Camille Henrot and writer Estelle Hoy on the chimerical architecture of bridging mediums
On the occasion of “Jus d’Orange,” a collaborative exhibition by Henrot and Hoy on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Milan, through November 25, Ursula presents a conversation between the artist and the writer, accompanied by a portfolio of new paintings made for the show by Henrot.
Randy Kennedy: You two have known each other and have done pieces reacting to each other’s work for several years now. Since you live on separate continents and both travel quite a lot, I’m wondering how you keep up the connection and the conversation.
Estelle Hoy: Camille and I have quite divergent approaches to thinking about art, but despite working across different mediums, we share a similar working style. We are constantly communicating about various ideas and artistic propositions, yet our conversations are intertwined with bizarre facts and very random threads. Quite easily, we’ll begin a phone exchange about our collaborative project, Jus d’Orange, that evolves (or devolves) in numerous other directions, pulling in a lot of seemingly unrelated subjects: the behavior of sloths, the secret life of rats, Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic literature, Hélène Cixous’ writing, environmental injustice, an acerbic TV series that we’re writing together about the art world. It’s almost like clang associations, when words go together purely because of sound, not meaning. [Laughter.] It’s all mostly done with urgency, as though if we slow down, something might slip through the cracks. We started working together when Camille was still based in Berlin before moving back to New York City, which has its own secret rat life. The nature of our work frequently takes us to different countries, which is why much of our creative bandying is mediated by technology. I like how mishaps in language or lapses of intelligibility become starting points of their own, and I think we both enjoy auto-corrects, double-entendres, and their hilarious ramifications. For example, I recently told Camille about an Instagram post I’d made about my latest work, which had been published in the same literary publication alongside a writer who had recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I meant to write “with the great such-and-such,” but in crazy jet lag, I wrote, “the late, great.” By the time I was back on Instagram, I’d started an international rumor that this famous person had died! A total disaster. I think we both find these types of linguistic tumbles humorous.
Camille Henrot: Before we met in person, I had read Estelle’s essay “Ça m’est égal: The Involution of Desire” in Mousse Magazine. I was very troubled and intrigued by it. I felt a great intimacy with the tone of the writing, the idea and even the main image that went along with it (a painting of a fox running in the snow). It felt like it had been written by a sister from unknown parents, as if another Camille had written it. A bit like in Marcel Aymé’s book Les Sabines, in which the main character can’t make decisions in her life, and every time she is forced to make a decision, she separates into another person. I even used Estelle’s phrase as a title for one of my drawings. She and I come from different cultures, and we don’t always agree on things, but we share a similar disregard for hierarchy and filters. We both operate in a rhizomatic manner that may seem scattered from the outside, but isn’t. The connections operate underground; some of them we make visible and others we don’t. Our conversations were often happening through different channels (Instagram, WhatsApp, email, phone, voice messages, shared Google Docs), which fits our multiple personalities. “I contain multitudes.” Who said that? Whitman, I think. We both have a strong “resistance to permanence, order, closure” (a great phrase about New York City written by the late Janet Malcolm in a 2014 profile of David Salle for The New Yorker, discussed in Brian Dillon’s book Suppose a Sentence). Estelle and I meet and converge, sometimes through telepathic serendipity.
RK: There’s a level of existential angst that moves through “Jus d’Orange” that’s almost palpable and definitely chaotic. At the same time, there is a dryness of humor that creates some reprieve. How important was humor in the development of the exhibition?
CH: When I met Estelle it felt like dry earth meeting the rain. She was using words I didn’t understand, jumping from one topic to another in a way that totally made sense to me and helped me make sense of myself. Our mother tongues are different, and we both think faster than we type, so sometimes our exchanges lead to brilliant nonsense and hilarious misunderstandings. This was during the pandemic in Berlin when everything was closed. I had broken my wrist. The city was very un-sunny. The feelings of powerlessness and impotence at that time were overwhelming. It was in this context that our conversation started. An orange is sweet and sour, like humor, and also a symbol for the sun, the South, our longing for the sun in the endless Berlin winters, among other things.
