interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
all artwork copyright CAMILLE HENROT
courtesy of the artist and kamel mennour
paris/london, copyright ADAGP, paris 2020
going beyond the conventional bouquet, the ephemeral flower sculptures of camille henrot borrow from the japanese ikebana tradition: intimate rituals celebrating life, beauty, and books.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I keep coming back to your flower installations. What attracted you to flowers?
CAMILLE HENROT — A mix of personal circumstances and chance. I was moving to New York. All the stuff I’d decided to move with me, for my life and the studio, was in a container that got blocked by customs for a year. So, I didn’t have my books. It was also a time when I was accumulating a lot of objects on eBay, and I found this really beautiful book about Sogetsu ikebana from the 1960s. It was the perfect expression of live beauty — the perfect gesture. But I didn’t know what to do with that discovery — whether to do photography or learn ikebana myself. So, I started to buy all the books I could find about ikebana and began reading about it. And then my cousin got shot and killed in a parking lot in France, at age 20, and I ended up doing the floral decorations for the ceremony. A lot of people from my family came up to me, especially his mother, saying that they had focused on the floral arrangement during the ceremony and that it really helped them. I was interested in the consoling power of flowers. I was in mourning. It sounds a bit futile, but I was also grieving my books, which were still blocked overseas. And so, I was learning ikebana, thinking about loss and about what it means to be uprooted. Books and flower arrangements have a similar function in human culture: consolation and refuge from the outside world. In ancient Greece there existed a whole canon of literature about consolation. There’s also a connection between globalization and the circulation of seeds and plants. And there’s the development of an industrial culture of flowers for the market in the Netherlands. That’s how the idea of translating my library into flower arrangements came about. There are multiple connections between flowers and books. There’s the Latin name of plants, which comes from mythology or storytelling, and the fact that the book was once a plant, and can completely disintegrate into plant life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it’s organic.
CAMILLE HENROT — Yes, exactly. And when you say “portfolio” — like what we’re doing for the magazine — the origin of that word comes from “leaves.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell us about ikebana.
CAMILLE HENROT — Ikebana is a very ancient Japanese tradition. In the Nihon Shoki, there was a princess named Izanami who was greatly loved by her people, and when she died — very young, I think, at 22 — the people started to make flower arrangements to honor the place where she was buried. It’s very similar to our own practice of creating flower arrangements for the dead.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s historical.
CAMILLE HENROT — It’s information I found in the Sogetsu book. And later, with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, it became part of the Buddhist and Zen practices. So, it’s spiritual. But it’s also in everyday life because the distinct separation between the rituals of artistic, spiritual, and daily life don’t really exist in the same way in Japanese culture as they do in the West. There’s a sense of spirituality in the act of drinking water from a very beautiful, plain handmade glass or bowl. All objects have a spirit and an energy. The traditional ikebana schools were created with different motivations. There’s the Ikenobō; there’s Ohara. And then, in the 20th century, the Sogetsu School was created. It was a revolution in the world of ikebana because this school freed up some of the traditional rules. Sofu Teshigahara created the school. He was a friend of John Cage and invited many artists to participate in ikebana presentations. He said ikebana can be practiced anytime, by anybody using any materials. His great-great-granddaughter is now the Iemoto [head] of the Sogetsu School. Recently we exhibited this project in Japan thanks to the support of the Sogetsu Foundation. She came to the exhibition and gave me a signed copy of her new book. It was like a dream.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, was it a democratization of ikebana?
CAMILLE HENROT — It’s more about establishing continuity between tradition and modernity. Sogetsu ikebana is more accessible and more creative, in the sense that you don’t have to respect all the rules of the Ikenobō School, which is strict and very difficult. I tried once with an ikebana master, while working on the project — we wanted to do one really traditional Ikenobō. We didn’t manage. It’s very, very difficult. Flowers have very different physical properties. Some are rigid, some are flexible. And if you want to compose a certain shape, you need to be a master of equilibrium. Bending the stem in a certain direction requires incredible technique. Making the flowers sit in the vase in a certain way also requires cutting a branch inside and building some kind of micro nest with branches that allows them to have exactly the right position. It’s quite a world of rigor, balance, and humility.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you speak about the symbolism of the flower? Is it a symbol of life, or love, or both?
CAMILLE HENROT — Flowers are really one of the most open objects. And that’s also why they’re interesting — they’re so banal. You asked what led me to flowers, and I said it’s a combination of personal and random things. There was also a Roland Barthes lecture, “How to Live Together,” that I was listening to on my way to the studio in New York. Barthes talks about flowers, and he explains that flowers are banal, and that when something is banal, that’s where you have to dig further. In his analysis, what’s interesting about flowers is that they are a symbol of wealth, of abundance, and are connected with the word “paradise,” which comes from para¯daijah, Persian for “behind the wall.” Because behind walls were gardens with really beautiful flowers, and this was a sign of wealth. It’s still the case today. As to the meaning of flowers, they are pretty ambivalent objects because they suggest wealth but also something available outside of the monetary system. Their life is short and they can be collected everywhere. They’re also gender dynamic because flowers were often offered as a gift to women — and also as a form of compensation. But compensation for what? There’s also an association between flowers and leisure, which led to the title of the installation — Is it Possible to Be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers? It’s a question that’s asked of Lenin by one of his lieutenants — who doesn’t wait for a reply and says, “You start by liking flowers, and soon enough, you become a landowner who is lazily sitting in his hammock and reading French novels.” So, flowers and literature are perceived as signs of wasted time and value, of privilege and leisure, the enemy of revolution. But flowers have been the symbol of revolution, too, starting with the French Revolution. There’s the Carnation Revolution, the Tulip Revolution. So, it is a symbol of class divide while not really belonging to a single class.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We also give them to celebrate love and mourning.
