Prune Nourry is a contemporary Amazon. This modern-day female warrior survived her battle against breast cancer, transforming her illness into art. After being diagnosed in 2016, aged 31, the multi-disciplinary artist decided to understand her disease in order to heal and regain control over her suffering, turning her camera on herself and becoming the subject of her own work — a challenging feat for someone used to being behind the lens.
Her intention initially wasn’t to make a film, but to be active and think about something else; to no longer be a passive patient. “Art is all about the process,” she says. “Most of the time, you don’t know where it’s going to lead you. You just start doing things and then you see. Meeting people along the way feeds your creativity. You never know exactly where you’re going to arrive before you do the whole journey.”
As filming progressed, a series of links between Nourry’s cancer and her prior oeuvre appeared, as if somehow her subconscious had known all along and made her create art over the years that would help her heal herself now. Chemotherapy and freezing her eggs resonated with her Procreative Dinners (2009), in which she had designed a meal with a chef and a scientist that mimicked assisted reproduction. In-vitro fertilisation became the aperitif and the choice of the child’s sex, the main course.
Eight years ago, her research on fertility led her to film women freezing their eggs. Then, for her 2016 exhibition, Imbalance, her sculptures were covered in acupuncture needles, focusing on the concepts of qi and balance inherent in traditional Chinese medicine, contrasted with an imbalanced China in terms of pollution and health. She recalls, “I was the most imbalanced of all the pieces because I had no hair as I was undergoing chemotherapy.”
From Sculptor to Sculpture
One day at The Met in New York, Nourry stumbled on a marble statue of an Amazon — a tribe of women from Greek mythology said to amputate their right breasts to become better archers — gazing serenely at her injury. It inspired her to make her own 5m-tall Amazon sculpture studded with incense sticks, which she placed on a barge on the Hudson River at the end of her treatment then, with her supporters, lit the incense to envelope it in a purifying ritual, and severed the breast with her sculptor’s tools as a symbol to mark her return.
She notes, “From a sculptor, I had become a sculpture in the hands of the surgeon during reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, and now I was getting back to being the sculptor.” Her hospital visits were filmed (some from her gurney), leading to her nonfiction feature debut, the documentary Serendipity, which premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival and opened the MoMa DOC Fortnight Festival and Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The first French artist to exhibit at Le Bon Marché department store in Paris last January, Nourry displayed a series of emblematic works created during lockdown, including the monumental installation L’Amazone Érogène, a 4m-diameter, breast-shaped wooden target at which suspended arrows were pointed.
“It’s a work between life and death, between Eros and Thanatos,” she explains. “The cloud of arrows can be seen as the disease attacking the breast, but it can also be seen as sperm heading towards the ovum, towards fertilisation, and towards life. There is also the idea that, within the disease, there is also eroticism because we are attacking areas that are considered to be a woman’s main assets; but it is also a way of showing that scars are a marker of history, like tree rings. They partly tell the story of a person and are an integral part of their beauty.
“It’s true that when we’re sick, we’re in the fight against the disease, but there’s also the idea of fertility, and how in the disease, we can find creation and life. Even from a body that’s attacked and repaired, there is a promise of life.”
Her documentary and artworks saved her, becoming a form of catharsis for her and other women with breast cancer, as she put her creativity at the service of healing.
Nourry has now sold those arrows from the piece, to fund the free distribution of 20,000 copies of her new book, Aux Amazones, to be released on 22 September this year, to women fighting cancer. A touching and inspiring account of her illness, it contains a foreword by actress Angelina Jolie and contributions from a psychiatrist, oncologist, radiotherapist, plastic surgeon and acupuncturists.
Working With Hands
The sense of touch has always been fundamental to Nourry, who has now turned her attention to the visually impaired. “We share the same importance of touch,” she says. “As a sculptor, my hands are the continuity of my eyes.”
After her exhibition, Catharsis, at Galerie Templon in Paris in 2019, where she reappropriated her body and femininity, she returned this September and October to the gallery with her Phoenix Project solo show inspired by the myth of the fabled firebird rising from its ashes. It symbolises the power of resilience and renewal and reveals her subjects’ capacity to integrate into society with their blindness, overcoming their disability through professional or voluntary work. It perhaps also marks her own renaissance following her illness.
“It’s the idea of how you transform a handicap into a strength,” she discloses. “I’m getting back to the relationship between the model and the artist in the studio. However, I sculpt not with my eyes, but with my touch to try to feel the expression of their faces, which is super intimate. It’s very strange, especially during COVID-19, when they haven’t been touched for a long time, where the fact of being touched is a question of life and death.”
Presented in total darkness, the exhibition is adapted to standard guidance systems for the blind, with visitors to the show self-navigating.
Reviving the art of portraiture, Nourry hand-sculpted portraits of eight visually-impaired models who posed in her studio, while blindfolded herself. She didn’t see her subjects or sculptures either before, during or after each session, imagining their faces instead through touch and listening to their life stories. Fashioned from clay that has been moulded and cast, the eight sculptures were then fired by potter Jean-Pierre Benincasa in central France using the 16th-century Japanese Raku technique. The pottery pieces, while still glowing hot from the kiln, are immersed in wood ash and allowed to smoke. The thermic shock process exposes the piece to extreme stress and results in crackles and surface effects that appear randomly.
Recorded conversations between Nourry and her models during the sculpting sessions are played above each piece, giving the viewer insight into the complicity between artist and model in the studio. Also displayed are tactile works on paper embossed by Parisian printing house Laville Braille that depict the subjects’ hands, their lifelines acting as symbolic portraits; visitors will also see a short film with audio description by filmmaker Vincent Lorca about the exchanges between Nourry and the models, without showing their faces or the final works.
“In all my projects, I felt like an anthropologist or sociologist, looking with objectivity, but my cancer made me realise that an artist cannot be absolutely objective,” she concludes.
“You are subjective because whatever you see, feel or understand from the world, you digest it and transform it to get it out of you and offer it to others to appropriate it. Then they take it inside them, digest it and pass it on. It’s a kind of transfer. Art is that kind of exchange.”