EH: There is a need to approach tender, depressing topics and existential matters with a level of humor. One of the unraveling sections in the book component of the exhibition includes the text we worked on together for a show at Kamel Mennour, Paris, in 2022. Camille developed fantastic, hilarious paintings about etiquette, manners and slippages of language. In response, I cooked up some words presented in a humor-filled way:
Roland Barthes—a man of the cloth— reminded me that some things are simply unviable, and all annulments can be substituted with art. I tend to believe people.
Ugh. My Psychic Promised I’d Be Dead By Now
When I look at Camille’s work for “Jus d’Orange,” I see the same cynical tongue-in-cheek essence that brings deathly somnolence to life. One artwork depicts a Nietzsche-influenced Dracula-woman dressed in a tuxedo with a kind of lobster claw for a hand. [Laughs.] Camille presents a kind of annulment of complex/painful topics by underscoring them with hilarity. The Dracula-woman in the accompanying text is an existentially defeated, uneasy character, but Camille’s iteration nullifies fangs and dead gods through visual absurdity.
RK: Do you use chaos and discombobulation in the work as a way of annulling feeling?
EH: I’m all about annulling feelings. I don’t know if I’d agree that the chaos serves this purpose specifically, but I certainly think our aesthetic disconnection is a way of calculating a space where there’s a failure of control or coherency. I was recently reading the artist Amy Sillman’s book Faux Pas (2022) about her interest in the underdog, the dropout, the annulled. She talks about the weight of colors (literally) and how some colors are accessible only to the rich; cadmium red, she points out, costs the same amount as an ounce of the best caviar. She also references Benjamin, who argued that color is the very essence of childhood imagination, a form of innocence that can subvert the logic of capitalism. Camille’s paintings honor these questions about weight through the tones of orange. Each work appears to weigh a different amount; shades unravel in light and heavy variations of a single color: vinegary orange juice; blood navel oranges; spiraling, washed-out saffron, and golden marmalade.
CH: I think the shades came from your description of an aperitif cocktail in your essay “Venetian Waters of Jus d’Orange,” Estelle. My favorite cocktail is the Aperol spritz. It’s really the only alcohol I’ve been drinking for the last two years because I don’t like the taste of wine anymore. Orange is usually a color that is opaque—construction uniforms, road signs. It is unsubtle, like red. Colors like these are ones we think of as undiluted, literally “absolutes.” Absolute hell, maybe. The fact that blue exists in an infinite number of shades is easier for us to appreciate because of the sky and water. In painting, I have always disliked and secretly adored orange. Acid colors bring an element of disgust. It is like a bite. In the text and the paintings there are a lot of beings who are shadows of themselves—ghosts, vampires, disembodied, yes, but longing for flesh. The pandemic brought me a newly found awareness of the inside of my body. Also of my age. I see my veins popping out from under my skin more and more. Like a map. I like seeing the veins, I realize, because they represent the idea of juice, vitality, fluidity, energy, a force of nature contouring the obstacles (the bones) and irrigating the muscles.
RK: Despite the heaviness of some of the themes—existential ennui, social injustice, meaninglessness—there appears to be a slow-burning aesthetic charge toward hope in the show, or at the very least, the desire to approach it. Is that a misread?
