She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism exhibition at the NGV til August

Reading Time: 16 minutes

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism is an exhibition, which is currently showing at the NGV. It contains more than 250 works and is on show until late August.  Sophie Gerhard is the Assistant Curator of Australian Art to 1980 and Assistant Curator on the She-oak and sunlight exhibition. We had a chat to her about her curatorial role, Australian impressionism and the exhibition.

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism

 

She-oak and sunlight - Sophie Gerhard
Portrait of Sophie Gerhard,
Assistant Curator of
Australian Painting,
Sculpture and Decorative
Arts, NGV, inside She-Oak
and Sunlight: Australian
Impressionism on display at
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV
Australia from 2 April – 22
August 2021.
Photo: Eugene Hyland

Sophie Gerhard, could you tell us a little bit about your role as the Assistant curator of Australian art to 1980, as well as your curatorial role on the She-oak and sunlight exhibition?

I’ve been at the NGV for about two and a half years now and my responsibilities are to assist with the production of exhibitions, but also in the maintenance of the collection.

 

For temporary exhibitions, I’m there really right from the start. I was really fortunate to be given up quite a major role in the exhibition doing a lot of research and writing of labels. I wrote two essays for the exhibition catalogue. It’s a learning opportunity to get my curatorial skills underway and as I said, this show was so big that there was lots to learn.

 

I can imagine. What made you decide to move into a curatorial role?

I tried to do the whole going down the art route. I did a year of studying fine art at university and quickly sort of discovered that it wasn’t for me.

 

So in terms of making art, is that you studying art to make art yourself?

I started studying painting but moved onto study art history. And that’s the bridge to going into curating. Art history is really such a strong passion of mine. And I think that it’s an important love if you are a curator because research is such a big part of the job. I actually have wanted to be a curator from a pretty young age, so I’m fortunate to be where I am.

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism
Media preview event for She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Getty

 

Ok, so when you were in school, you knew you wanted to be in this role?

Well, I didn’t really know what a curator was, but certainly like when I was 18, at my first year of university, that was when I discovered that I that was that was sort of when I learned what a curator was. And I think that the profession has changed so much even in the last ten years. It’s become a lot more specialised. Yeah. So, yeah, that’s about that.

 

Become specialised in terms of?

Oh well I think it depends where you work really and how big the institution is. If you’re a curator of a smaller gallery, your role is so far stretched. It comes with researching, but also exhibition management and design and installation, all of those things are encompassed within the curatorial position at a smaller gallery. In State galleries, the role is so specialized, we all have our major topics that we like to talk about. There are seven or eight curatorial departments and within those departments is 3 or 4 curators, each with a sort of specialized fields. And we all kind of know who to talk to about different topics.

 

So, in terms of specialties then, did you choose your specialty of Australian art to 1980 or was that kind of just the position you currently in?

I was really fortunate. It was sort of exactly where I wanted to go. In my undergraduate degree in art history and museum studies. I wrote my thesis on Australian national identity in Australia’s art galleries. And in Masters Art Curating I did my thesis on, again, national identity and so I always knew that I wanted to focus on the sort of Australianness of our collections, the Australian story that the collections try to emit. And so, yeah, when the Assistant Curator job in Australian art came up, it was definitely the right fit for me. And not only that, I wanted to work in historical art as opposed to contemporary art. So, I was really fortunate in that position came up. It was pretty up my alley.

She-oak and sunlight
Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

It was made for you! That leads quite nicely into the She-oak and sunlight exhibition. It shows more than two hundred and fifty artworks drawn both from major public and private collections, including the NGV’s own. How many years is it taken to put an exhibition like this together?

So this exhibition was in the works as I came into my role two and a half years ago. But it was when I started that it really began to gain momentum.  I was working on it consistently for two years before the show started. And I think for about a year before then, there were conversations happening. So, it takes around three years for these big shows to get on their feet.

 

And in regards to the artworks that were drawn from private collections for the She-oak and sunlight exhibition, were they uniquely Australian held private collections or are there Australian impressionist works held overseas?