CAMILLE HENROT — Yes, the limits of love and life. In the poetry of the Middle Ages, flowers were often used as a gift to the woman, but also to remind her that she’s not going to be young forever. [Laughs] I was thinking about a Ronsard poem that irritated me when I was younger. There are many examples of flowers as symbols of vanity, and also as an argument to convince young women to do what men want, because they’ll soon lose their beauty.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A cruel gift.
CAMILLE HENROT — Actually, I didn’t like flowers before I did that project, and I often work with objects I don’t like. It wasn’t easy for me to understand why I didn’t like flowers. Probably it was the gender connotation — the implication of sexual duty, and possibly the association with disease and death. The upper class status, too. I didn’t like being offered flowers. I associated flower shops with death — and saw pet shops as prisons. But after moving to the US, having an empty studio, and connecting with the ikebana tradition and experimenting with the consoling power of flowers, I started to change my mind. But it’s also their perversity that makes flowers interesting and connects them to literature, which is full of perversity and dark corners or no corners at all; darkness is everywhere… They are charming and pleasant and non-threatening but related to the darkest aspects of our existence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how did you join the flowers with the vases? Did you find the vases or make them?
CAMILLE HENROT — Originally I found vases in the street, in the trash, in secondhand stores, or simply empty containers. I wanted to find a way to play and work with them. I photographed them, drew them. I made collages of the vases I was thinking of using for each flower arrangement. This latest exhibition featured arrangements dedicated to contemporary Japanese literature, using locally produced traditional Japanese vases. The arrangements look different because they’re reproductions of early ones, from when I started the project. They’re made by masters from the Sogetsu School. The Tokyo show combined very early compositions I did in 2010 and new ones made with master arrangers. Between 2010 and 2019, I worked with ikebana masters Rica Arai and Pamela Tam for the different iterations of the project Is It Possible to Be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers? Through working with the masters of the masters Katei Motoe and Kazuko Nakada of Sogetsu, and with the editor of Sogetsu magazine, Ikuko Yokouchi, I understood Sogetsu was so much more than just a school open to individual expression, because ikebana is also a philosophy of life. I wanted the exhibition to be a project with the Sogetsu Foundation. I was a bit intimidated, but thought, “Maybe we don’t need the masters of the master.” Then the head of Sogetsu said they’re the most open-minded — because in Sogetsu open-mindedness is a core issue.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can we see the combination of vase and flowers like a couple? Or as a metaphor for love? Or having a masculine and feminine side?
CAMILLE HENROT — Not really. [Laughs] I’m not so much into those binary categories. The love story is more between the composition and literature because it’s a declaration of love to my book collection.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Between books and flowers.
CAMILLE HENROT — Yes. I dream of making a year-long ikebana exhibition. We’d have a work calendar, and you’d have Proust’s In Search of Lost Time from September to October, a History of the French Revolution from April to May, and Hannah Arendt’s On Violence from June to September. Each period would have a different timeline and a different set of flowers, those from a specific period of the year.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you choose the flowers with the ikebana master? Or do you ask them to work with a certain flower?
CAMILLE HENROT — It depends. At the beginning — and for most of the project — I chose them myself. But for the Tokyo exhibition, I had an e-mail correspondence with the ikebana masters and the curator. I didn’t know which flowers were available at that time of the year, nor their names in Japanese or the translation of their names in French or English. It was really complex. Translation was one of the central problems of the project: the translation of books into flowers, and the limits of cultural translation. For each flower composition, I wrote a little text using keywords to describe the book, the emotion, the idea of the shape, and what my vision of it was, including suggestions of which flowers to use. They’d send back comments telling me which Japanese flower would fit. Then we discussed the meanings of those different flowers in Japanese, French, and English cultures. We are now in the process of publishing a book with these conversations and the making of this project in Japan with curator Shino Nomura.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Aren’t flowers largely seen as symbols of women?
CAMILLE HENROT — In Japan, flowers are associated with femininity. Yet, a lot of ikebana masters are men. The Sogetsu School was created by a man. But if you really look into the different associations with flowers, it’s much wider than that. It’s only one of the associations.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s amazing in a flower is its androgynous reproductive system. It’s neither male nor female — it’s both.
CAMILLE HENROT — Yeah. Flowers have plenty of different systems of reproduction. They are also a good partner to words because they are so many things. They escape the very idea of definition or categories.