The work of French artist Camille Henrot – one of the most compelling creators of her generation – ignores the boundaries of forms and ideas. By Miriam Cosic.

French artist Camille Henrot

Artist Camille Henrot.
Artist Camille Henrot.
Credit: Joakim Bouaziz

Camille Henrot’s encyclopaedic mind ranges across the known universe. As her current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria demonstrates, the French artist challenges hierarchies and accepted wisdoms across myth and science, space and time, pop and high culture, and political, personal and interpersonal realities.

“But I was not good at school,” she protests, as I remark on the breadth of her intellect. “But we also had a lot of free time on our own because our parents were not super present.” She is talking via Zoom from her mother’s apartment in Paris where, when we spoke, she was days away from the birth of her second child. Behind her hangs one of her own pictures.

She and her older sister were curious children and experimented with everything that came within their purview. “And there were a lot of books at home and my grandmother was a professional storyteller. My mum also did some illustration for children’s books. So we would always get books as presents.”

The NGV’s Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow covers the range of her media – installations, quirky sculptures, paintings, films and animations, as well as several newly commissioned watercolours – and is as wide-ranging and full of curiosity as the childhood she describes.

Henrot is warm and outgoing. Despite moments of fatigue and hunger, symptoms of her third trimester, our conversation canters along three times longer than our strictly allocated half hour. She is argumentative in the way that philosophers are, seeking to clarify without rancour. She laughs a lot. She worries about the precision of her English, although years in New York have given her fluency in the hippest slang.

Asked to define her interests, she pauses. “I don’t know, actually. I mean, I don’t have a scientific approach,” she says. “And I don’t like it when people say, ‘Oh, it’s just anthropology’. I actually come from a literary background. I love to read and I’m more interested in the kind of problems that arise in the processes of scientific museums.” She pauses again.

“I am  not interested in anthropology itself but in its unsolved problems. It has to be self-critical and that has yet to be applied in museums.” She pauses again then laughs. “I think I am OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. I call on a lot of materials, and they swamp me. I like to make lists and to try to find my own form of organisation. But this comes from a place of anxiety. And I believe, almost I would say, mental disorder…”

Henrot says cultural overwhelm has become a symptom of our age. “I think we are all struggling with this now, more than any other generation,” she says. “It’s the access and the excess of access. It’s creating a situation where the challenge is being able to focus.”

Henrot was born in Paris in 1978. She shared her upbringing with an older sister, Mathilde, whom she considers the genius of the two: a trained lawyer, fluent speaker of five languages including Chinese, she’s the co-founder of Festival Scope film festival and a programmer for the Locarno Film Festival.

Their mother was an engraver and, for a time, a taxidermist. That interest stayed with Henrot; she visited the taxidermy department of the Museum of National History years later after a time as an artistic fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. “It was all women, very young women listening to music super loud,” she says. “And it made me smile because it reminded me of my mum who was doing that job at home when we were kids. She was probably the same age as those women who were manipulating this snake, that dead monkey…”

The other side of her family contained scientists. Her great-grandfather was a doctor and an amateur entomologist. “Actually I think there is an extremely small insect that has his name,” she says, grinning again. “It’s a kind of bed bug.” She returns to her parents’ hands-off parenting. Her access to knowledge, she says, was “a bit unmediated. But there were a lot of things at home. There were a lot of books, a lot of magazines. And they became the things we played with.”

As a child Henrot spent much of her spare time drawing and pursuing arcane interests. She was obsessed with lists. “Actually, I’m at my mum’s right now,” she says. “And she kept a lot of the notebooks I made as a child. I used a lot of magazines, cutting out images. I was basically making my own encyclopaedia. And I was doing books about birds and mammals.”

She was obsessed with horses for five years, and there are 10 notebooks of lists of what she would do if she had horses of her own, how she would organise her day, the equipment she would buy.

Included in the NGV’s show is a film she made while at the Smithsonian. It engages with how museums relentlessly pursue collection and classification in an attempt to explain the scientific and religious narratives we use to understand the world.

Its speed, flashing images and pop-ups explore our obsession with new technologies and “the seduction of constructing ourselves online”, as the Museum of Modern Art describes it. In 2013 it won Henrot the Silver Lion for most promising young artist at the 55th Venice Biennale.