There are Australian impressionist works overseas, but none within the exhibition. They are all Australian based, which is extremely fortunate in the end with COVID. So, it took about a year just even trying to figure out where all of these works were in the country. You have to go through piece by piece and look back through exhibition records and auction catalogues.

 

She-oak and sunlight
Tom Roberts
Australia 1856 – 1931 She-oak and sunlight 1889
oil on wood panel
30.4 × 30.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Jean Margaret Williams Bequest, K. M. Christensen and A. E. Bond Bequest, Eleanor M. Borrow Bequest, The Thomas Rubie Purcell and Olive Esma Purcell Trust and Warren Clark Bequest, 2019

 

The She-oak and sunlight exhibition shows works from a large number of Australian impressionists, some we’ve obviously heard all along the lines of Tom Roberts, Arthur Street and Charles Conder, John Russell but also some lesser-known artists. Were the Australian Impressionists, kind of a group that hung out together like the French ones were?

They certainly were. They all had their key relationships. But one of the important threads of this exhibition is to interrogate that and to have a look at it. The curator, Anne Gray is very interested in these relationships, and she’s always talking about how none of the impressionists were in the same place at the same time. So three might have been working in Victoria, Tom Roberts would leave and go to Sydney, where he’d meet Condor and he’d be introduced to Julian Ashton. Those 3 would work together for a while.

 

And then, E. Phillips Fox is in Box Hill working with Jane Sutherland and the others, and then the Charterisville School of Art came about. So they all definitely knew each other but actually they were never all together at the same time. A lot of them went to Europe at some point in their career. Another time when relationships were formed and met, a lot of them at art school, at the National Gallery School in Victoria. So, we really were really trying to build these personal relationships and have a look at the kind of map of their friendships as well in the exhibition.

 

You mentioned that they travelled some of them have travelled to Europe. Was that during the impressionistic period? Is that where they go, I guess, caught wind of the impressionist movement?

Yes. So Roberts was the first person to head over to Europe and he was there for five or six years. And he gets back in 1885. So, while he was over there for that half decade, that was when he was introduced to the principles of working en plein air and the quick rough sketches that were happening during the European impressionist phase.

She-oak and sunlight
Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

And it was when he was on a trip to the Alhambra in Spain that he met a couple of Spanish artists, Ramón Casas was one of them. Casas did this really quick portrait of Robert sitting outside of the Alhambra. And that was sort of the first meeting point, I guess, between Roberts and the impressionist movement. He was blown away that this portrait was completed in one sitting outside. And so when Roberts comes back to Australia, he brings back these techniques and principles and teaches his friends, and that’s sort of the birth of the movement across here.

 

From there, many of the Australian impressionists did sojourn in Europe. So we’ve got Iso Rae, for example spent time in France, as did Florence Fuller, May Vale and Violet Teague.

 

We are seeing these European influences come in and out of the whole sort of trajectory of the movement. It was a bit later on when they went across and discovered Whistler, who obviously had an enormous impact on the movement back across here. And John Russell, of course, he was over there for such a long time. So in the show, this international context is so important to extending this narrative of the movement in Australia. So, we have the French influenced room within the show that we see a lot of these influences taking place.

 

So at She-oak and sunlight there’s a French influenced room and there’s also the exploration of the key relationships between the various Australian impressionists. Are they all themed rooms through the exhibition?

It’s a thematic and loosely chronological hang. So, we open up with the precursors, so we have some Buvelots, just to show what it was like in Australia beforehand. And then we move into this portrait section where we have a whole dense mass hang of portraits of the Australian impressionists and by the Australian impressionists. Most of the artists in the show are on this wall. It’s sort of like the introduction to the cast of characters.

Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

Yes, it’s quite nice to see the faces of the people behind the paintings.

Because friendships and relationships are so important to the curator. It was really nice to start the show off in this way. That room is called Friends and Rivals. So, then we walk through the camps, we’ve Box Hill and Darebin Creek and Mentone and whatnot.

