Art in the Anthropocene

There are instances when artists engage in direct conversation with one another as if magnetically pulled by some omniscient, cosmic force.

In popular culture this happens all the time. An obvious example is the synchronous release of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, both directors’ first foray into adapted children’s works released two months apart in early 2010.

In the art world this phenomenon occurs as well though it can be less obvious to identify. Two French female artists engaged in such congruous dialogue through recent exhibitions in Paris. Camille Henrot’s Carte Blanche “Days are Dogs” solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo and Sophie Calle’s showing at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature fall into this synchronous exchange of themes and ideas though they arrive at a similar destination through two very differing approaches.

Henrot operates from a quasi-anthropological stance, as a mostly objective observer looking out the worlds she imbeds herself in. Her research in the field, from the hard walls of the Smithsonian in D.C. to the wet marshes of southern Louisiana, expresses itself through an exposé of painting, sculpture, interactive works, and video. Conversely Calle, at Musée de la Chasse, uses the museum’s existing relics, artefacts, and eclectic symbolism as a backdrop for the outside world to look inward. Through her injection into the Musée, she examines the self, its frailty, flaws, and beauty, a strategy she’s employed masterfully throughout her accomplished career.

Camille Henrot, “Days are Dogs” exhibition image
Camille Henrot, “Days are Dogs” exhibition image

The strategies employed by both artists are compelling in their quest to reveal truth and meaning. Henrot and Calle pack so much content into the spaces they fill, that much like the experience of visiting any large Parisian arts institution, the amount of information is equally impressive as it is exhausting. What is fascinating is the timing of the two exhibitions. It is impossible not to see the two shows in direct or at the very least indirect conversation with one another.

At Palais de Tokyo, Henrot conveys an abundant sense of play. From her Dr. Seuss-ian telephone sculptures to enlarged protractors and ubiquitous grade-school tools to a room of sculptural works where viewers may recline (or in the author’s experience, witness children wrestle) amongst large brass pieces, Henrot’s sense of play and light-heartedness is welcomed. Henrot quite effectively hooks her viewers through this lightness to the serious subjects she broaches, a refreshing strategy within an overtly serious, high-art context.

To viewers new to Calle, playfulness might not be the immediate descriptor of her work. Most known for her sensitivity and forthcomingness, where her present exhibition finds parallels with Henrot’s is in the playful way Calle asserts her hand into the existing collection at the Musée de la Chasse. Through the experience of navigating the museum, peeking into wonder cabinets, and uncovering clues, Calle imbeds her work eloquently into the Musée’s gorgeous collection of art, taxidermy, and oddities. Her careful installation of artworks, items of clothing, dried plants, etc. play wonderfully off of the historical freight of the museum’s impressive collection. The resulting tension heightens the drama, character, and eloquence of the numerous François Desportes paintings, for example. As a viewer, not unlike the lighthearted experience of wandering through Henrot’s world, it is a thoroughly fun and exploratory one. In wandering through the decadent rooms, the lines between Calle’s intervening hand and the museum’s permanent collection become wonderfully blurred. As a result, devoted Calle fanatics may find themselves contemplating 19th century oil painting in a new light, and conversely, those not often engaged by contemporary art will likely find many points of entry into Calle’s impressive oeuvre.

Sophie Calle, Musée de la Chasse exhibition image
Sophie Calle, Musée de la Chasse exhibition image

Henrot’s stand out work is a 13-minute video piece, Grosse Fatigue in which she uses a montage of music, sound, and footage gathered during her fellowship at the Smithsonian in D.C. to present a compelling nouveau origin-story of mankind. In one video she manages to encapsulate most everything she aims to say in the rest of the exhibition. It is an entrancing omniscient meditation on the west’s insatiability to categorize, sterilize, and cannibalize through its institutions, methodologies, and ways of understanding the world. It is a self-reflexive view of humanity, a pseudo-mythic look at humankind and our unquenchable need to procreate and devour.

If Henrot affirms her stance in the macro examining our culture at large, Calle grounds herself in the micro arriving at a similar conclusion via her unique, sometimes obscure life experiences. Death is contemplated through her personal collection of taxidermy. Famously, she turned the camera on herself hiring a private investigator to follow and photograph her every movement, Indeed, Calle has always concerned herself with modes of seeing and new ways of looking at the familiar and banal. This theme is aptly seen on the ground floor of the museum where Calle and her co-collaborator, artist Serena Carone, have inlayed a set of sculpted human eyes into the exhibition wall as if to peer out at you, the viewer. Here Calle suggests that the joke’s on us—that perhaps we must take a long, hard look at ourselves. It is to suggest that our walls are watching and through our domination over the natural world we are, in fact, hunting and destroying ourselves.

If Henrot’s work indicates what’s to come, it would suggest a macrocosmic look at our place in the world as we lurch further into the anthropocene and the ecological destruction of our planet. Calle’s steadfast personal and microcosmic examination of the self through confessional mediums in the context of the Musée de la Chasse hits a similar chord. The two approach their subject matter and arguments from polar ends yet arrive at a strikingly similar place. The artists eloquently turn the lens on western culture, our insistence to dominate the natural world, and our likely downfall because of it.

Sophie Calle and her guest Serena Carone at Musée de la Chasse runs through February 11th, 2018.

George Richardson is an interdisciplinary artist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A graduate of the University of New Mexico’s photography program (BFA + BA), George studied under Patrick Nagatani, Joyce Neimanas, and Adrienne Salinger. With a practice in photographic-based media, his work incorporates elements of writing, drawing, painting, and video. Born into a family of city planners, his multi-disciplinary practice addresses human perception of place and the subconscious. Increasingly George is interested in public interventions as well as installations in non-gallery spaces.

George has exhibited regionally and nationally. Previous residency experience includes a six-week self-directed residence in Puebla, México at Arquetopia during the summer of 2016. He was a 2017 finalist for the Platform Fund Grant through the Andy Warhol Foundation. George is currently based in Paris, France.

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