CH: Hope is an abstract idea. It’s very intangible. I don’t think we would have the word “hope” if there was no reason to despair. Georges de la Tour’s painting The Repentant Madgalen (c. 1635/1640) is an apt representation of the concept, I think. The one source of light in the image (the candle) illuminates the whole scene. Like hope, a flame is intangible and fragile. It can be seen clearly only in surroundings of darkness. I think you can only talk about hope in a meaningful way if you are prepared to accept despair in your life, almost to domesticate it, the same way you’d accept a stray cat in your garden. You have to live alongside it in order to understand what it is. I think that there’s a form of perversity in hope. It can sometimes be dangerous. Within activist circles, it’s a tool to spark change, but it is also used as a conduit for control by authorities who prey on our weaknesses. It’s a powerful tool for both the oppressed and the oppressor. Estelle and I are inquisitive and combative by nature, I think. We are both porous to the darker aspects of contemporary existence, but alongside that deep empathy, we both have strategies of deviation or distraction in order to cope and compartmentalize. It’s like when you feel an intense emotion and fall asleep in reaction to it, from exhaustion. That disconnect is playful, I would say.
EH: Hope is such a charged word, which makes me love it even more. It’s like a measure on earth, something outside of the conventional sphere, and there’s an unconscious collective understanding around it, I think. It confirms the necessity of our being in this insane theatre of life. But having said that I feel as if I’ve said nothing. Let’s try again … Put simply, yes, there is a movement towards hope in “Jus d’Orange,” but it occurs concurrently with the inexistence we sometimes/always feel. Peeling away the notion of singularity as it pertains to melancholia and hope opens new possibilities of interpretation, new flesh, new pulp of meaning. Or as Cixous said, or maybe it was Camille: “Toute orange est originaire.” [“Every orange originates.”] If that’s not hopeful, I don’t know what is.
RK: You’ve talked about your feelings about the color, but I’d maybe ask again, about this collaboration: Why oranges?
CH: Orange is both infernal—fire, pain, an almost intolerable intensity—and energizing—the sun, summertime, vitamin C. The acrylic pigment I used for the paintings in the exhibition is called “Hell.” I only noticed this late in the process of painting for this show. The orange is also a shape, not just a color. It’s the round shape of the fruit. Estelle writes about the final scene in my film Grosse Fatigue (2013), where a hand is rolling an orange on a table surface. Her text made me wonder why I had used an orange in my film, and I think for me it represented the world. When I was young there was a children’s book called Le Monde est comme une orange, Lola! [The world is like an orange, Lola!], which I really loved. It was absurd. Two wild mice were peeling an orange in the book. The orange was a big container for many words and things. For some reason, this image and phrase imprinted on me at the time, in that distorted way you encounter things in childhood. The round shape also assumes some kind of totality, I suppose. It makes me think again of Cixous, who I read a lot of while in Berlin around the time I met Estelle. Cixous has this capacity to fit very large ideas into simple objects. In Vivre l’orange, she writes: “And to all of the women whose voices are like hands that come to meet our souls when we are searching for the secret, we have needed, vitally, to leave to search for what is most secret in our being, I dedicate the gift of the orange.” The “gift of the orange” really speaks to me—it comes from a childhood memory of being told that in the past, children would only receive an orange for Christmas. This was told to us to illustrate how spoiled we were as children. The orange (the fruit) was a luxury. It was the sun in the dark. It was something that, like hope, was almost an abstraction, a representation of something larger. It was the promise of something.
The practice of French artist Camille Henrot moves between film, painting, drawing, bronze, sculpture and installation. Henrot draws upon literature, psychoanalysis, social media, cultural anthropology, self-help and the banality of everyday life in order to question what it means to be both a private individual and a global subject. She has had numerous solo exhibitions at institutions including the New Museum, New York; Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin; Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Japan; Middleheim Musuem of Art, Antwerp and Munch Museum, Oslo.
Estelle Hoy is a writer and art critic based in Berlin. She is author of the critically acclaimed book, Pisti, 80 Rue de Belleville (2020). She regularly publishes in international art journals, including Spike Art, Artforum, apartmento and Frieze. She has exhibited in galleries and institutions including White Cube; Kamel Mennour, Paris; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, alongside artists including Camille Henrot, Louise Bourgeois, Anne Imhof and Sarah Lucas. Hoy is editor at large for Flash Art International.