 

Then we have a really small room, that is a sort of thematical recreation in a sense of the 1889 Nine by Five exhibition, which was obviously a pivotal exhibition that was held on Collins Street in Melbourne. One of the other themed rooms in the show is the Charterisville School of Art room, which was a school that was on the Ivanhoe at the turn of the century, and that was a school run by E Philips Fox and David Davies. So we’ve got some fantastic works that were created in that school.

 

We’ve also got a small room devoted to Whistler and his influences. And then the French Impressionism influence room. We’ve got a lot of artists, Australian artists that went overseas to France, but also a lot of French artists so we’ve got a Monet and a Sisley painting within that space too.

Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

And then the show finishes in another thematic room that sort of has two themes that run along side by side. Firstly, the majority of the room is focused on Australian narratives, and it has these really blockbuster iconographical paintings that were Shearing the Rams, The Pioneer, A break away – all of these works that were created at the time to touch upon a building sense of national identity that was extremely important within non-Indigenous society at the time in Australia. But then alongside those paintings, we have put five works on paper by Wurundjeri artist, William Barak, and he was an artist working at the same time and also in Victoria. The pairing here is to sort of remind our audiences that even though non-Indigenous artists were working towards a sense of national identity within these paintings, there was most definitely a very important national identity that had already been established for over 60,000 years by that point.

Tom Roberts Australia 1856 – 1931 Shearing the rams 1890 oil on canvas on composition board 122.4 x 183.3 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1932

 

And also to these Australian impressionists are so often connected with what it looks like to be Australian, like the sheep shearer, for example, and the pioneer narratives. And so, again, it’s just a reminder for audiences that that is just one aspect of what Australian national identity looks like.

 

And that’s important as well, something that can often kind of get forgotten about in some of the exhibitions. What’s your favourite piece in the She-oak and sunlight exhibition?

My favourite pieces in the show would definitely be work from within the French room. There are just some divine works in that space and probably the Charles Conder Hayfields of Giverny. It’s just a wonderful painting. I just love the palette. I love the feel. I love everything about it. Also, Iso Rae’s Young girl, Étaples, which is a really recent acquisition by the NGV from 2020. That’s a really exciting new addition to our collection. That’s fantastic. To have her own show in this room. So probably those two works.

Charles Conder Hayfield, Giverny, France
Medium oil on canvas Dimensions 60.3 x 73.5 cm
Gifted to mark 50 years of giving by M.J.M. Carter AO Collection through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2016. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program Signature and date Signed and dated l.r. corner, oil “C. CONDER. 94” credit
Photo: Saul Steed

How would you say that the paintings that are showcased in the She-oak and sunlight exhibition would be different to French impressionist paintings?

It’s a funny thing because so many of the Australian impressionist paintings are not technically impressionist works. I mean, Shearing the Rams – it’s not an impressionist painting, even though it was completed by Tom Roberts within the same decades, you know.

 

What they have in common is portraying a sense of life that was happening at that point in history, and so the French works were outside capturing these wonderful bourgeois society, people promenading, market squares, a lovely way of life. And across here, we had such a different atmosphere and such different lives for the people that were living in Australia at that time. So even though both types of impressionism are outside and capturing the landscape in these quick, painterly gestures, there are so many similarities when it comes to the sort of physicality of the works, but the themes that are captured are completely different. We’ve got McCubbin in dense bushland at the same time that Monet is painting the cliffs at Belle Ile. So, I think that the key differences are the themes, the things, even though they were sort of striving for similar things.

She-oak and sunlight exhibition
Frederick McCubbin Australia 1855-1917 Lost c.1886 Oil on canvas 115.8 x 73.9 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

You mentioned that the shearer isn’t technically an impressionist work. Is that because it’s not in the style of or just because the subject matter isn’t typical of impressionist works?

Well when we think of impressionism, we think of capturing an impression of the moment don’t we. Really, there’s a naturalist sort of sense to works like The Pioneer and Shearing the Rams are not they’re not impressions that they’re capturing – I guess the style of them is just not what we think of when we think of impressionism, but we’ve put them into the show because they’re an incredibly important part of the history of these artists. And they’re so loved.

