Here’s my beef with Pierre Huyghe: the more his work dazzles his viewers with theatrical special effects, the more his underlying motivations are lost in the haze.
In the 1990s, Huyghe’s impulses were political with a soft ‘p’. He made billboards that uncannily mirrored people’s activities on the streets below (Chantier Barbès Rochechouart, 1994/1996), created a pirate TV station (Mobil TV, 1995-1998), and recovered the complexity of individuals’ lives from Hollywood’s gloss (The Third Memory, 1999–2000). Emerging from the crosscurrents of relational aesthetics and the ‘cinematic turn’ (see, for example, the work of Philippe Parenno, Douglas Gordon, Stan Douglas, and others), such work enlivened institutions with spectacular, durational events, and seductive theatrics. Huyghe and his peers transformed galleries into spaces in which to linger and dream a better reality. What has happened to those dreams?
The French artist’s grotto-like extravaganza at Hauser & Wirth London (Sept. 13-Nov. 1, 2014) is his inaugural exhibition with the gallery. It comes amid a major touring retrospective that has traveled from the Centre Pompidou (it opened in late 2013) to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne this summer, and will land stateside at LACMA this November. For his London exhibition, Huyghe has created a mise-en-scène of sculptural and video works invoking some catastrophic post-human epoch. It’s a scenario in which humans are vanquished but life goes on in the form of monkeys, fish, insects, and lichen. I arrived with a touch of skepticism: for all the pyrotechnics, Huyghe’s work can seem overburdened with clichés and uncritical exoticisms. He wheels out his well-worn motifs time and again: kooky kids in animal masks; fauna moving with otherworldly grace; far-away places (Antarctica! Japan!); kitschy special effects (smoke! colored lights!) shortcutting us to the sublime.
The exhibition features new work (all made this year) that’s far from gleaming. Lying recumbent and decapitated on an ersatz marble plinth is La déraison (Unreason), a classical female figure with erect nipples and nothing above the neck. She’s covered in lichen, as if to suggest she’s been there for some time. She looks like the end of civilization – like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. Huyghe’s sculpture has a hidden gimmick – she’s heated, via an electronic mechanism, to human body temperature. You can touch her warm rump and the invigilators won’t tell you off: it all feels like a rather practised wink at participatory aesthetics.
Huyghe has always lived off the involutions of museums-as-mausoleums, and La déraison sits merrily somewhere between art history and the fairground. Of course, the contradiction is as old as modernism itself: The Futurist Manifesto’s 1909 call to burn the museums only really resonates now as a machination forwarding art history’s roll-call of the avant-garde; the same is true of institutional critique, which can never totally abandon the home that shelters its exercise.
Also included in this exhibition are three glass aquariums each titled Nymphéas Transplant (Transplanted Water Lilies). Inside their vitrines, the water is murky and the contents hidden until a suspended light box, hovering above, casts a nacreous glow, revealing a few darting fish and alien-looking water lilies. The plants are, in fact, grown from samples pulled from Claude Monet’s ponds at Giverny, while the seemingly-random lighting sequence is based on weather patterns recorded near the maître’s home from 1914–1918 (when he was painting his lilies). Nymphéas Transplant would work just as well without the weather reference, which seems perfunctory; the intermittent lighting effects are effective primarily because they recall a trick familiar from horror movies: the darkness, and the sudden reveal. They also appeared much stronger than Huyghe’s crab-in-a-Brancusi-mask aquarium piece presented at the Frieze Art Fair three years ago (Recollection, 2011)), and much-toured since. It’s a work that felt, at the time, like a desperate marketing stunt in a tent replete with so many attention-seekers.
If Huyghe’s aquariums nod towards the canons of modernist art, this citation from the past fits within the artist’s broader interest in ideas about time and duration. Another video work exhibited at Hauser & Wirth London, De-extinction, uses macro- and micro-scopic cameras to peer into pieces of amber, revealing insects that were trapped there, in the act of copulation, up to 30 million years ago. Durations collide: a few seconds of entomological fucking versus interminable geological time. Meanwhile, The Clearing invokes the temporal conditions of exhibition display: Huyghe has scrapped a section of the wall away, revealing some red paint underneath from previous exhibitions at the gallery. This trick has been done to near-death: when Lawrence Weiner did something very similar in 1969, it was on edge. Others have repeated it, with subtle variations: Terry Smith scraped off chunks of wall in the soon-to be-renovated factory that would become Tate Modern in 1996; and Josh Thorp scrapped and sliced off pieces of the interior of MOCCA in 2011. In Huyghe’s exhibition, the act seems safe and rather dry. It was, for me, the most literal and least successful work on show.
The core of this exhibition is Human Mask, a striking and disquieting piece. The film follows the activities of a monkey dressed in a black waitress’s outfit, an alabaster-white mask of a Japanese woman’s face and a wig of long black hair. The camera follows her loping movements as she navigates through the kitchen areas of an abandoned building in the town of Fukushima, hit by the 2011 tsunami and evacuated shortly after due to the meltdown of the local nuclear power station. Human Mask is also inspired by the story of a tavern in the city of Utsunomiya, Japan, which uses trained monkeys to serve sake to (presumably, delighted) customers. The story appears to be of interest to Huyghe as it suggests a post-human scenario in which humans are replaced by animals, machines, or nothingness – a favorite topic of Continental philosophers from Nietzsche to Lyotard and Derrida – and an increasingly frequent motif in Huyghe’s work. For example, his intervention in dOCUMENTA 13 (2012) featured a dog with one leg painted pink meandering through an outdoor area in which shrubbery and vegetation had been removed as if by some deadly chemical explosion, with the canine occupying it as a lone survivor.
Human Mask may be seductive, but it reflects a deeper problem in Huyghe’s art. He appears either unaware of, or indifferent to, postcolonial discourse or the notion that Western representations of the East as a place of fable, fantasy, and escape might be seen as Orientalist. Both Huyghe and his sometimes-collaborator Philippe Parreno have a fascination with Asia – Pareno’s The Boy from Mars (2003), for example, treated a corner of Chiang Mai as a fragile utopia, a work I similarly find uncomfortable. The risk for both Huyghe and Parreno is that they become obsessed by the project of enveloping the viewer in disquieting or visionary parallel worlds. In doing so, they risk losing the productive contrasts that gave birth to their work twenty-odd years ago – the tension between the gallery, cinematic and everyday domestic, urban or suburban experiences. Imagining worlds beyond human concerns, they leave us to roam an empty, airless fantasy.