Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 10, 2014
Emma Lavigne, ed. Pierre Huyghe Exh. cat. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2013. 256 pp.; 800 color ills. Cloth €39.00 (9782844266217)
Exhibition schedule: Centre Pompidou, Paris, September 25, 2013–January 6, 2014; Ludwig Museum, Cologne, April 11–July 13, 2014; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, November 23, 2014–March 8, 2015
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Pierre Huyghe. Zoodram 4 (2011). Living marine ecosystem, resin mask of La Muse endormie (1910) by Constantin Brancusi. Photo: © Guillaume Ziccarelli.

Upon entering Pierre Huyghe’s extraordinary retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, curated by Emma Lavigne, the visitor encounters a tall, abstract, concrete sculpture covered with marks of time and material deterioration. The sculpture, titled Mère Anatolica 1, is not by Huyghe but by Parvine Curie, who produced it in 1975 as part of an event at the College Pierre de Coubertin de Chevreuse, a junior high school that Huyghe attended. Huyghe moved the sculpture from its outside location at the school into the enclosed south gallery of the Pompidou. In the background the visitor hears sound extracts from one day in 1988 at the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques (Institute of Advanced Studies in Visual Arts), an interdisciplinary institution in Paris that promotes research and experimentation in the arts. At first, one views the sculpture as a relic or a ruin from the past, perhaps an “origin” to Huyghe’s own practice—after all, retrospectives are about revisiting the past. Another concept that immediately comes to mind is Robert Smithson’s idea of entropy, which seems apt given Huyghe’s ongoing preoccupation with time and forms of temporality as manifested in his 1995 announcement in the Journal Officiel of The Society of Freed Times that united the participants of a group exhibition, among them Liam Gillick, Douglas Gordon, and Philippe Parreno, as part of an effort to extend the time of the exhibition and to develop “unproductive time” not identified with labor.

Yet, this impression is again revised because this monumental sculpture is actually located in a juncture from which two ways of entering the exhibition are possible. Going straight ahead is a kind of hybrid space both inside and outside the museum (like a greenhouse) where rain freezes into ice at regular intervals, and the visitor senses an intense drop of temperature. This is Act 1, “Weather Score,” from Huyghe’s 2002 exhibition L’Expédition scintillante. At the end of this room there are piles of concrete tiles and a sculpture of a reclining female figure whose head is covered with a beehive, Untilled (Liegender Frauenkat), that originally formed a part of the work Human (2011–13), which Huyghe created for Documenta 13. If the visitor chooses to turn right she or he will enter an open space where on one wall successive rings of colors are visible; upon closer inspection the viewer sees that there is actually a hole in the wall that exposes the different layers of paint left by previous exhibitions. In the adjacent wall hangs a photograph titled Or (1995) which portrays a bifurcation in a country road. Other than that the wall seems empty until ants are discovered moving on it, and according to the exhibition plan, the wall is also the habitat of a spider. Sometimes a dog roams around there.

After encountering this mixture of biological, meteorological, and animal forms of life the monumental sculpture suddenly seems alive—there is so much life on it: lichen and fungus, small plants at the bottom, and even holes that indicate underground tunnels as habitats—maybe of the ants? This sculpture, which stood outside in “nature” for thirty-eight years, has been transformed into something else, a living environment, a habitat or biotope, a host for different forms of life. As such it serves as a model for an artistic practice that is based on research and experimentation, yet one that is no longer grounded on entropy but on vitalism, on the intensification of different life processes, on a sustained effort to reanimate, “to introduce new life into a dead body,” as Huyghe recently stated (as cited in the exhibition catalogue, 210). It is thus no longer the inevitable dissolution and the temporal process of wearing down of energy into a state of de-differentiation, which functions as a productive artistic principle that evades subjectivity by submitting art objects to contingent material processes of decay. Rather, it is time as a principle of difference and repetition whose material and formal outcomes lead not to dissolution, but to invigorating processes of cohabitation, germination, and hybridization. That is, it is not, as Smithson suggested, the eventual graining of all matter (cultural and natural) into sand and dust that motivates artistic production, but its permeability to unregulated transformative encounters between the inanimate and animate, the human and the inhuman, the organic and the inorganic. It is as if Huyghe has turned Smithson’s famous image of entropy, the sand box in Passaic, from an emblem of a ruin into a living habitat where ants and spiders form shapes and tunnels in the sand because, as Gilles Deleuze once proposed, “organisms die, not life” (as cited in the exhibition catalogue, 210). This is a truly invigorating suggestion for contemporary artistic practices and one that turns this exhibition into an “event” where new viewing and experiencing possibilities are constantly opened out of surprising juxtapositions between old and recent works, images, sounds, and objects.

