Installation view, 13e Biennale de Lyon
© Camille Henrot
Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
Every day is a catalogue of petty humiliations, of new and chastening deviations from our ideal selves. Our bodies betray us. We are clumsy, get fat, are ugly, we wrinkle, we age. Our desires abase us. We smoke, we drink, we masturbate, we fight, we practice graceless virtual sex with distant partners. The world defies us. Objects break, we are passed over, we hold the phone, money slips through our fingers, society remains indifferent to our fate. None of this accords with the dignified notion we maintain of ourselves as individuals in control of our destinies, so we come to treat these episodes as anomalies or injustices inconsistent with the constructed narratives of our lives. Increasingly we take to social media to broadcast our resentment, our incredulity at having suffered an embarrassing interview, a romantic failure, an ill-timed blemish.
How, we ask, could this happen to us?
For all that we disdain them, these little skirmishes with the real are repositories of the eroticism, the excess of human experience. Camille Henrot’s latest work seeks to reclaim the routine indignities with which our lives are replete. We are introduced, via a series of large-scale drawings, to a cast of characters whose fumbling, neurotic and disordered lives are redeemed by their instinctive humanity. As heroes in the mould of Pnin, of Leopold Bloom, of Monsieur Hulot, their nobility is predicated upon—rather than compromised by—their response to the ignominies inflicted upon them by societies from which they are, in some way, cast out. We recognise in their exemplary misfortunes our own minor concerns, and that vicarious identification allows us to perceive the transformative potential of the predicaments in which they find themselves.
These ironic, compassionate, cartoonish portraits present the stuff of life as the material of an epic. The average day is revealed to be crowded with incidents that expose us to the possibility of defeat: the embarrassing state of our body, the siren temptations of pornography, the treachery of objects, the unruliness of our appetites and emotions. Character is shaped in reaction to adversity, irrespective of its scale, and in these petty crises is the opportunity to prove oneself. These crises precipitate metamorphoses, and Henrot uses the fluid boundaries between species to remind us that not only the physical world but human nature (through love, pain, hatred, failure, loss) exist in a constant state of flux. This fact—and the mortality it entails—is the greatest affront to human dignity, and so the petty humiliation of a missed step or pennilessness is linked to the recognition (and acceptance) of our own shameful impermanence. We are pitched halfway between animals and gods, as mythology exists to remind us, and the categorical distinctions are not as fixed as we might believe.
The most striking embodiment of this mutability is Retreat from Investment, the biomorphic bronze sculpture that dominates the centre of the space: a body transfigured by emotion, a creature twisted in upon itself. The artist describes the work as an ‘inverted Narcissus’ partially inspired by the manner in which previously unnoticed, ostensibly trivial deficiencies in a lover—their expression of a vulgar sentiment, a minor blemish—can suddenly and irretrievably shatter the illusion of one’s love for, and investment in, the subject. The reaction is to withdraw into one’s self and away from the world, a narcissism that borders on hypochondria. The irony consists in the fact that, in recoiling from the disappointments of the material world, the figure cuts a sensuous, tactile shape that only serves to accentuate its physical beauty.
We exist in an increasingly immaterial culture, a virtual society from which our bodies are exiled and which treats the world of objects as a source of chronic anxiety. That squeamishness disdains the fugitive, dangerous substance of lived experience, counselling retreat into an anxious, empty and entitled egotism. By reconciling us with our disobedient bodies and chaotic desires, ‘Minor concerns’ celebrates humans as complex, messy, conflicted, multitudinous, bawdy and gross, exalted by a heroism built upon the virtues of sympathy and stoicism.
© Photo. Blaise Adilon