Sanded Edges: Pierre Huyghe Turns Polite at the Serpentine

Pierre Huyghe, "Streamside Day, A Score" (still), 2003. Image courtesy the artist.
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Pierre Huyghe’s work has often worn its politics lightly, preferring to focus on the exhibition as a laboratory-theater for cultural experiment. However, his latest show, UUmwelt (2018) at London’s Serpentine Gallery, feels more insistent, evoking the gathering threat of artificial intelligence in the service of bio-politics. The exhibition precisely and elegantly channels AI anxiety, but does so at the expense of the madness and viewer-discomfiture that Huyghe provokes so well. It seems the artist, who’s enjoyed both critical and commercial success, has blunted the sardonic edge. Or, is this simply what happens to anarchic practices when placed within mid-sized public institutions possessed of diverse constituencies?

The show consists of five large LED screens playing a continuous stream of images that vaguely resemble landscapes, insects, objects, but never quite resolve into anything recognizable. In lieu of sunlight, the central gallery has a warm artificial light on the ceiling, which functions as incubator and attractor for approximately 50,000 bluebottle flies. Walls sanded back in abstract patterns leave a film of dust everywhere. The projected images – produced in collaboration with the Kamitami computational neuroscience institute in Kyoto, Japan – come from an AI neural network’s reconstruction of an experimental subject’s brain scans. That the images seem to stutter, speed up, and slow down randomly is the result of real-time adjustments to the algorithm’s outputs based on environmental sensors in the gallery: given that the precise configuration of flies, viewers, light levels, humidity, and temperature will never be exactly the same, the image stream on the screen will never repeat.

Pierre Huyghe, “UUmwelt” (Installation view), 2019. Copyright Ola Rindal. Courtesy of the artist and Serpentine Galleries

UUmwelt revisits key elements of Huyghe’s practice, which arise from a 1990s milieu of artists who explored social interaction, often in non-gallery spaces, as material for artistic enquiry. Huyghe’s work embraces unkempt evolution over time, as well as the porous border between art and “real life.” To that end, he employs framing devices such as gallery architecture or the aquarium of Zoodram 4 (2011). Then, his contribution to dOCUMENTA (13) (2012) side-stepped the gallery space entirely, and was sited in a composting yard in Kassel. Its pink-legged canine star was also the most visible symbol of Huyghe’s ongoing engagement with non-human agents. Umwelt (2011) – which pre-figures the 2018 UUmwelt in its apparent emptiness – features spiders, ants, and the influenza virus, left to inhabit the same space as viewers. The substance of the work is largely encompassed in the mutual interactions between humans and other life-forms. In the role of artist-as-auteur Huyghe, for whom cinema is both source material and finished work, sees himself as creating a “scenario” (a term he prefers to “installation” or “performance”), which objects and agents must navigate. Unlike cinema, however, Huyghe claims not to pre-script events or over-constrain his scientific or technical collaborators, preferring rather to expose the work to a degree of contingency during development, installation, as well as in the installed exhibition.

“The compost is the place where you throw things that you don’t need that are dead,” says Huyghe. “You don’t display things. You don’t make a mise-en-scène, you don’t design things, you just drop them. And when someone enters that site, things are in themselves, they don’t have a dependence on the person. They are indifferent to the public. You are in a place of indifference. Each thing, a bee, an ant, a plant, a rock, keeps growing or changing.”

The effectiveness of this particular show relies heavily on Huyghe’s use of AI. Superficially, the pareidolia in his imagery closely resembles other artists, most notably Trevor Paglen, as well as the (nominally) non-art images produced by AI researchers. Yet the towering LED screens – an update, arguably, of his use of aquaria – create a sense of menacing opacity: monoliths that discreetly return our gaze through their sensors. A dual role is thrust upon us: we are at once observer and observed. The screens seem to deepen Huyghe’s central questions: whether artworks can be indifferent to our presence, and the status of art without a viewer. On the latter point, it’s worth noting that the algorithmic control of the image-stream is not casually apparent (i.e. one needs to read the press release). Moreover, the counterfactual (what the image-stream looks like with no living being, human or insect, in the space) is, by definition, inaccessible to the viewer. In this light, it feels as though Huyghe is updating important art-historical antecedents like Bruce Nauman’s CCTV works or the entropic and isolated land art of Robert Smithson.

A gallery visitor unversed in the arcana of either AI or critical theory might find the Serpentine rather empty, particularly in comparison to the seductive, colorful images of the artist’s other work. Indeed, a bleakly apocalyptic reading might assert itself: a world without humans, their cognitions and memories uploaded into a (post-)silicon cloud, run by data-mining corporate leviathans. Is this perhaps what Debord’s late prediction – the “integrated spectacle” – looks like: governmental surveillance and a privatized, diffused culture of constant entertainment, calibrated via panopticon and manifestly bio-political? Meanwhile, an antediluvian swarm of plague-bearing insects prospers in dark rooms with the dust of human history.

Pierre Huyghe, “UUmwelt” (stills), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Serpentine Galleries. © Kamitani Lab / Kyoto University and ATR.

Message aside, one wonders if Huyghe will avoid the fate, seen throughout art history, of avant-garde practices becoming a victim of their success: reified and ossified under brighter lights. Importantly, this show follows a period of intense critical success for Huyghe – representation by Hauser & Wirth, laureate of the Nasher Prize (2017), institutional exposure at Münster Skulptur Projekte (2017), Guggenheim Bilbao (2017), and a Pompidou/Ludwig/LACMA retrospective (2013-2015).

There is a noticeable politeness to the Serpentine show. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Huyghe’s embrace of accident and risk was miscast in that most uptown of London institutions nestled in a gentle vale in Kensington Gardens. There was no raw edge, no sublimated anger. Instead, there was an abiding sense of money tastefully spent; the elegant, not-too-thick slabs of those screens felt ready for a collector’s reception room. Huyghe’s gift for the surreal, moreover, was missing: in Untilled (2011) or Human Mask (2011), the beehive-statue or the masked monkey/waiter contributed an immediate, almost visceral jolt that took the edge off the more grandiose claims in the writings and interviews surrounding the work. His strengths as a world-maker – the perforation of the white cube, the cultivated serendipity, the embrace of the natural world’s irreducible contingency – were also dulled or absent. The Serpentine remained a noticeably closed space hosting a tight, de-fanged show. The sanded-back walls, devoid of any information on what they exposed, felt like a lifeless trope. Even the health-and-safety Information About Flies handout, which tells us about flies hatched in “a hygienic environment,” was a vaguely annoying reminder of institutional constraint.

In interviews, Huyghe exhibits an almost Jesuitical resistance to any categorization of his practice.  Surely then, the question becomes, how will he resist canonization – the ultimate category for a radical artist? I would wager that he will amplify his treatment of the exhibition itself as material. Reading the slightly hagiographic statement accompanying the Nasher prize, it appears his Pompidou show successfully evoked the spirit of another anarchic and disturbing artist, Mike Kelley, by using historical walls and labels from the latter’s retrospective, held immediately before Huyghe at the Pompidou. Subsequently, for the Ludwig iteration, these same walls were transferred to the new context, mixing three layers of exhibition history. Is this formula what passes for Institutional Critique today? Or are we witnessing another manifestation of the institution-as-spectacle: a highly ‘gramable, titillating-but-sanitized body of objects, life-forms, and actions, all reassuringly bound together with obscure theoretical reference. If so, I fear for what is lost: that demented, destabilized perceptual field. The sense of wonder admixed with revulsion – once so meaningfully evoked by Huyghe.

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