There was a time when the arts and sciences weren't so divided. There was no specialization and people aspired to universal knowledge. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was probably the last person to be able to make some claim to know everything. But of course, we know now, universal knowledge is impossible.
The French artist Camille Henrot plays with this impossible dream in her film Grosse Fatigue, on view in the BMA's Black Box through June 15. *The film is the result of Henrot's artist research fellowship at the Smithsonian, which was sponsored by The National Museum of the American Indian.
"When I applied for the Smithsonian research artists fellowship, I was advised to choose a very focused subject [so as] not to be lost in the huge possibilities," the artist says in her thick French accent. "But I wasn't able to, which was why I decided to work on the human desire to draw a complete image of things."
Rather than following a narrative, however, or applying some formal set of classifications to its images, this film about taxonomy and classifications follows a poetic sense of what the writer Lawrence Weschler calls convergences—visual associations and accidental similarities that point, improbably, to essential properties. An image of the earth is followed by one of a hand rolling an orange across a table, and the circularity of each transforms the other. But all of the images overlap in an ingenious presentation so that they look like a series of computer windows or folders, each partially covering or being replaced by the other. The film's 13-minute duration seems both instantaneous and of infinite duration, like being lost in an internet rabbit hole, distorting time with archive fever.
Some of Henrot's investigation into classification comes from the French philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Michel Foucault, whose The Order of Things was born of "a laughter that shattered . . . all the familiar landmarks of my thought." The laughter was caused by an essay by Jorge Luis Borges that describes a "Chinese" system of classification in which animals are divided into mutually contradictory and absurd categories such as: "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies."
It is hard not to think of this passage while watching scientists rifle through shelf after shelf of cataloged dead birds, or the other arcana of natural history are shuffled like cards on the screen.
But it is also inspired by Charles Sanders Peirce, perhaps the greatest American philosopher, whose only academic post was at Johns Hopkins in the late 19th century (the film flashes images of the index of his Logic and the Classification of Science) and the American artist Joseph Cornell, whose collage-like boxes also mimic and mock the search for universal knowledge and whose archives Henrot had access to during her residency.
"It's very banal," Henrot says modestly. "I don't know if it exists in English that you say, 'The more you know, the more you realize you don't know,' but it's true that making the research and working on this topic made me more aware of the limits. But I found also that I was more interested in why we need to do that. How is this all started, this desire to create a complete image and how it's also based in a fear of destruction and also a feeling of guilt."
This interest was not always well-received within the Smithsonian. The staff was generally friendly, helpful, and used to being filmed, but there was "also sometimes a bit suspicious because the project was about global knowledge, and from a scientific perspective it is the opposite" of what they are trying to do, says Henrot of the specialization that has dominated science since the 19th century. On the other hand, the staff, who were isolated in their own departments, used Henrot as a way to find out about what their colleagues in other departments were up to.
It is not only this breaking down of boundaries within science that gives Henrot's project power but the way she juxtaposes the desire for knowledge with a series of creation myths, set to a spoken-word cadence that draws on the now-universal language of hip-hop.
"I was very interested to compare the difference between oral society and written history and how those things interact," Henrot says, "and how they are related to our fear of destruction and threats basically. It was very obvious that the collection in the Natural History Museum, which is not just objects but animals, would be a very interesting topic to relate to the history of the creation of the world, the way it's been told by oral history, because . . . in a way it seems opposite" of classification.
"I started collecting different creation myths and stories of creation and the ways history has been told to anthropologists. There is the 'Pale Fox,' a very important source [from the Dogon people in Africa]. A lot of sentences from the soundtrack are coming from the 'Pale Fox,' but there are also a lot of sentences from the Hindu, there is the Shinto, there is Navajo, I don't remember the name of all the different sources, but there was more than 60 or something."
Henrot took the sentences that she liked from each of these and gave them to a poet friend who helped her build up a structure. "We decided that there would be a lot of starts, and the first part would be the beginning with the stars and the emptiness and everything that is not material," she says. "And the second part would be the creation of the earth, and the third part would be the oxygen the plants and animals and man, and then knowledge and loneliness and rest and dying, so it starts very general and ends with what all humans experience at one point. It ends in a both general and intimate way."
In other projects, such as Psychopompe, (see sidebar) Henrot uses a live band to play ambient noise music. Grosse Fatigue, she says, was the first time she had worked with human voiceovers, which posed the interesting problem of how closely the images should hew to the words being spoken. "Sometimes it had to make sense and sometimes it had to go away from what the words were saying," she says.
The piece was a hit at the Venice Biennale, where it won the Silver Lion Award for most promising newcomer and landed Henrot on the cover of Artforum magazine. She's currently at work on a related project called "Pale Fox," after the Dogon creation story.
"It is also related to the activity of putting everything in the same basket but also relating it more to the artist's activity," she says. "Like how in a way the activity of the artist as creation is connected to suspicion and how they interact, but also in an inglorious way, as sickness. The pale fox is the animal who is too curious and he is sick. It is the malady of knowledge." ?
Black Box: Camille Henrot is on view in the BMA's contemporary wing through June 15.