In a solo exhibition at the Munch Museum, artist Camille Henrot tackles the traumas of motherhood, hoarding and integration
“There is a very deep ambivalence in all relationships, but the more intimate and close the relationship, the more ambivalent it will be,” said French artist Camille Henrot at the opening of her “Mouth to Mouth” exhibition at the Munch Museum. in Oslo.
Ambivalence could be a dominant theme of the exhibition, which takes place on the ninth floor of the waterfront museum which opened last year to house the world’s largest collection of paintings by Edvard Munch, the artist Norwegian best known for The Scream. But it is the psychologically charged aspect of Henrot’s work that comes closest to Munch’s.
The French-born, New York-based artist, who works through video, painting and sculpture, was the winner of the top prize Edvard Munch Art Prize in 2015. Worth 500,000 Norwegian kroner ($50,000), the prize is awarded to an international artist no more than 40 years oldand includes an exhibit at the museum.
After winning the Munch Prize, Henrot had to wait seven years to have his solo exhibition in Oslo, while the museum, designed by Spanish architects Estudio Herreros, was under construction. Her view of performing changed in the middle years, during which she had a large-scale exhibition, “Days are Dogs”, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2017.
“When I received the Munch Prize, the connection between my work and that of Edvard Munch was not particularly obvious and it doesn’t have to be,” Henrot said. “But somehow this new body of work around language, primal fear and the early development of our lives, has a lot more to do with his work.”
Her unframed watercolors capture the complexity of human relationships, such as those between mother and child, or between lovers. The works “caress” the walls, in the words of exhibition curator Tominga O’Donnell, using a specially designed system of magnets. “Camille is an incredible artist who approaches the exhibition as if it were a total installation,” says O’Donnell.
The paintings, many in red or yellow, with figures boldly outlined in black, belong to Henrot’s ongoing “Systems of Attachment” series, started in 2018. A whole range of emotions are represented, from tenderness to anger. One painting depicts a mother and child embracing; in others, a mother bites and devours her child, or a child holds its mother’s mouth and bites her nipples.
As a search for This themeHenrot says he has read the writings of the Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein on her Object relations theory on the mother-child relationship. Henrot started the series as a way to explore her feelings about childhood, as well as her experience of becoming a mother. “There were a number of intense physical sensations and even trauma associated with my own childhood that I think were probably driving my work at that time,” she said.
Believing that women artists depicting such subjects are still viewed in a pejorative manner – and noting a shortage of works of art—Henrot approaches motherhood and the work of breastfeeding from a feminist and political perspective. His exhibitions, “Wet Job” and “Mother Tongue”, which were held earlier this year respectively at the Middelheim Museum in Belgium and the Salzburger Kunstverein in Austria, both explored the subject.
Referring to how his work tackles a difficult subject, Henrot said: “Even the women themselves have a distaste for motherhood; we all have a distaste for our own mother, because that’s where we come from. In a patriarchal society, we have been taught to disrespect mothers and devalue their work.
“I haven’t seen any pictures of [breast pumping] even if it is a very important primordial thing”, added Henrot. “There are images of sex, of death, of every possible kinky, intense and dirty aspect of being human, but that image is nowhere and I was very intrigued by that.”
Born in Paris in 1978, Henrot studied at the National School of Decorative Arts, the French capital school of decorative arts, where she specialized in animation. After graduating, she moved to New York and made experimental music videos while working as an assistant to French artist Pierre Huyghe. Some of his videos have been noticed by the art world, inspiring Henrot to make longer films.
His big breakthrough came when curator Massimiliano Gioni presented his captivating video Tiredness in “The Encyclopedic Palace”, the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2013, where she won the Silver Lion Award for promising young artists.
Tiredness tells the story of the universe through a vast array of images that collide on a computer screen while acknowledging the inherent failure of narrative attempt. It was created thanks to a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, which allowed Henrot to film the collections of several American museums.
“I remember telling Massimiliano the different ideas I had and he interrupted me saying, “No, you just have to do a master job. I thought “Oh my God” and decided to embrace that feeling of panic in the film.
Rather than writing a cohesive narrative, Henrot storyboarded in order to keep the possibilities open and to let the editing be intuitive. The key was to randomize the images and make the structure invisible. “What’s interesting about the film format is that you can appeal to the viewer’s ability, intelligence and memory of associations and experiences,” she said.
Henrot said that the realization of Tiredness was born out of a problematic situation when she moved to the United States. “I didn’t have a studio and the computer was the only tool I had,” she recalls. “I worked in my pajamas in my bed. The computer window was my whole universe.
Prior to crossing the Atlantic, Henrot had acquired a mass of items on eBay, including animal parts and pornography, which had been blocked by US Customs. This accumulation will form the basis of its installation room, The pale fox (2014), which, she says, “is a bit like a metaphor for the museum, [about someone] who is greedy and who wants to accumulate everything.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Henrot found himself once again in a state of imbalance. Having lost her New York studio, she returned to France to stay with her mother not far from Paris. While tidying up and decluttering the library, Henrot found his mother’s books on the label. The rather antiquated tomes inspired his “Dos and Dont’s” series, on display at the Munch Museum. “My mother is an accumulator; I’m a hoarder,” she says, smiling.
The multimedia pieces combine screenshots, computer graphics, photographs, paintings, playlists and puns. The series – which leads him to revisit the idea of the computer window for the first time since Tiredness – draws an analogy between etiquette and the process of manipulation, through digital and traditional means.
“It’s a back-and-forth where I scan real brushstrokes and then manipulate them in Photoshop to look like digital brushstrokes,” Henrot said. “There are etchings of paintings, and paintings imitating the computer window, and cracks. I worked a lot with a graphic palette in Photoshop which is oddly called ProCreate.
Describing how she accumulates images and ideas from multiple sources, Henrot said: “Looking at them when I step back, I ask myself, ‘Why did I collect this image, what makes me interested ?’ Then I print all the images and organize them into categories or in Dropbox – I change locations a thousand times. It’s almost borderline because I feel like I’m losing my mind deciding where they’re going to go.
Although the “Dos and Dont’s” series seems witty, there’s something slightly sinister underlying the etiquette book references, Henrot said. “It sounds like I’m talking about something very innocuous, outdated and ridiculous, but it turns out to be a good metaphor for the world of control and surveillance,” she explained. “Like children, we are under parental control. In every rebellion against injustice, we have a feeling of powerlessness, a very strong experience when we are children. I don’t identify with the mother, I identify with the child in everything I do.
Two bronze sculptures are also on display in Oslo: a monumental work of animals lying on top of each other, inspired by the fairy tale “The Town Musicians of Bremen”, and Unsuitable. This last one is a big cube with cut-out triangles, circles and squares; matching shapes are pressed randomly in the wrong slots, or are thrown to the ground. “There is a certain violence in things being one-sided, can only work in a certain way”, Henrot said.
Offering insight into her extensive practice and how she moves from idea to idea, she said, “I think I’m someone who strives in multiplicity. In a way, I drift a lot. I like to keep things very open.
“Camille Henrot: Mouth to Mouth” is on view at the Munch Museum in Oslo until February 19, 2023.
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