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism
Frederick McCubbin
Australia 1855-1917 The pioneer 1904 oil on canvas 225.0 x 295.7 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1906

So essentially that they’re included more as part of the completeness of the artist’s story rather than upsetting the impressionist work.

They complete the picture, don’t they?

 

Was there the same kind of use of brush stroke or colour in the Australian works to the French works?

There’s definitely similarities in the execution of the works. And I think that we probably see it more for the artists that went abroad. So people like Ethel Carrick, who worked in both Australia and in Europe, brushwork and palette is extremely similar to that of John Russell and Monet, for example. I think it’s hard because the artists are so different to one another, really.

Ethel Carrick Australia 1872 – 1952 Flower market 1907 oil on wood panel National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by the late Major B. R. F. MacNay, and Mrs D. Mac`Nay, Fellow 1994

In the story of Australian impressionism, Frederick McCubbins’ early impressionist works are so different to that of Charles Conder. So, I probably wouldn’t draw upon their execution as being what ties them together. I think it’s the intent maybe to capture a moment. I think that and that’s sort of like we go back to that court in the 9 by 5 catalogue exhibition that sort of says an effect is only momentary so an impressionist must find his place. And I think that that really captures what the intent of these artists was to capture the moment, even though they really did do it all in very, very different ways.

 

Yeah, so they’ve got quite different styles, even though they were all doing that. The themes are similar in that it’s capturing a moment, even if this styles that they use to capture the theme are different. Exactly.

They’re all also coming away from the same point of academic training. And the conservatism  that predates the Impressionist time in Australia. We think of going out into the landscape with a palette and in one day making a painting that doesn’t sound as revolutionary to us as it was to them but really like they were stepping away from such a conservative period. I think that the head of the National Gallery School said anyone who paints outside is a fool. And this was the thing that they were trying to rebel against in a way. So, it’s really to do with what they were trying to achieve rather than how they achieved it, I think.

 

Given that they were also fighting against conservative opinion, did they come across as much criticism as the French impressionists did with some you know, the critics would just not rate their works at all. It was absolute. It was almost revolutionary and just they couldn’t understand it, get their heads around. Why would you want to use colour in this way? Why would you want to paint these things?

Definitely. So, for the 9 to 5 exhibition in 1889 there were such loathsome reviews out there that the artists actually pasted the reviews to the exhibition door because they were so proud of the controversy that their art was making. Yeah, people couldn’t understand it. People couldn’t understand it.

 

The women were prone to much more much more sort of media negative media attention with their works of. Even though the male artists were being critiqued in harsh ways. I think the women were even more so when they were producing sort of these “unfinished” paintings. Yeah, it was entirely controversial.

Tom Roberts (1856–1931) Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903, oil on canvas. On permanent loan to the Parliament of Australia from the British Royal Collection. Image courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT and the Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

And when did people start appreciating Australian impressionist paintings?

That’s a really good question. I think they did at the time, most of these artists did end up having really successful art careers, in and of themselves. Tom Roberts was commissioned to paint the bigger picture, which was the commemorative painting for the opening of parliament in Australia. That was a huge commission. He had to go to London to to complete that. I mean, they they were successful artists in their own right, but I just think that it took it took time.

 

I asked you what your favourite piece is and you’ve touched on pieces that you couldn’t not include in the exhibition, such as the shearer. What would you say are the highlights of the She-oak and sunlight exhibition?

I think the highlights are the understated moments where we have works and small sections that haven’t been readily exhibited with the impressionists before. We’ve sort of tried to extend the narrative in as many ways as we can.

 

We’ve got a lovely wall of wood samples by May Vale, she is another artist that actually went to Europe and was heavily influenced by Whistler a bit later on at the turn of the century. But while she was studying at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, she was commissioned to illustrate some timber wood panels for a botanist that was working in Melbourne at the time. And she illustrated them with the flowers of the eucalypt of the wood that she was painting on. So, they’re not Impressionist works at all, but where we’ve included them again, to widen the narrative of these artists, and they’re just such beautiful things in their own right.

