For a performance-slash-multimedia artist, Prune Nourry is surprisingly down to earth. The 27-year-old Parisian is wearing slim black jeans and a white sleeveless blouse, and putting the final touches on her latest show at the hip Brooklyn gallery Invisible Dog. “I approach my projects like a scientist,” she says as she walks me through the gallery. “And then I allow my imagination to run free.”
Actually, wander into Nourry’s Holy River, at Invisible Dog through May 27, and you might just think you’ve stumbled across a mad laboratory. Young women in pristine lab coats arrange vials of flavored water at a bar. Dozens of plastic IV bags filled with liquid dangle from the ceiling. Some of the artworks incorporate X-rays, like one of the artist’s skeletons curled up in a glass “womb.” But then again, how many science labs have statues of anthropomorphic cows? Or a young woman smearing clay onto her black leotard?
Nourry’s work deals with bioethics, specifically the idea of selection. Holy River is the latest installment in a three-part project focused on gender selection in India. Since 2009, the artist has been traveling to the subcontinent, interviewing academics, sociologists, and scientists about India’s problematic sex ratio, and conducting performance-based street art to engage with the community. Nourry was baffled by what she found: a nation steeped in tradition that worshiped the female cow as a deity and that prayed for fertility, but that devalued its own sources of human life. (Each year, 50 million girls are aborted in the country, and the sex ratio has only deteriorated in the past decade.) “All of my work deals with paradox,” she says. “I wanted to examine how you can respect a symbol but not respect the reality.”
In 2010, Nourry, who studied sculpture at the Ecoule Boulle in Paris, placed statues of cow-girl hybrids throughout the streets of New Delhi. These “holy daughters” attracted a lot of attention, and confusion: “You would see men tipping the statues to determine the sex,” says Nourry. “You could tell that the statue looked familiar to them, but they couldn’t remember from where.” She revisited the idea of a new female deity in 2011, when she commissioned a group of artisans in Calcutta to create a 16-foot high cow-girl that would infiltrate the Kokata Durga festival. The townspeople plunged the goddess into the Ganges River, itself a symbol of life, as well as one of the most polluted rivers in the world. “Another paradox!” says Nourry gleefully.
Holy River includes videos and stills from these performances, as well as bronze sculptures of the holy daughters, slender things leaning against the wall or crouched into a vulnerable position, looking at you with sad, milky, distressingly life-like eyes. Other sculptures include hybrids of human body parts and milk machines. A pool filled with deteriorating clay hands greets you as you enter the gallery. “I wanted to capture the ephemeral nature of not only one of my performances, but of life,” says Nourry.
In order to recreate the atmosphere of one of her happenings, Nourry has installed candles tweaked to smell like the Ganges River throughout the gallery, and commissioned a soundtrack of running water. And, on Saturday, there will be a live performance, mixing traditional Indian dance with experimental art (that’s the aforementioned young woman smearing clay on herself. “Usually, I bring my art out into the world,” Nourry says. “This time, I wanted to bring the world into the gallery.”