The Pale Fox (2014), another of her more famous works, places a plethora of objects and pictures around a room painted provocatively in Yves Klein Blue. The Guardian’s art critic, Adrian Searle, said the work “elaborates Henrot’s theme in objects and images, signs, portents, sculptures and much besides. We hurry through aeons. Things evolve, the world gets complicated. Art and culture, science and starvation, extinction and global warming are all here … Henrot seems to submit to no boundaries between art and scholarship, or between one specialisation and another.”

In his introduction to the NGV’s catalogue, Melbourne curator and museum director Simon Maidment glances at other works that engage with “colonial pasts, repatriation, fetishism, exploitation, translation, tourism, performance, veracity and strategies of seduction”.

Henrot loved Japanese manga as a child and the influence can be seen in her work. “I basically was drawing in front of the TV for days at a time,” she says. “That was really what I enjoyed the most until I was forced to go to school, which was very traumatic. I was very unhappy there. I just didn’t adapt very well.” She had few friends and couldn’t stand all the rules after her freedom at home. “I saw it basically as a sort of concentration camp. The regular schedule was extremely stressful and difficult to adapt to.”

But she continued to draw, making little stories. She says she sees it as a kind of storyboarding – creating scenes, drawing close-ups – which she puts down to her obsession with television. “The way a story is built through images is a kind of drawing,” she says. “I was interested by this almost physical way to tell a story. It is actually very much the way Japanese cartoons are made.”

After she finished school, she attended the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and struggled with the schedules there too. One teacher realised that her mind moved too fast for the set program. “When you take a very short time to draw, it’s very good,” he said to her. “But when you have four hours to do something, it’s a catastrophe.” The teacher, she says, had empathy and cheated a little. He allowed her to do things in minutes instead of taking hours.

At college she was surrounded by people who were interested in the same things she was and she finally enjoyed a kinship with other students. She took a course on animated film. “We were all very passionate about it and never missed a single lecture,” she says. “It was not like studying history of art. Animated culture was a subculture. We were a bit like a secret society. Finally, we had the same references.”

Those references included Roger Rabbit, Porco Rosso, the growing genre of special effects in films such as The Matrix and Cowboy Bebop. “Later when I moved to New York, I curated an exhibition with Ruba Katrib, who is now at MoMA PS1, on the influence of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and political cartoonists like Saul Steinberg.” At this time she also met her husband, the composer Mauro Hertig, at a festival she curated on the island of Stromboli in 2016, and he moved to New York to be with her. They now live in Berlin.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, she went into music videos when she graduated. The early music videos were often a combination of animation and film that she shot herself. She worked for a Paris production company for five years. Back then, she points out, YouTube hadn’t begun to dominate the music world and music videos were mostly on TV.

As that world shifted online, the production company pushed her into advertising videos.

“I learnt a lot. I mean, it was a combination of good and bad,” she says wryly. “I hated to go to the meetings. And it wasn’t really exciting to do an advert for a piece of cake or adulterated sugar, you know? It wasn’t the goal of my life.”

She did learn about technique, though, about different ways to use equipment and the tweaking of reality on which advertising thrives.

She continued to experiment with her own art on the side and met an older artist, Pierre Huyghe, who opened up the world of art. “Before I met him, contemporary art seemed very closed and very elitist and very coded,” she says. “Then when I met him, I realised that, yes, it was like that, but also that it was a place where everything is possible, where you can really do what you want. That is a sort of absolute freedom.”

A non-compete agreement from the production company when she left gave her “pocket money”, as she calls it, and free time to pursue her own art. A small gallery in Paris offered to show her work and the rest, as they say, is history. Her installations multiplied and became more sophisticated. Her sculptures complemented them.

Two years ago she began to paint, but then Covid-19 hit and she had to move back to Europe from New York, where she had lived for several years, because her visa was running out. And then she broke her arm in three places while sledding with her little boy near her in-laws’ house outside Zurich.

And so, with a hiatus now for the birth of her second child, Henrot’s eclectic life rolls on. In the NGV catalogue, Simon Maidment writes of her, “There is no standing still in Camille’s studio practice, little returning to old ground. It is instead a fast-moving rip under the surface of an ocean, and to engage with it all is to be towed inexorably by this force in this singular direction.”

Now, an hour after the time limit her people have insisted on because she tires easily, the inexorable force is beginning to slow. She has been loath to talk about motherhood, though that experience inaugurated her recent explorations of gender.

“Motherhood has so many problems, in terms of what patriarchy had made of it: a monster that nobody wants to talk about,” she says. “It’s hard to even use the word without being buried by prejudices. We need a word that is more inclusive of the complexity of the experience.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 24, 2021 as "Myriad visions".

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