She-oak and sunlight
Installation view of May Vale’s Timber Collection on display in She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

 

So we’ve got some really lovely moments like that right next to the May Vale wood samples. We also have two frame designs by Elizabeth Williamson. She was a really prolific frame designer at the time who designed and made a lot of frames for the Impressionists. She actually ended up marrying Tom Roberts. Her frame designs aren’t ever displayed with the impressionist. But again, it’s a really interesting subsection of the story.

Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Something you don’t think about.

Yeah, it’s an interesting point. So, I think that the highlights are those sort of understated surprises in the show.

We thanks Sophie Gerhard for her time and look forward to seeing the She-oak and sunlight exhibition before it closes next month.

 

KEY INFO

WHAT: She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism exhibition

WHERE: The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square, Ground Level, Melbourne

WHEN: until 22 August 2021

HOW: Purchase your tickets via the NGV website https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/she-oak-and-sunlight/

HOW MUCH: Ticket prices for She-Oak and sunlight are as follows:

  • Adult $26
  • Concession card holders $24
  • Child (5-15 years) $8
  • Family (2 adults, 3 children) $55

Tickets are discounted for NGV Members.

OTHER ARTICLES

If you are interested in the She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism exhibition, you may also like our articles about other exhibitions currently on at the NGV:

Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow is currently showing at NGV

French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston opens in Melbourne

 

For more about impressionism, you may also like our interviews with curators about past impressionist exhibitions in Australia:

INTERVIEW: Paul Perrin about Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay

Did you know there was an Australian French impressionist, named John Russell?

 

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She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism

Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow is currently showing at NGV

Reading Time: 12 minutes

The first Australian major survey of French contemporary artist, Camille Henrot’s works is currently being shown in a free exhibition at the NGV in Melbourne called Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow. We had a chat to Pip Wallis, curator of the Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow exhibition currently showing at NGV a few weeks ago before it opened.

 

Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow

 

Portrait of Pip Wallis, Curator of Contemporary Art, NGV inside Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow on display from 25 June – 24 October 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne.
Photo: Tom Ross

Pip Wallis, could you tell us a little bit about your role both as a curator of contemporary art as well as the curator of this Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow exhibition?

As curator of contemporary art, I’m working with artworks from 1980 onward to today, Australian and International, and I work with both exhibitions and the collections; works with that we acquire into the collection, collection displays, permanent collection galleries and also on curated exhibitions of loaned new works and commissioned works. Working quite closely with living artists, writing publications, delivering public programs and facilitating the relationship between the artist, the artwork and our audiences.

 

How did you get into that? 

I studied Art History and French at Melbourne Uni, where I then did a Masters in Art Curatorship . I worked in non-profit contemporary art spaces in Australia and overseas and then took up this job about five years ago.

 

Have you always been interested in art?

Yes. I knew pretty early on that’s where I wanted to spend my time and my life. Though I was interested in making when I was younger, I became much more interested in thinking and writing and reading about art than making it and being curator seemed like the right role for me. I like to work closely with others: working in contemporary art allows me to do that given the artists are still alive unlike in more historical curatorial work.

 

Which is beneficial, because you can actually ask them directly where they’re going with a particular piece. But I guess it might also be nerve wracking because, you know, people can write about the Impressionists and none of them are here anymore to see what we’re writing about them.

It’s more a constant process of making sure that artists’ voices are heard rather than me historising them. It’s about bringing their voice to the fore. So, it’s more of a facilitating role in that way.

 

Camille Henrot
Portrait of Camille Henrot
Photo: Courtesy of Camille Henrot
© Camille Henrot

 

Moving onto Camille Henrot, why is her art important?

