We are all tied to one another, we are all one. And yet we are separated by a system of fissures, most of which exist inside our minds. We live in a culture of too much–the end- less stream of images, endless march of information and news—the only way to survive is to create systems that separate: what and who is important, what and who is expendable. These systems are borders. They are containers that keep each of us in our place. But these walls, these borders, are, more often than not, invisible to our own eyes. We don’t “see” them.
The New York based, French-born artist, Camille Henrot’s work examines the fissures that exist between these imagined worlds. Obsessive, research-based, her work takes as its subject matter existence, itself, and as its project, the exploration of existence and, more specifically, how we manage (or unmanage) to categorize species and hierarchies of meaning.
Her piece, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream, a still from the film of the same name, is an image of a green and white plastic bowl. The colors swirl at points and it is these points of fissure that the eye wants to gaze at. Looking inside the bowl, one sees the cardboard tube from a toilet paper roll. From inside the bowl, the glossy black ribbon of a garden snake emanates. Fissures, a cardboard tube, and a slick black snake. What we have here is a poem—constructed entirely from images.
And what do these images say? Fissure, for one thing. The cardboard tube is waste. It de- rives from a roll of toilet paper which is also for waste. From shit, which we, in the West, don’t like to talk about it. We keep our shit in sterile porcelain bowls—we visit bathrooms in restaurants and in homes, alone, and here we participate in this thing that all creatures, human or otherwise, participate in. It is the glue that binds us: everyone shits. To admit that we shit, that we are mere bodies, is to give in. It is to forfeit our perceived specialness, it is to be simply a body and in this being just a body, we are in fact just like any other an- imal. To be simply a body, is to be frozen, fixed, in our place as animal, as the world and its people and their endless enterprises pass us by. It is to be made immobile. Hence, the feeling one gets when one imagines being homeless, getting old, or losing control over our bodies. We lose our place in line.
Back to the bucket: with its waste and its fissure. And its clever and dangerous snake. The snake appears dangerous not so much because it may actually be venomous, but more as the result of the meanings the snake is filled with. If we imagine ourselves a snake, we imagine ourselves without arms, without a voice. Powerless, we see ourselves with all of our imaginary powers removed. So when we see the snake, we hate it. It is our terrible other.
The snake exists in nature. Though when humans build their homes over nature, destroy- ing the homes of the animals who first lived there, then snakes (and other animals such as deer, foxes, and bears) continue to exist alongside humans. The snake is the intersection between nature and the human. The snake exists in nature and in the cracks in the sidewalk in the suburbs. The snake moves fluidly through both worlds. He moves elegantly over the fissures. And the snake is the emblem of evil. He is the reason the world fell. If, myth tells us, he hadn’t seduced Eve, she would never have eaten of the apple. The snake stands in for the evil that humans do. Eve ate the apple, she chose to disobey. The snake is the go-between. He was there in the Garden of Eden, witness to our first mistake. If we can kill the snake, then, we imagine, there is no witness and if there is no witness, then what happened, never happened.
The snake is a drawn line just like the lines of a border, but in movement. He comes out from the crack in the fissure. He is the cracking of the fissure. He is the fissure come to life. In Henrot’s piece, the snake is a squiggle, like an artist’s mark on paper. He disobeys systems and borders. Humans, on the other hand, are trapped inside the frozen line. In Henrot’s still piece what we are witness to is a breaking of these fissures: the bucket is plastic, it is frozen, its only purpose is to contain. The cardboard tube is, again, waste and the snake moves from this container, from this waste. The snake breaks away from the container of the bucket and from the fissures in the bucket.
Henrot’s video piece, Grosse Fatigue, 2013, is a 13-minute visual compendium, a parade of disparate images including taxidermied birds, housewares, photographs of fruit, reptiles, and a woman in white undies, touching herself. Much of this march of images move over texts: documents and open books which appear to be anthropological in nature. Grosse Fatigue is the result of Henrot’s fellowship at the Smithsonian Institute, and is based loose- ly on the myth(s) of creation. The video is itself a compendium of images and stories culled from various cultures. All of these images are presented in an expansive manner. What we see on the screen is a computer screen with windows opening like the drawers in a cabinet of curiosities. The film is set to the boom of a rapper who narrates the story of the earth’s demise. What we see on the screen is the unraveling of borders and labels, the hyper kinetic undoing of what we’ve worked so hard to do.
The images along with the music and narration create one steady, unified stream, knock- ing away any borders. The film’s narration explains the world from the end of the world. Because the narration gives no specific explanations for each occurring item, the viewer experiences all images as equal. The film becomes a parade of images, none more important than the others. What we see when we see Grosse Fatigue is the unraveling of systems and meanings—we see the world undone.
The film is, in fact, an enactment of the snake. And the snake does not see. Or, rather, snakes can see, but they have poor eyesight. A snake moves in darkness, using its tongue to sense, instead. Perhaps this is what we should be doing. Our “sight” is faulty. It is con- structed upon years and years of codes and systems, codes and systems based on means of cataloguing we have been taught and conditioned to accept. Our eyes connect to our minds and our minds tell us what to make of what we see. Luce Irigary, in her essay, Being Two, How Many Eyes Have We? writes:
To conceive the act of seeing in this way approximates the manner of conceiving understanding in our culture. And to say: I understand, we often say: I see. That is: I see something, framed as and reduced to an object— conceptual, mental—for my comprehension.
Moreover our ‘I see’ is equivalent to ‘I recognize’: I recognize a form, I recognize a concept. I recognize something that already has a face according to a model, a paradigm, an edidos, that I have been taught.
And yet, the snake is what cursed us with this knowing, with this seeing that is a not-seeing. When Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of knowledge, we lost forever our not-knowing, our child-like ability to truly see. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis. 3:5).” But perhaps it isn’t so much this type of knowing that blinds us, but, instead, our attachment to the world and our desire to be loved and accepted by it. It is in this way that we ingest and take in its rules and systems—so we can find our place within it and remain assured that we have a place in the world and its systems. And if we find ourselves in the lower strata, we do what we can to move ourselves to a higher place within these systems.
We are imprisoned within our systems of meaning and hierarchies. In the end though, it is in the theater of the mind that we can begin to see. My eyes do not work alone—they need the assistance of my mind to translate what it is taking in. So by working with the mind, by retraining, in a sense, that one organ, we might be able to begin to truly see. And by seeing what I mean is to look at an object, a person, or an animal and see that thing or creature without first killing it off with categorization.
How, then, can we begin to unlearn? I don’t have an answer. But Camille Henrot’s work is an attempt to help the viewer relearn or re-see. Watching Grosse Fatigue is to watch systems of categorization unravel and vanish. Like a slow-motion film of a bud coming to life, the film is a quick-motion disintegration of categories of meaning. Grosse Fatigue posits an alternative universe in which categories and borders no longer exist. The film presents us with a tabula rasa. Her so-called end of the world might, in fact, provide us with the beginning of a new world.