Camille Henrot on Self Help, Gossip and Pre-lingual Communication

Estelle Hoy speaks to the artist about the inspiration behind her solo exhibition at Oslo’s Munch Museum

BY Estelle Hoy AND Camille Henrot in Interviews | 19 OCT 22

Estelle Hoy: Camille, felicitations on ‘Mouth to Mouth’. You seem to have great affection for wordplay, and I noticed the title has a double entendre.

Camille Henrot: The title of the show has many meanings. There’s the idea of resuscitation but also of embracing, kissing, devouring and being devoured, of breastfeeding and being fed, of the roots of sexuality. Kissing comes from the mammalian instinct to suckle: it’s the first thing we do when we’re born. We kiss because we used to suck. And kissing is as primal as survival or as essential as breathing. The title also carries the idea of gossip, which I love. Whispering, chit-chatting. Gossip is such an involute concept because it’s considered a ‘feminine’ manner of communication and coated with the idea of futility, prejudice and judgement. In a patriarchal society, devaluing women’s words as ‘gossip’ allows the institution to self-preserve. But gossip can move mountains. It can be a form of on-the-ground surveillance, of keeping each other in check and of caretaking for the community.

Camille Henrot, ‘Mouth to Mouth’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Munch Museum, Oslo. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth

EH: Big Kiss [2019] is a vibrant red watercolour and ink on Japanese paper portraying an engorged baby kissing a parent figure. At this age, a child’s verbal faculties are almost non-existent, so it’s more about the possibility that language will materialize, which I find compelling.

CH: What’s interesting about language is that it’s approximate and insufficient. In this approximation are buried all the poetic possibilities of language, and those potentialities are reactivated when witnessing a child’s language development. Much of the exhibition relates to the beginning of human experience – when everything exists within the unique intensity of feelings and sensations. I now live in the US, where the words I hear in the street are a language other than French – my mother tongue – and it’s an experience I truly enjoy. Like a child, I’m constantly discovering – and sometimes misunderstanding – new words and expressions. I keep a list of these on my phone, collected from conversations, eavesdropping, reading and listening to radio or podcasts. They often become a title or the inspiration for a work. How Clean Is the Tongue That Just Kissed Your Face? [2019], for instance, came from a blog about pets.

Camille Henrot, How clean is the tongue that just kissed your face?, 2019, watercolour on paper, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy: the artist

EH: Part of the show focuses on new works from your series ‘System of Attachment’ [2018–22], which includes paintings, drawings and bronze sculptures that explore non-verbal relationships and connections in the early stages of childhood, using the mouth as a site of exploration and comprehension.

CH: The concept of childhood attachment comes from Daniel Stern’s book Diary of a Baby [1990], in which he describes how, to learn and gain independence, the child needs to constantly return to the caregiver for touch, eye contact and verbal interaction. To properly value the attachment system, the child must learn that they can venture forth without looking back, knowing that what they left is waiting to receive them. I thought this analysis was relevant for adult life and the way we engage romantically – this want for separation and reunion. To be properly attached, we need assurance in the things we have but also a fear of losing them. 

Camille Henrot, Silent words, 2020, oil and acrylic on wood, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour

EH: I felt this split and fluidity in the show! Your series ‘Dos and Don’ts’ [2020–22] inverts the rigid homeostasis of manners found in outmoded etiquette literature to present a system of paradox in flux. It’s a construction that feels simultaneously oppressive, protective and weirdly liberating.

CH: I first came across those etiquette books while sorting out my mom’s book collection during the early days of the pandemic. My first instinct was to put them in the ‘give away’ pile because they evoked the oppressive heritage of social class and gender roles that I was eager to discard. Around the same time, however, I was invited by the Anna Polke Foundation to create new work to commemorate what would have been the 80th birthday of the German artist Sigmar Polke, who died in 2010. I loved Polke’s own aversion to control, surveillance and the idea of family order as a model for society. The etiquette books felt, to me, like a softer version of the artist’s ‘Watchtower’ series [1984–85]. 

