. This small sense of instability is perhaps furthered by spare, conspicuous slices of opaque tape affixing immobile and dried leaves to the pages, as if to restrain their plot to escape.
Then there are Henrot’s videos. The exhibition features several earlier videos that study the role of various symbols, practices and material objects across different cultures: Coupé/Décalé (2011) documents the origin of bungee jumping; Le Songe de Poliphile (2011), of the semiotics of the snake; and Million Dollars Point (2011), on World War II materials abandoned in Polynesia and the “cargo cults” that subsequently formed. Grosse Fatigue is the most conceptually ambitious (and probably low-budget) of them all, a series of desktop windows appearing on a computer screen, propelled by a groovy rap song that stitches together various origin myths, scientific presentations and annals of anthropology with the coherence of a surging music video. The deluge of imagery in today’s Internet age is a popular topic for artists, but few successfully conjure much beyond some purposefully collaged frenzy. Henrot’s selection of images (animals of from various phyla, different cultural practices, shots of mundane activity such as a manicured hand rubbing an orange) is not unpredictable, but they provide more than a simple sensation of distress and visual saturation. She consciously demonstrates the gaps and limits that still (and might forever) exist in our already overwhelming knowledge of history, a vault of information that could be more reasonably experienced through the momentum and innate disorder that weaves it all together.
Grosse Fatigue was made at Henrot’s 2013 Artist Research Fellowship at the Smithsonian, during which she collected footage of animal and plant specimens, obscure digital archives, blank hallways and anonymous office workers. She paired that imagery with the unending reach of the digital realm, which, in many ways, is an archive and simulation of the immense universe beyond the monitor, but also feels oddly tangible as it is fully manmade and portable (one shot features an iPhone with a green croaking frog parked on top, held by a hand). This strategy allows her narrative to swell with felt urgency and inscrutable complexity, and also the leisurely nimbleness of aimless web surfing. Queues of browser windows at times pile up like flashing torrents of spam advertisements, but they can be readily clicked shut like full drawers of ghastly, vibrantly preserved tropical bird specimen. In the beginning and end there were both uncluttered Mac desktops.