Henri Papin: Lord of the Flies

One might ask ‘who is Henri Papin?’ as with James Boag in the film noir-styled advertisements for the eponymous Tasmanian brewery. Peering through the keyhole, however, one is likely only to encounter the eye of Papin staring back. He is a mysterious figure, a voyeur, he has been revealing himself gradually through a series of exhibitions based around his collections of human behaviour. His first was held in 2006 and comprised six museum-style cabinets, five of which displayed discrete facets of his collection. Each was built up from moments of voyeurism, exaggerated and fictionalised according to his own psychological schema, with the sixth cabinet documenting the original glimpses that had inspired the contents of each of the others.

Papin’s second exhibition was held the following year in Adelaide – up until now, the only one presented outside Tasmania – and introduced his divided persona: the conscious Henry Papin, who works as an engraver, and the sublimated Henri Papin, who typically exerts the greater influence over the exhibitions. This iteration allegorised certain aspects of Henry’s past that had formed his identity, things, as described by Tasmanian artist Tricky Walsh, that ‘stay with you, the oddly defining moments often resurfacing at the least expected of times.’(1) For Henry Papin, these moments are defined by the emergence of Henri, who revealed on that occasion his study of the effect the built environment has on human behaviour, specifically the nefarious activities encouraged by the obscurity of laneways. This he grouped into Marking (urination, graffiti) Inhabiting (sex, vagrancy) and Meeting (for drug-related or other crimes). Papin documented zones that had the highest incidence of such activities and collected samples of the behaviour that took place there.

Henry Papin’s meek exterior coupled with the peculiarity of Henri Papin beneath are possibly the family resemblance he bears to his distant relatives the Sisters Papin, the housemaids from the French town of Le Mans who, with little apparent provocation, infamously turned on their mistress and her daughter, gouging out their eyes and butchering them as if they were rabbits, early in 1933. This macabre affair caught the imagination of French intellectual circles: André Breton published photographs of the sisters before and after their crime – appearing neat and deranged respectively – in the December issue of Le Minotaur; he also ran an article by Jacques Lacan, ‘Motives of Paranoid Crime: The Crime of the Papin Sisters’ and the Papins were the inspiration for the 1947 play The Maids by that connoisseur of criminal activity, Jean Genet.

With The Processor of Circumstance, Henri Papin makes his seventh presentation, his first in Melbourne, in which he has focussed his attention specifically on human attraction. Having moved on from simply documenting and collecting behaviour, Papin is attempting to understand its impulses by devising a machine to measure this elusive quality. Bio-magnetic deviations includes in its structure the form of a pig, the animal whose heart may be swapped for our own. Inside this fabricated carcass Papin has placed mechanisms built from minerals that exert attractive and repulsive powers: iron filings, ferrofluid, lodestones and neodymium magnets – all Papin’s metaphors for desire.

Alongside the machine, Papin displays The rules of attraction, a collection of fishing flies that he has tied from samples of human hair. Having great significance as part of a person’s allure, as well as to practitioners of Voodoo and forensic science, hair has featured in Papin’s collections for some time. Earlier presentations were curiously reminiscent of the anecdote Tricky Walsh recounts of squatting in a Hobart house filled with a lifetime’s worth of hoarded articles that included samples of hair taped to the wall above the bed that followed a chronological sequence from blonde to grey.(2)

It is difficult to address Henri Papin and his work without identifying literary parallels; the flies of The rules of attraction might have associations with Les Mouches (The Flies), a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, written in 1943 but based on the Greek myth of the siblings Orestes and Electra who murder their mother and step-father to avenge the deposition of their father Agamemnon. In Sartre’s adaptation, flies plague the citizens of Argos as punishment for their tacit role in the regicide and as a reminder of the shame of their humanity. The flies in combination with the pig carcass, also bring to mind William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies in which a group of British schoolboys are marooned on an island and descend into anarchy. The head of a sow they had caught to eat is placed on a stake as an offering to ‘the Beast’, a malign presence they come to believe is on the island; Golding’s title, which happens to be a literal translation of Beelzebub, refers to the vision that Simon, the most sensitive and creative of the boys, has of the severed head, now crawling with flies, where it reveals to him that the beast is in fact within them all.

The image in both literary works is one of flies drawn in, like iron filings to Papin’s magnet, but his flies are lures in themselves. Whether the essence he extracts from the hair they are tied with retains the allure it had when still growing on his subjects or has turned repellent as loosened hairs tend to do, Papin’s experiments remain as inconclusive – as fugitive as the picture of him we might glean from his projects. As we look, all we find is what intrigued Papin as he was observing us.

Francis Parker
Curator – Exhibitions
Monash University Museum of Art | MUMA