With this exhibition Huyghe has not only secured his status as one of the major artists in the contemporary art scene of the last twenty years, but also redefined the concept of an art exhibition. His artistic project has always consisted of rethinking the concept and format of exhibitions through the production of often collaborative, time-based scripted events that are modeled on forms of social experience such as a celebration or a journey. For example, his exhibition L’Expédition scintillante led to an actual journey with friends to Antarctica which was then restaged as a musical event, titled Double Negative, in New York’s Central Park’s ice rink; eventually all these events were reworked into a video piece, A Journey That Wasn’t (2005). Thus in his 2006 retrospective at Tate Modern, significantly titled Celebration Park, Huyghe took the idea of an amusement park and the World’s Fair as models for a performative exhibition. With this form Huyghe avoided the linear and comprehensive survey-like structure of retrospectives, focusing instead on a few recent projects. The Pompidou exhibition is much broader in its scope, featuring works from as early as 1993 to the present, yet like the Tate show, it is not linear, but rhizomatic, constructed as a truly challenging labyrinth of mirrors and doubles, of the kind described by Jorge Luis Borges in his famous story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” where one constantly encounters familiar artworks or elements from them in a completely new setting. There are no clearly defined rooms in the Pompidou exhibition; instead there are corridors, halls, stages, and niches that the visitor drifts into or out from, constantly dragged or seduced by sensations that bring to mind historical modes of display such as the cabinet of curiosities, where objects that defy categorization or status were displayed. In this regard, it is precisely the different Zoodrams, large aquariums with marine ecosystems, that embody the logic of the exhibition, in particular Zoodram 4 (2011) in which a crab turned a resin mask of the Sleeping Muse (1910) by Constantin Brancusi into its living habitat.

In fact, Huyghe’s exhibition is itself a “parasite” on the preceding exhibition in this space, of Mike Kelley’s art. The most important curatorial and artistic decision of the retrospective is to leave the walls and partitions as well as captions from Kelley’s exhibition as “hosts” for Huyghe’s interventions and works. Thus Shore (2013) was created by peeling a layer of paint from a wall to create an abstract shape that resembles a whale and leaving the dusty remains of the paint on the floor together with the shell of a turtle. With these gestures, the exhibition itself is a life form, an ecosystem, a constantly overgrown structure with no center, only traces and echoes reverberating throughout the space and creating connections or paths rather than simply displaying autonomous self-contained works. The works penetrate each other visually and vocally and trigger connections and correspondences, repetitions and displacements; rather than creating an enclosed “fixed” oeuvre, they become a living body or a pulsation “desire” machine.

For example, in one of the spaces the visitor can sit and view Huyghe’s Streamside Day (2003), a video that shows a celebration Huyghe orchestrated for Streamside Knolls, a new ecological residential development in New York State, which included a costume parade, a speech by the mayor, a musical performance, and a feast. The costumes bring to mind a series of photographs displayed outside the room which show adolescents with animal heads from Huyghe’s La Toison d’or (1993), an event he created in Dijon. Next to the projection there is a poster proposing a new holiday, “The Birthday of Art” on January 17, by the late French artist Robert Filliou, in which there will be a worldwide school vacation and paid holiday for workers. This poster is part of a series One Year Celebration (2003–6) in which Huyghe asked artists to suggest ideas for a new celebratory day. Against the poster there is a framed photograph documenting the work La saison des fêtes (2010) in which Huyghe created a circular garden positioning plants associated with specific days or holidays (like a rose for Valentine’s Day, pumpkin for Halloween) according to their date of appearance on the calendar. In turn, all of these works are linked to Huyghe’s film The Host and the Cloud (2010) projected nearby, which shows a series of improvised “live” experiences and events that took place at the deserted Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires during Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and May Day. Sometimes figures and props from the film can be seen “live” at the exhibition space: a male figure with a LED rectangular mask together with a dog with its leg dyed pink that was part of the work Human in Documenta 13. These encounters are not meant to be “interactive,” but to produce “folds” and repetitions: seeing the dog in the film A Way in Untilled (2012) and sitting next to it on a bench viewing the film. This sense of doubling pervades the exhibition and destabilizes formal and perceptual partitions as well as epistemological boundaries.

The idea of a score or a script has always been important to Huyghe. Thus to rethink the concept of the exhibition meant to expand its spatial locus and extend its temporal constraints. The exhibition became in his practice a starting point for temporary projects and collaborations that took many shapes: a film, a magazine, an expedition, and a TV broadcast. These operations aimed to create new possibilities for cohabitation from existing forms of social relations. At the Pompidou it seems that these operations reached a new artistic horizon in which it is no longer “art into life,” or the fictional into the real, that are at stake, but a new form of equation: “art as life,” exhibition as habitat. It is a generous proposition for contemporary art, becoming a “host” rather than a healing social tissue or a spectacular commodity, and it is far from naïve or utopian—after all, one can always be stung by a bee or an ant.

Vered Maimon
Senior Lecturer, Art History Department, Tel Aviv University

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