Henrot has captured the attention of international audiences because she’s able to use a mechanism that I think is about being very specific and universal at the same time. Her works often spring from a seed of research that is very particular but she’s able to demonstrate how that is a collective societal dynamic rather than particular to her or the individual. Her works feel both intensely intimate – in that we feel personally implicated – and encompassing of shared experiences. Her work is very relevant to a globalized society and to currents that we see moving through the world as a whole, such as issues of authority, privacy, and how we manage the anxieties of contemporary life.

 

On her website as well as yours, it says that her art questions “what it means to be at once a private individual and a global subject.” How do the art works in this exhibition question or answer that?

I would say that they don’t answer it, I think that Camille is very careful not to provide tidy answers, and in fact, is deeply disinterested, in answering questions. I don’t think we can find answers in her work. Instead, what we find is intense curiosity. And so rather than provide direction for us, the works in this exhibition will make us wonder about ourselves and about the world. Henrot does that by, exploring a very particular subject that she is fascinated by, which she researches, she dives deep into  and engages philosophy and psychoanalysis and literature. She’s able to use those theoretical foundations to draw outward from a particular subject demonstrating its collective relevance. I think that’s how she navigates that space between the private and the global.

 

Well, I see that Camille Henrot moves between film, painting, drawing, sculpture and installation. Does this exhibition contain each of those mediums?

Yes. The exhibition contains works from 2014 to 2020, and it moves from painting, sculpture, film installation and sound. The exhibition moves through six bodies of work, each giving you a real sense for a particular project before you move into a different body of work. In this way the exhibition explores the different fascinations that Henrot has investigated in that time. It also imparts a sense about how one project has inspired another. You can see the threads that moves between Henrot’s bodies of works.

 

Are the six different bodies of work shown in chronological order?

No, it’s not chronological. It’s not a linear gallery space. You move in and out of different rooms so there’s no sense of living through time but rather of moving through ideas.

 

What’s your favorite piece or body of work in the exhibition? 

I think that her work The Pale Fox is a very important work in her oeuvre so we’re really excited to show that work. It’s an installation from 2014, which was commissioned by the Chisenhale Gallery in London, which has been shown many times around the world since then at different galleries. It comprises of a room built to a specific size and painted and carpeted blue. It contains over 400 hundred objects collected by Camille over a number of years mainly from online marketplaces like eBay.

Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow
Camille Henrot
The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, 2015.
Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster.
© ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy of the artist, kamel mennour, Paris and König Galerie, Berlin/London/Seoul. Photo: Thorsten Arendt

 

It essentially attempts to express an impulse that Henrot recognised in individuals, but also in a the institution of the museum following her artist residency at the Smithsonian in the U.S.. She calls the impulse a hoarding obsession. It’s a good demonstration of her interest in psychoanalytic language and in how she applies these concepts to wider societal structures, in this case to talk about an institution. She’s drawing the line between the individual and the institutional. Henrot thinks about this obsession with collecting, this obsession with hoarding as our way of trying to understand the world, our desire to gather knowledge, to feel like we have a sense of control over the unknown. The work is structured according to several different ordering principles.

 

Those principles see the four walls of the space denoted cardinal points, the ages of man, infancy, youth, adulthood and old age. The four elements (earth, fire, air and wind); then finally four principles of Leibniz, the German philosopher. Camille became interested in Leibniz by reading Gilles Deleuze’s book The Fold which discusses his work and his thinking. By no means do any of the ordering principles succeed: you cannot see clearly where each of these systems begins and end. What you have instead is a huge mass of hundreds of objects and images, that create associative meaning with those four structuring principles and with each other. The work expresses the idea that though we attempt to create order in the world, we will always fail.  The work is accompanied by a soundtrack, which is a quite calming ambient sound. Henrot said to me in an interview recently that she wanted to be the soundtrack to feel calming, and slightly anxious making in the way that the as soon as the doctor says “don’t worry this isn’t going to hurt” you know that it will.

Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow
Camille Henrot
The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery.
Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster.
Courtesy of the artist, kamel mennour, Paris/London and König Galerie, Berlin/London/Seoul.
Photo: Andy Keate. © ADAGP Camille Henrot.

