Set against a black screen, text in a plain white font reads, ‘India is the unconscious of the West.’ These words, written by psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, form the opening to an eleven minute video of frenzied sounds and images. Housed in Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary gallery, French artist Camille Henrot’s short film The Strife of Love in a Dream began its first showing in India last month. Splicing several scenes with no linear or cohesive narrative, viewers experience shots of scientists mixing together powder for anti-anxiety medication interspersed with images of several people scrambling up a hillside, bound by the film’s most recurring element: the figure of the snake. As Tintin encounters a snake charmer, Jungle Book’s Kaa makes an appearance and real snakes rear their heads and draw their fangs, The Strife uses both image and sound — the tabla beats of a Kathak dance become a conch’s call becomes a sinister hissing sound — to create a striking and all-consuming experience of fear.
In this way, The Strife is an exemplary use of videography and a stunning work of experiential art. However, rather than being left to interpret and experience the work on our own as viewers, the artist’s text on the gallery wall states, “East and West have always been defined as the other’s opposite, even if it has meant distorting things…[the show] suggests cancelling out this dualist perspective, or rather dissolving it.” What does it mean for a Western artist to speak of dissolving cultural dichotomies through the use of what is perhaps the most clichéd symbol of Indian culture? And does stating her intention to do so — in a long-winded, two-paragraph text — in fact, reinforce rather than disintegrate notions of difference?
One lens through which to consider these questions is Henrot’s portrayal of sexuality. The Strife is accompanied by a collection of the artist’s ink drawings entitled Tropics of Love, which consist of several semi-abstract representations of surreal humans and animals with prominently visible — or perhaps, enlarged — sexual organs. Some of the images are set against the backdrop of what appears to be photographs of a typically European seaside town: a jarring juxtaposition of manicured scenery with raw sexuality. This dual construction is further entrenched by the series title, referring viewers to the idea of a tropical, animalistic and other sexuality, portrayed in contrast to a more sterilised Western world.
Similarly, The Strife uses several images from Western visual culture ranging from mythology to advertising, where the snake is shown as a point of arousal for the white women with whom it interacts. This representation of Eastern sexuality as an exotic Other is a device as frequently employed as it is criticised. And while the film itself is a powerful cinematic rendition of hypnosis and fear, it is overshadowed and undermined by its complementary textual content. Henrot’s desire to position herself as blurring the boundaries between East and West is overstated in an obtuse, esoteric language, and finally serves to only draw attention to the cultural stereotyping her work is unable to escape.
However, for the sheer experience of the film itself — shown in a beautiful use of space by the south Mumbai venue — The Strife of Love in a Dream is worth a visit, though viewers are better off ignoring the writing on the wall.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Dualism defeats dissolution in Henrot’s show’ in The Sunday Guardian on 31 August 2013