Camille Henrot, What Did U Say, 2019, watercolor on paper, 30 × 22". From the series “System of Attachment,” 2019–21.

Camille Henrot, What Did U Say, 2019, watercolor on paper, 30 × 22". From the series “System of Attachment,” 2019–21.

Camille Henrot

When Camille Henrot set out to make a series of paintings during the first Covid-19 lockdown last year, she decided to reduce her palette to an intense and radiant red. This red seemed to channel the color of exhaustion, the crimson she saw when she closed her eyes and turned her face to a bright light—an emphatically physical mode of vision, explicitly screened through her own flesh and blood. On view as part of her exhibition “Mother Tongue,” curated by Julika Bosch, Henrot’s 2020 series “Is Today Tomorrow?” confronts the chaos of everyday life—sleep-deprivation, self-isolation—as a mother under lockdown, but these paintings, as they developed, gradually assumed a strange and more fantastic mode. The figures of mother and child morphed into birds, whereas the figure of the father was reconceived, if in name only, as Saturn.

The overriding sense of confusion and disorientation set in train by the lockdown is echoed not only in the title of the series but also in those of the individual paintings, for instance, I’m both Saturn’s child and Saturn himself, 2020. Here, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, ca. 1820–23, is reworked as a domestic bathroom scene, the act of cannibalism temporarily held in abeyance. In Tomorrow will be a better day, 2020, the act has been achieved: The mother is reimagined as an ogre; she is depicted as devouring the head of her child. This act of violence is reworked from a watercolor also on view: What Did U Say, 2019, from the series “System of Attachment,” 2019–21. In both paintings, mother and child appear locked in a violent cycle of intimacy. Yet there is a sense that the violence of these pictures is ultimately ambivalent, the child willingly participating in this act of cannibalism, expressing curiosity about the mother’s organ of speech, entering the mouth as a way to enter into language.

Motherhood is a persistent theme of “Is Today Tomorrow?” and “System of Attachment,” but Henrot’s conception of motherhood is a profane one, degendered and desacralized. The latter series includes a group of sculptures that oscillate between visceral depictions of the postpartum body and more imaginative renderings that approach the monstrous, the machinic, and the nonhuman. The face in Celui qui a faim (The Hungry One), 2020, is the image of insatiable hunger, a visage that appears to suffocate under the weight of its three tongues and ill-formed teeth. Mon corps de femme (My Woman’s Body), 2019, is a body fashioned as a chair, its breasts shaped like knives. The folds piled at the center of the sculpture are molded to echo the viscosity of flesh as it registers in the mother’s body that slowly rediscovers its form after giving birth. Although this body might be perceived as a lost land since it is so changed, its vulnerability is recast as a strength; the knives are its weapons.