So how do you go about setting up a room of four hundred objects without the artist there?

Well, happily, because The Pale Fox has been presented lots of times before there are really good installation instructions. So, we work with those and also do a lot of video calls with Camille at her studio and send a lot of photographs back and forth. We are now pretty adept at installing shows without artists on site having mounted the NGV Triennial last year without any of the artists being here. So, our install teams, exhibition management teams and conservators are brilliant at working digitally. It’s disappointing not to have the artist here because they bring the opportunity to have conversations which expand on the work and extrapolate on the ideas of the exhibition.

 

Camille Henrot Contrology
Camille Henrot
Contrology 2016
bronze
181.4 x 214.5 x 180.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Suzanne Dawbarn Bequest, 2018
© ADAGP Camille Henrot. Photo: Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

 

Why did the NGV decide to exhibit the collection of works? And also how did you come to be the first major survey exhibition of her works in Australia?

Henrot’s is a practice that we’ve been watching for some time. We acquired a work by her called Contrology in 2017 for the NGV Triennial. It was exciting to bring her work into the NGV collection and to share her work with Australian audiences. From that point, we’ve acquired a 3D video work, Saturday 2017, which is shown in this exhibition. We felt it makes sense to work together with Camille to mount this exhibition. Her work is admired both within the arts community and by wider audiences, so it makes sense for us to share her work in Australia on this scale for the first time.

 

We’ve also taken the opportunity to publish the first monograph on Camille published by NGV and Hatje Cantz Germany, which is really exciting, rather than an exhibition catalogue. We’re thrilled that the exhibition has given rise to that publishing project as well.

 

Please excuse my naiveté. But the monograph is – so you’re saying instead of an exhibition catalogue showing just the pieces that you’re including in the exhibition – is this more basically a book about her whole career? Is that what a monograph is?

Yes, an exhibition catalogue deals just with that exhibition. It would only include works in that exhibition. Whereas an artist monograph is a book devoted to the artist’s practice as a whole. It’s got a sense of a more comprehensive focus on that artist. It’s amazing that she hasn’t had one yet. It is something that happens later in an artist career. It’s a big project and involves bringing together writers who can cover all aspects of her work. It’s a very useful document for anyone interested in her work, now or in the future, because it collects all of her work together in one place.

 

So it’s almost like a catalogue of all of her works.

Exactly. I guess that’s how a monograph could be described, as a catalogue of all of an artist’s works.

 

How long’s the exhibition been in the planning?

Quite a while, because it got delayed. It was going to be last year, so it’s been close to three years.

 

Is that fairly standard for an exhibition of this size?

The delay has stretched the timeline out a bit, but usually at least 18 months on a project of this scale and often longer.

Palais de Tokyo
Image from Palais de Tokyo website

 

The exhibition’s been named Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow. Can you tell us a little bit about the reasoning for that name?

In the exhibition is a work called Contrology and it came from a series of work that Camille did called Monday. The series was shown in Henrot’s exhibition at the Palais de Toyko in Paris, where she was given carte blanche. The Carte Blanche series recognises significant artiss by giving them the shole building in which to present a large-scale project.

 

Henrot presented her exhibition called Days are Dogs, in which she looked at the days of the week as a structure entirely invented by humans to give shape to the passing of time, as opposed to the other forms of recording time passing such as those related to the moon or the seasons, which are not human inventions. She was drawing attention to the kind of arbitrary and slightly absurd nature that we structure our lives around the days of the week. She uses the days of the week as an analogy for our need for structure and order, and that’s led to this exhibition title. Creating this kind of confusion around the passing of time today and tomorrow. It’s quite absurd, it’s quite playful, it’s kind of a question but it’s not a question. It’s almost like a poem in that it leaves interpretation very open.

 

So you’ve mentioned Contrology – is that the piece that you mentioned just then, but also before that you had exhibited at the Triennial?

