Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 23, 2015
Amelia Barikin, Tristan Garcia, and Emma Lavigne Pierre Huyghe Exh. cat. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2014. 248 pp.; 770 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Paper $49.95 (9783777422497)
Exhibition schedule: Centre Pompidou, Paris, September 25, 2013–January 6, 2014; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, April 11–July 13, 2014; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, November 23, 2014–March 8, 2015
Pierre Huyghe. Installation view. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo by Museum Associates/LACMA.

Upon entering the Los Angeles iteration of French artist Pierre Huyghe’s touring mid-career retrospective, curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) by Jarrett Gregory, viewers were given two things. The first was an introduction in the form of a performative artwork titled Name Announcer (2011). A bow-tied gentleman (at least it was a man every time I visited) asked your name and then would repeat whatever you said in a booming, officious tone as you crossed the threshold into the exhibition, whether or not there was anyone else around to hear. The second was an exhibition brochure in the form of a map, ostensibly meant to help visitors navigate the dimly lit, maze-like installation and identify the more than fifty unlabeled works of art created or designated as such by Huyghe between 1986 and 2014—video projections, photographs, ephemera, found and constructed sculptural objects, animals, aquariums, and other examples of the artist’s myriad self-invented or appropriated formats.

As other critics have noted, the traveling retrospective, like many prior institutional presentations of Huyghe’s work, made compelling innovations in exhibitionary practice. The LACMA edition was no exception. One does not curate an exhibition of Huyghe’s work so much as co-produce it, given that the kinds of labor involved in the artist’s multifaceted, ambitious projects have aligned him in turns with the role of artist, filmmaker, producer, explorer, pedagogue, choreographer, architect, and designer. The layout was conceptualized as a labyrinth in which various paths would splinter off from one another and reconverge around central works. Individual pieces were arranged and secreted within a maze-like warren of odd-angled nooks, crannies, and partially enclosed rooms created by an exhibition architecture appropriated, in fragments newly rearranged, from its earlier appearance at the Centre Pompidou, where Huyghe had installed his work on the walls that remained from the prior retrospective of recently deceased Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley. At LACMA, viewers were led through the labyrinthine interior by the intermittent activation of video projections and self-lit sculptural works, which turned on and off in carefully planned sequences. Areas of the exhibition suddenly activated by intense visual and aural stimulation would magnetically draw congregations of viewers and at other times lull into quiet noneventfulness. Regardless of one’s choice of turns, all paths generally progressed from one end of the long, rectangular pavilion to the other, culminating in a small outdoor patio. In this, the exhibition parcours was a compromise between that of the Centre Pompidou edition (curated by Emma Lavigne), devised like a plaza through which viewers could circulate in any fashion, and the Museum Ludwig (Cologne) edition (curated by Katia Baudin), where there had been one possible path with few deviations.

Immediately upon entering Huyghe’s exhibition at LACMA, there were at least four diverging paths one could possibly pursue, but among the first works visitors commonly encountered were Singing in the Rain (1996) and Or (1995). Singing in the Rain is a small wooden platform displaying a pair of gold women’s dancing shoes, with the platform’s scuffed-up surface indicating that the shoes had indeed been danced in, precisely there. Described materially in the brochure-map as consisting of “live event, wooden base, dancer, and rain,” the modest arrangement was charged with an aura of anticipation, emblematic of Huyghe’s work in general for its occupation of indeterminate expanses of both space and time. When and from where would the dancer again appear? While waiting for that event to take place, viewers could pass to the other side of an adjacent wall and meditate upon Or, a photo poster depicting a Northern California hillside carpeted with wild, golden grasses. The image’s vantage point is the crux of a forked path, either branch of which travels to a different point past the horizon to an unseen beyond. Again, the work represented in the gallery was indexed to an unseen prior event, as the exhibition catalogue notes that one of the two paths in the image was etched into the landscape by the artist. Visitors who stopped to contemplate Or were metaphorically caught at a crossroads, and so, too, one imagines, are those who happen upon Huyghe’s path in real life (presuming a vestige of it still exists). In the exhibition context, the composed picture that is Or was not merely a picture but also a stand-in for a spatiotemporal event and its aftermath, an artwork whose limits conceivably extend perpetually into the present. It suggests a journey that has been or will be taken. Like so many of Huyghe’s projects, it presents participants and viewers with a set of choices within a scenario carefully—and crucially—framed by the artist.

