Purple Magazine
— The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

camille henrot

camille henrot

interview by DONATIEN GRAU
portrait by MARLENE MARINO

paris remains a city
for the art of conversation
and for confrontation

DONATIEN GRAU — You’re a French artist who decided six years ago to live between Paris and New York. How do you see Paris?
CAMILLE HENROT — Paris is my town. It’s an integral part of my identity. In a way, I feel that I’m always in Paris and, at the same time, always seeing Paris and my Parisian identity from the outside. Whenever I’m in the United States, being French and hailing from Paris is how others see me, like the clue to a riddle. I’m a Parisian first, a woman second, and an artist third. That’s how my identity gets simplified. The specificity of what I am at this moment — after 20 years of work — ends up falling into a sort of generic category like “French artist.” It’s reductive.

DONATIEN GRAU — What do you like about Paris?
CAMILLE HENROT — Paris remains a city for conversation. Because in France, there’s a real art of conversation for the pleasure of ideas, for the sake of conversation, and also for confrontation. Conversation that isn’t trying to accomplish some professional objective. What I like about Parisians is that they’re impolite — they’ll cross swords with you and criticize. They have a rather combative spirit, an envie d’en découdre [they’re itching for a fight]: I like that expression. Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste describes Paris as a paradise of the word, where you “state, repeat, contradict, predict, slander.” He skewers Parisians as a “people of unique individuals whose law holds that one must do what no one has ever done and no one will ever do.”

DONATIEN GRAU — So, why did you leave Paris?
CAMILLE HENROT — I have a somewhat conflictual relation with Paris because it’s my hometown, and it’s where my parents and family live, the place where I grew up. When I was a child, I was pretty inseparable from the place: Paris and home weren’t distinct notions. Since I was something of a “housecat,” something of a homebody, as they say, I hated the very idea of going on vacation. When we were on vacation, I was always asking when we’d be going back. For me, there was nothing better, nothing more enviable, nothing more comfortable, than being in Paris, at the house. For me, then, maybe the concept of Paris is the idea of the familiar — and of worry over the mix of comfort and discomfort that that idea entails.

DONATIEN GRAU — With you, there’s always a double bind. On the one hand, all your work turns on the world of the intimate, the things that are immediately close to you. On the other, you’re very much engaged in political, cultural, and cosmological questions.
CAMILLE HENROT — We might say that polarity — or how to conquer polarity, how to deconstruct it — is an essential theme in my work. What interests me is a sort of back and forth or the partial and conflictual connection between intimate, internal problems and planetary problems, like climate change, or problems that are even more cosmological. Is this approach peculiarly French? It’s evident in Montaigne’s Essays, and the way the particular and the general tie together is the fundamental dynamic of all French anthropology. The intimate and the universal are not contrary concepts. What is most intimate for us is what we share with the greatest number: the essential characteristics of being human, which are eating, hunger, desire, frustration, sleepiness, dreaming… And the cellphone and Internet access and social media only reinforce the constant interference between the intimate and the global that I find so interesting.

DONATIEN GRAU — How does that relation fit your vision of Paris and New York?
CAMILLE HENROT — Digital culture is more developed in New York. The walls are transparent, and political life is more polarized. In Paris, there are still secrets. The inner world and individual intimacy still have an uninterrupted existence. Opinions here are divergent and multiple by nature. They’re always in contradiction. An objection has barely arisen before someone raises a counter-objection. At first, I felt thoroughly dépaysée [far from home] in New York. I didn’t have a studio and was devoting all my time to learning the art of Japanese floral arrangement for a series of works called Is It Possible to Be a Revolutionary and Love Flowers? — a work that’s also a sort of homage to my library. The question is asked in Marcel Liebman’s account of a political meeting in his book Leninism Under Lenin. An activist explains that if you start liking flowers, you’ll soon take on the habits of a landlord who spends his days lounging in a hammock, being served orangeades and reading French novels. Yet another cliché about France! Just as we use flowers to invoke the absence of the dead, that piece of art was for me a way to invoke all the books I’d left behind in Paris, and also to express how hard it is to invoke them in the United States because so many of them haven’t been translated into English or are totally obscure over here. One thing that’s become clear to me in the conversations I have in New York is the specificity of my reading.

DONATIEN GRAU — To a great extent, Paris lives through books, stories, the past…
CAMILLE HENROT — There are a lot of ghosts in Paris, and they’ve given their names to the streets, so you end up walking through time. I walk down Boulevard Victor Hugo and arrive at Garibaldi… The names give the city a fairly patriarchal character — where are the women? In New York, everything’s always shifting on an abstract grid, where places are defined by Cartesian coordinates. Meeting places lie at the intersection of an abscissa and an ordinate. Being in New York is like watching a sped-up film. In Paris, the particles suddenly settle at the bottom of the glass. There’s something much calmer and more composed — but also more conservative. It’s complementary, actually. I rather like the dynamic between the two cities. Even if my relation to Paris is a bit like that of certain Japanese to Japan — it seems that when you leave Japan, even if you go back there to live, the Japanese cease to consider you Japanese. Having simply gone abroad — even temporarily, for a fairly short time — is enough to alter your identity. There’s a little bit of that with Parisians. The codes are fairly precise, and you need a certain amount of time to readapt when you get back.




[Table of contents]

The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

Table of contents

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