Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox (Chisenhale Gallery, London) Art Monthly #375, April 2014

Everywhere in Camille Henrot’s formidable exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’ is the frame, the bounded box, the vernacular of the desktop window. But here, too, is its antidote, in the form of the unformed, curved and chaotic, via ruptures, slippages, disjunctures or stoppages; and in the wild metastasis of the proliferation of the image. Curse and cure co-exist.

Against walls of flat chroma-key blue, an architectural aluminium shelf rings the gallery space, supporting objects which reconstitute beginnings and endings, creation and destruction. From an orderly taxonomy creep discrepancies: a thin aluminium strip which twists, Möbius-like, almost unnoticed on a lonely stretch of wall; a music which, modulating from a kind of a Euro-Enya to a portentous multi-channel soundscape, is interrupted by a cough from the corner of the gallery. And a fracture in the fabric of the blue itself, bold negation in white, the shelf sloping suddenly downwards until it reaches a sharp sump in which rests askew a DVD-enabled car headrest. The lowest ebb, the phenomenal obliterating all else. Death by fire or water awaits.

A row of empty perspex leaflet-holders, frames yet to frame, sits expectantly, all stupid lifeless transparency, a deadness deader for its proximity to the wonderfully animate, earthy forms of Henrot’s bronzes and the exquisite calligraphic ideographs which ceremonially open and punctuate the show. But wait, this is the simple conflict we have been sold elsewhere – the easy binary. The artist lures, relying on our liberal Pavlovian response: a neat trick having us begging congratulation for locating the real, the real real. The real here is everywhere and nowhere, though, and beauty and truth are thoroughly upset; the status of the sculptures as ethnographic, even art objects, a sham as they are shamed and demoted to decoration by being forced to perform as book-ends.

The anthropological methodology in the source for much of the exhibition’s structure, The Pale Fox, Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s homonymous study charting the cosmogony of the West African Dogon people, is similarly ambivalent. Uncertainty reigns here, not as an alternative or negation, but as a state in itself. Henrot is maker and meddler, congregator and conjuror, outfoxing us at every turn. If there is a system, she suggests, there will be an anti-system, a glitch, a dropped stitch.

It is hard not to read a critical message into Henrot’s carefully choreographed ballet of objects. In the centre of the gallery stands an aluminium box – or rather, an icon of a box, a ghost box which can only gesture stiffly towards its sometime utility value. Inside is a collection of calabashes in polystyrene chips; beside are bound stacks of the New York Times. The calabash, sacred ritual object for the Dogon, is here archived, protected and contained in a vessel which Henrot intends as an allusion to the cloud-storage service Dropbox, and it is tempting to see this as a postcolonial critique of the assimilation of the ‘other’, of the profanation of the object by the museological or, now, lay-technological processes of collection and interpretation.

This rather ingenuous parity drawn between the calabash and Dropbox is a little problematic. Assuming an interchangeability of all signs in this way ignores the sacrality of the calabash – that which allows it to transcend the meaning of an earthly object and communicate directly with a numinous realm. The profound difference is that one is sacred, the other profane: where the gourd stands for a world beyond itself, unknowable and accessible only through it, Dropbox can only marshall and contain a known world. One grants access to an otherwise inaccessible exteriority, the other interiorises an already accessible exteriority. The difference is enchantment.

In an accompanying interview, Henrot talks of ‘how as human beings we are bringing disorder into the world’, which rather underplays the exhibition’s reference to Ogo, the Pale Fox, begetter of chaos: we are not freighting disorder, extrinsic to an otherwise harmonious world, we, and it, are disorder. We do not so much ‘inhabit’ an entropic system as form part of it. The drive to collect, collate and taxonomise that ‘The Pale Fox’ and Henrot’s recent film Grosse Fatigue, 2013, both stalk suggests less the success of our will to impose order and more a fruitless campaign against a chaotic void: an avoidance.

In its gleeful, maximalist assembly, Henrot’s exhibition resists any urge to sermonise, and rather than an attempt to valorise systems of knowledge or pit West against East – Dogon sacrality against Euramerican secularism – the artist assembles all alongside one another simply because they exist. And any-old-existing is better than none at all. It is a messy syncretism, but syncretism is by nature messy. Where, for the Dogon, all is connected, monad-like, in a sacred interexchange of land, man, objects and god, our own raggedness is perhaps the fee levied on an impatient, disenchanted and, despite semblances to the contrary, disconnected culture. The juxtaposition of eBay auctions alongside a Wikipedia page for the Manhattan Project – a proxy for the end of existence – seems deliberately crude, but such inconsistencies line the core of our experience. It is a trap to regard this as symptomatic of an epistemological malaise or, despite our disenchantment, the terminal dissolution of the spiritual: like mirth at a funeral, bathos drives and is driven by us, and these objects are but one possible representation of it.