Yes, Contrology, which is an early word for pilates, is a large scale bronze sculpture. It’s slightly figurative because it looks kind of like a book lying on its back with two legs in the air. One of the legs is like a duck and the other one is a bit like a cartoon character, quite humorous and absurd. It was part of that exposition series called Monday that I mentioned, and Henrot was looking at how that day of the week has a particular mood. She was thinking about it as the day where we kind of pull ourselves together and resolve to better ourselves, to start the week afresh and do our pilates. It’s an impulse that many of us can recognise and share to improve oneself through exercise like pilates.

 

Where are the pieces that are going to be shown in the exhibition being sourced from, apart from the two that you already hold?

It’s a combination of different sources. As is often the case with exhibitions they contain loans from various people, sometimes the artist, sometimes private collections, sometimes other institutions. In this case, it’s loans from the artists and loans from private collections. We’ve exhibiting a number of works on paper that have not been shown before and they are coming directly from Camille . And then on the other hand, we have some sculptural works that are owned by private collectors that we have loaned for the exhibition.

 

Are the private collectors based overseas or in Australia or a bit of both?.

For these ones, all are Australian collectors.

 

Camille Henrot - interphones
Camille Henrot
Bad Dad & Beyond from the Interphones series 2015, installation view, Metro Pictures.
interactive sculpture, mixed media
111.8 x 50.8 x 22.9 cm (overall)
Collection of the artist and kamel mennour, Paris, London; Metro Pictures, New York; and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Seoul
© ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

 

Ah, so Camille Henrot is held in Australian collections, then…I know that one of her installations involves a telephone that you pick up and it offers you various different solutions given to you for strange conundrums, such as what to do with a cheating partner or an aggressive dog. Is that part of this exhibition? And if it is, how does that work in a COVID environment?

The series is called Interphones, it’s from 2015, and it is included in the exhibition. It’s a series of nine custom telephones that are 3D printed and they have audio which was created in collaboration with poet, Jacob Bromberth. In this COVID world they will be cleaned by a gallery attendant.

 

It’s a free exhibition. Apart from the fact that it’s free, why should people come and see the Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow exhibition?

Camille Henrot is recognised as one of the leading contemporary artists internationally today, she has been exhibited widely and has been collected by the major collections around the world. It’s a rare opportunity to see a major survey of her work in Australia.

 

And are the works all currently being set up at the moment?

Yes, installation is charging ahead. During lockdown, we’ve been sharing photos from the gallery as the installation progresses. The exhibition is sensorially very lush because of the visual and aural techiniques that Henrot uses. It’s very immersive because of Saturday, the 3D video work for which visitors wear 3D glasses and get engulfed in the rich and sometimes overwhelming imagery. And as you said, the interphones are participatory, drawing us into the playful and unsettling scenarios of their audio tracks. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the work, is that you can approach it very directly since it’s both humorous, playful,  lush and sensorial, but also through the incredible layers of depth, if you want to unpack them.

 

If you actually want to think about what she’s saying with the works.

Henro is voracious in her reading. She’s incredibly well read; she’ll quote texts freely whilst talking to you and some of her works feel overwhelming in their depth of references. But at the same time, you can also kind of approach on your own terms. I think that’s what I meant when I said that she doesn’t provide answers, she is very keen that people are allowed to bring their own associations to the works. And she said to me in an interview recently that she wants her work to be like a fan, to be open, for it to provide people with air, to find their own interpretations. I thought that was a beautiful metaphor.

We thank Pip Wallis for this interview about Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow.

 

You can view Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow from now til late October at the NGV.

 

KEY INFO:

WHAT: Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow exhibition

WHERE: NGV International, Melbourne

WHEN: until 24 October 2021

HOW: Just show up – no tickets required – it’s free!

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/camille-henrot/

 

Are you familiar with Camille Henrot’s works?

 

If you’re planning a visit to the NGV, we also recommend you take a look at the French impressionism: from the Museum of Fine Art, Boston exhibition which is also currently on show. Read our interview with one of the curators of that show here

 

For other events happening in July, take a look at our what’s on in July article

 

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Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow