Magazine article Artforum International

The Whole Earth Is Heavy

Magazine article Artforum International

The Whole Earth Is Heavy

Article excerpt

  In the beginning there was no earth, no water--nothing. There was   a single hill called Nunne Chaha. In the beginning everything was   dead. In the beginning there was nothing; nothing at all. No light,   no life, no movement, no breath. In the beginning there was an   immense unit of energy. ...    --Grosse Fatigue, 2013 

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE DESKTOP. So commences Grosse Fatigue, Camille Henrot's thirteen-minute video based on her residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, a place in which the imperial claims of scientific knowledge find diverse expression in the world's largest museum and its rituals of collecting objects and managing information. Set to a spoken-word narrative about the creation of the universe, Grosse Fatigue, among the first time-based works one encounters in curator Massimiliano Gioni's Arsenale (and the winner of the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale's Silver Lion), tracks the range of such research agendas with an expanding field of images that pop up, roil, collide, and implode across a computer screen, a digital tabula rasa that itself perpetually reinvents the world.

Though most of the work's imagery seems culled from the realms of natural history, physics, and anthropology, the logic connecting its representations is not entirely apparent at first viewing. Yet the excessiveness of Henrot's visual archive seems to be the point--Grosse Fatigue is a black hole of browsers, founded on a highly mediated notion of creation. Fish skeletons are gently prodded in their preservative baths. Feminine hands, with nails painted red and green, finger black-and-white photographs of tribal peoples recalling outdated ethnography textbooks. Someone flips through the pages of a SkyMall catalogue. In quickening succession, we see dead bees and shells and more well-manicured hands manipulating objects; a Darwinian proxy in the form of a giant tortoise, and, later, turtle eggs being laid in the sand; vignettes of Smithsonian office culture, including a mylar HAPPY BIRTHDAY balloon slowly twisting against fluorescent lights. We watch as wooden African artifacts are posed against brightly colored backgrounds with Fujicolor test strips in front; we see a male torso, and later a female torso, moving in water, with soap running down. There are screen grabs of Google searches and a photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Perhaps most disquieting of all (particularly considering the number of video clips in the piece) is the sizable population of dead birds presented throughout. A drawer full of toucans--row upon row of sad avian stiffs--can only fail to impart the "immense unit of energy" announced in the voice-over at the beginning. The collection telegraphs the exact opposite, in fact: what the narrator, musician and artist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh, later describes as "violent relaxation" in the creation of the universe.

What binds these disparate images, objects, and gestures together, keeps them circulating in the same epistemological orbit? The accompanying narrative--cowritten with the poet Jacob Bromberg and set to a propulsive hip-hop beat by the artist's partner, Joakim Bouaziz--is an analogous mash-up of oral histories of the Creation, name-checking demiurgic figures ranging from the Great God Bumba, Amma, Ptah, Ometeotl, Ra, and Andumbulu to Yahweh, and delivered with a sense of near messianic fervor. But no matter how prominently Carl Jung figures in the Biennale's Central Pavilion, Henrot's video is no paean to a transcendent collective unconscious. On the contrary, Grosse Fatigue shatters any image of a fully integrated system of knowledge or totality.

Henrot introduces her approach through an image both sublime and banal: that of the Milky Way. The image is sublime because few things, of course, are as evocative as this galactic phenomenon, its unimaginable scale and inky depths forcing questions of time, genesis, and the limits of representation all at once. But it is equally banal due to its ubiquity as digital wallpaper. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.