Camille Henrot, Dos and Don’ts - Never Ask a Woman, 2022, digital collage serigraph print with watercolour, ink, acrylic and oil on prepared canvas, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

EH: Dos and Don’ts – Never Ask a Woman [2022] – a digital collage serigraph print with watercolour depicting a modesty screen and a woman with deflated breasts – immediately came to mind when you mentioned societal standards. The title is a curtailed version of the well-known adage: never ask a woman her age. Were there other such dictums you found interesting?

CH: While reading Nadine de Rothschild’s advice about ‘how to be a pleasant conversationalist, how to write a letter of condolence, and how to pack your suitcase for a weekend away’, I caught myself wishing someone had told me these things earlier in life in this benevolent, straightforward manner. The etiquette books are a substitute parent, with old-fashioned but well-intentioned ideas. They’re also a form of democratization, bridging barriers between classes. Inversely, such rules can inflict anxiety and are an extension of society’s oppressive and divisive systems of order. Today, etiquette has, in some senses, been replaced by algorithms, advertisements and corporate investments that determine what we’re exposed to in a capitalist society. These mechanisms – to which we contribute through social media engagement – demarcate what is nowadays deemed ‘appropriate’. Today’s codes of conduct are defined by the gregarian, or our inherent tendency to flock together. This is much more powerful than any book on etiquette, or our parents, for that matter.

Camille Henrot, Dos and Don'ts - Cells, 2022, digital collage serigraph print with watercolour, ink, acrylic and oil on prepared canvas, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth

EH: It’s an interesting, two-plane semiosis that you’ve elaborated on in the show and feels almost politically strategic. In previous conversations, you’ve mentioned that you see connections between self-help culture and power systems. Could you elaborate on this?

CH: I’ve always been interested in the individual pursuit of self-help and in how our sense of powerlessness faces patriarchal authority. Every request for help opens the door to potential exploitation. Etiquette became a way to address issues of control, surveillance, intimacy and identity. How we speak, dress and behave continues to project an idea of who we are, but it’s now also the music we listen to on Spotify and the images we like on social media that draw an even sharper picture of who we are and where we belong. The algorithm doesn’t just see our appearance: it sees the thoughts reflected in our google history, rendering our skin transparent. This is the meaning of the painting Dos and Don’ts – Cells (2022), where a painted ultrasound is juxtaposed with one of my playlist titles on Spotify, Moon (2022). Similarly, Dos and Don’ts – In a Heartbeat [2022] depicts a body composed exclusively of veins made from thick paint pushed through a piping bag.

Camille Henrot, Dos and Don'ts - In A Heartbeat (detail), 2022, digital collage serigraph print with watercolour, ink, acrylic and oil on prepared canvas, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour

EH: Speaking of confectionery, remember when we bought too many weird German rat lollies in Kreuzberg and you said something like: ‘I take this to be significant.’ [laughs]. Does ‘Mouth to Mouth’ invest in insignificance as much as significance?

CH: Yes, I hope so! Domesticity is often viewed as insignificant, and childhood and childcare can be full of insignificance. To speak to this concept, some images in the show are mundane. ‘Mother Tongue’ [2019], for instance, is a series of seven drawings that repeats the same figures as if to exhaust the possibility of this archetype. To avoid becoming bored by the repetitive nature of caregiving, mothers must seek to replicate their child’s excitement at the discovery of all things new. I see meaning in insignificance all the time. In terms of the rat lollipops, I just meant that, as artists, we both consider slightly disgusting things to be good material and, while I was in Berlin, I really missed New York, which I had to leave at the start of the pandemic because of lockdown. I missed the epic apocalyptic feeling of seeing five rats trotting across the street at sunset.

Camille Henrot’s ‘Mouth to Mouth’ is on view at Munch Museum, Oslo, until 26 February 2023.

Main image:
Camille Henrot,
Big Kiss, 2019, watercolour on paper, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Estelle Hoy is a writer and art critic. Their latest artist book Pisti, 80 Rue de Belleville was published by After 8 Books, Paris, in 2020. They are based in Berlin, Germany.

Camille Henrot is an artist based in New York, USA. In 2022, she has had solo exhibitions at Middelheim Museum, Antwerp, Munch Museum, Oslo, and Kunstverein Salzburg.