Located in the middle of a park, and with three walls of clear glass, Kunsthalle Wien offers up not only works of art but also the gallery-goers themselves for passers-by to observe. In Camille Henrot’s solo exhibition ‘If Wishes Were Horses,’ the baseline uneasiness of this fishbowl-like venue is compounded in a very curious way: the viewer is required to remove their shoes before entering the space. While this serves the practical function of not damaging the floor, which is part of the show itself and is made up of plush jiu jitsu mats, it is also an intimate gesture with associations of religious worship, the comfort of being at home, privacy, or even sensuality.
Having thus engineered vulnerability in the visitor, Henrot proceeds to interrogate the power structures of authority, dominance, ritual and sadomasochism through a presentation of new works. Taking the proverb ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,’ a phrase typically associated with repressive desire, the artist negotiates the liminal space between control and submission. Longing is never as straightforward as it seems, and true engagement with others can never be characterized as only one of two polar opposites, instead containing elements of both natures in an ongoing shift of power.
Tug of War (2017) comprises a length of braided ropes and chains, the iconography of imprisonment and bondage, connecting one white standalone wall to another. While the braided mass begins by digging into the first wall and mat with all the intensity and desperation of a grappling hook before coalescing into one ropy form, it ends by threading through a hole in the second wall, at which point the braid is undone, the unwound, separate components spilling onto the mat in a sigh of relief.
Similarly, the standalone sculptures Wait What (2017) and I Say (2017) play upon a release of tension. I Say, which consists of a boxing bag and a suggestively humanoid aluminium form draped around it, is stressed and taut, with the aluminium flowing down towards the floor, taking on the shape of a hand extending a defiant middle finger. Meanwhile, Wait What, a fluted wooden column topped with a melting animal-like figure, embodies the other impulse present in ‘If Wishes Were Horses,’ the feeling of loosening, of passivity, of giving up and ceding control.
Tuesday (2017) comprises interwoven film footage of martial-arts wrestlers in a gym and people riding horses across a landscape. Just as the rider must master their horse but still respect its agency, the wrestlers grapple with one another in a slow dance, constantly taking and ceding control in an endless loop. The riders braiding their horses’ manes recalls the braided chain in Tug of War in a formally satisfying way, although the gentle, care-giving plaiting in Tuesday is worlds away from the painful twists and tension in Tug of War. Tuesday’s soundtrack pits intimacy and exposure against one another once again, as the sensual, almost jazzy sounds are better suited to a seduction scene than a public art show.
The act of visitors putting their shoes back on upon leaving marks a transition from one space to another. Yet the uncomfortable experience of engaging with these works, within an environment of such tight authorial control, lingers.