The juxtaposition of Singing in the Rain and Or distilled the alternating experiences of enchantment and frustration that Huyghe’s work can provoke. For in fact the dancer never did dance during the run of the show—she did so only once before it opened to the public and then never again. And the path that Huyghe added to the landscape depicted in Or actually leads to nowhere. If these facts are disappointing to learn, in the moment of experiencing Huyghe’s work they do little to nullify the seductive mystery that auratically enshrouds so many of his projects and for which he has found international acclaim in the contemporary art world. Works imagined by the artist quite grandly as scenarios or events are necessarily represented by or stilled into artifactual, documentary objects and images, and thus in exhibition contexts tend to become something else: quasi-fictions reanimated in viewers’ imaginations as authentic gestures through an act of faith. The earliest of such works included in the LACMA show—one that Amelia Barikin (Parallel Presents: The Art of Pierre Huyghe, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012) has argued holds the key to Huyghe’s oeuvre—was L’Association des Temps Libérés (1995). It is an unremarkable-looking readymade copy of the French Journal Officiel, opened to the page that registers in a scant seven lines the founding of Huyghe’s “association of freed time” on the occasion of a group exhibition in Dijon, France, that Huyghe was invited to participate in by frequent collaborators Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno. Conceptualized as an organization dedicated to exploring the possibility of unproductive or liberated time, L’Association is an early case of Huyghe’s practice of initiating dynamically recursive, autopoetic structures, systems, and/or processes that continue to operate beyond the direct oversight of the artist, but to which he may return and fold into future projects. For this mode of working the French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou (a figure strangely un-mined in the existing literature on Huyghe) stands as conceptual lodestar. Like Huyghe, Filliou before him imagined his artistic practice as one of “permanent creation,” a continuously unfolding chain of interlinked activities rather than discrete works. The difference is that Huyghe’s open works have increasingly manifested as cinematically sophisticated, non-narrative documentary video projections, and a number of these formed the backbone of the LACMA show: Streamside Day (2003), A Journey That Wasn’t (2005), The Host and the Cloud (2010), and A Way in Untilled (2012), the last of which was originally created for Documenta 13. Interestingly, the exhibition catalogue’s complete list of the artist’s works includes multiple entries around these projects, suggesting that Huyghe has become more careful in recent years to designate the filmic documentation of his events as separate from the original events themselves as well as representations of them in other formats. Most works appear in series or belong to an edition; in Huyghe’s oeuvre there are no singular monuments.

Unsurprisingly, the most attention-getting works at LACMA involved live organisms, from the undetectable ants and spiders comprising Umwelt (2011) and the Ibizan hound with a pink-dyed leg designated as the work Human (2012), to the four aquariums or “live marine ecosystems” interspersed throughout the pavilion. Precambrian Explosion (2014), an aquarium dominated by a rock that floats miraculously above a select number of fantastical, scurrying crustaceans, was cleverly installed within eyesight of Michael Heizer’s monumental Levitated Mass (2012). With these diverse works displayed in one venue, it became clear that Huyghe’s emphasis in the past five years on staging encounters between human and nonhuman life forms dovetails neatly with contemporary concerns with ecological systems and nonhuman-centric modes of thinking and being. Huyghe’s interest in such topics has arguably been present from the start of his career, engaging a long French tradition of vitalist thought from Henri Focillon, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze to current debates around speculative realism, represented by the young French philosopher and novelist Tristan Garcia, who contributed a compelling text on Huyghe to the exhibition catalogue.

Despite Huyghe’s avowed interest in exploring interactions between diverse organisms and energy forces, at times his constructed scenarios seemed remarkably indifferent to the beings involved. On the outdoor patio, scores of bees that were enlisted to occupy a hive incorporated into the sculpture Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) (2012) fell victim to the rain of nearby L’Expédition scintillant, Acte 1 (weather score) (2002), a “programmed precipitation” of rain, snow, and fog. Huyghe’s aquarium interiors and occupants appear to be curated primarily according to the desires of the human eye. And careful handling and inspections of Human by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals may not convince all viewers that claiming a dog as a readymade work of art and having her prowl the halls of a museum during all hours of an exhibition is wholly ethical. With so many works of this ilk brought together in one space, it became readily apparent that Huyghe’s artificial ecologies in some cases insensitively subvert powerless creatures to the impractical aesthetic demands of his scenarios. This problematic is not far off from the other that recurs in his work, in which the stories we are told about Huyghe’s projects—what happened in them and what they mean—trump what one actually sees transpire materially in them (think back to Singing in the Rain and Or).

Huyghe’s practice may belong to the broad category called relational aesthetics, but it is not exactly participatory, for the humans and animals he employs are treated as characters, charged with fleshing out the contours of his adapted and invented scenarios. The Host and the Cloud, for example, documents a series of events in which Huyghe set loose a group of women and men in an abandoned ethnological museum to enact and improvise upon roughly scripted situations abstractly derived from the rituals of May Day, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween. The film documents eerily cultic versions of a trial, coronation, hypnosis session, and sexual orgy, and it is unclear where Huyghe’s directions stop and the characters’ improvisation begins. Because of the exhibition design’s deliberate nod to Mike Kelley and its taking place in Los Angeles, one could not help but compare Huyghe’s associative way of exploring cultural ritual, which works to extend the logics of shared rites, with the work of Kelley, whose work is openly critical and satirical of much of the same cultural material. Finally, the exhibition was a reminder that Huyghe’s deeply complex, project-based work remains tricky material for contemporary art historians, who may either borrow the artist’s own allusive, yet frustratingly tautological language for explaining the work and its choices (a common path), or risk deflating the by-now-mythic stature (for the most part deserved, I think) that surrounds the artist and his practice.

Natilee Harren
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Visual Arts, Occidental College