Since time eternal, the abiding question when it comes to the work of artists has been: Is it life inspiring art, or the other way around? In her moving documentary Serendipity, French multimedia artist Prune Nourry changes the narrative, asking instead what if it’s all a series of coincidences?
At the moment she was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2016, the artist, then 31, was already at work on a documentary with writer Alastair Siddons about her politically tinged project Terracotta Daughters, a sculpted army of 108 life-size girls, modeled after eight orphans she photographed. She buried the figures in mainland China and plans to excavate them in 2030. When the news hit, everything in her life came to a halt.
“I had to see the project through to the end, but Alastair rightfully said, ‘The daughters can wait, your health can’t,’” says Nourry. Echoing the sentiment, her friend and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, one of the film’s executive producers, encouraged her to document the experience on her health and see where it might lead her.
Later that year, mutual friends connected her with actress and director Angelina Jolie for medical advice and support. Jolie, also an executive producer on the film, had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy in 2013 after discovering she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene and wrote about the experience for the New York Times. While their paths differed—Jolie had a family history of early onset cancer while Nourry was the first in hers to be diagnosed—they shared a common experience and the clarity that comes from realizing, abruptly, that success and happiness aren’t safeguards against the vicissitudes of illness.
The film was meant to heal both viewers and Nourry herself. It documents the artist on her journey through treatment with great warmth, curiosity, and touches of humor. Interspersing more somber scenes are bright and dynamic retrospectives of her past work, much of which has dealt with the female body, fertility, gender, and procreation as aided by new technology. In this way, she parses her illness into individual premonitions or coincidences, going back into her archives to identify connections between the anthropological nature of her work and the effects of the illness on her body.
“Given the ephemeral and performative nature of some of my work—sculptures that end up plunged into the river, sculptures that I bury, sculptures abandoned on city streets—video documentation has been key to preserving the story,” Nourry says. “And that’s where I discovered some troubling ties between specific projects or moments I recorded as research and would later experience myself.”
Nourry speaks specifically about recording in a French fertility clinic as a woman is having her eggs harvested, later capturing a nurse say that it was because of the chemotherapy the woman would undergo to treat breast cancer. In her performative project Procreative Dinners, Nourry served ice cream eggs and a cast of her nipple made from marzipan, never considering that she’d one day be stripped of the real thing.
Generally absent from the spotlight in her work, turning the camera on herself was a way of being an engaged participant in the treatment and becoming more than her parts and misfortune. “It was also a way to handle this without asking, ‘Why me?’” she says.
Last Sunday, after an early private preview of the film in Paris, Nourry was joined in the front of the theater by Jolie, who spoke of the generosity in her work and the power of art as healing. “As much as I’ve had my own experiences with my health, I survived it. I didn’t create with it,” Jolie says. “Surviving is one thing, but to live and create and take these experiences to help us grow is an incredible lesson.”
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