Preternaturally red candy apples made fresh before your eyes and set out in neat rows: this was the enduring first image of forbidden fruit in Pierre Huyghe’s three-hour-long Valentine’s Day performance, staged in a semi-abandoned French ethnographic museum. The second of three events by the artist at this site (an old jack-o’-lantern hiding under some plants served as a reminder of the first, on Halloween ’09; the third was set to take place on May Day), Huyghe’s night-in-the-museum was filmed, and will no doubt have a second life as a brilliant and exasperating installation.
The French artist (born in 1962) is no slouch at identifying loaded signifiers, having availed himself of everything from the French version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” (from Walt Disney’s Snow White) to Le Corbusier’s fight to build the Carpenter Center at Harvard. No exception, the dilapidated Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires suggests a parable of broken museology. Perched at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne between an old-fashioned children’s amusement park and a construction site for what will be Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, the shuttered museum is a wonderfully misguided 11-story glass tower designed by a student of Le Corbusier. (It opened in 1972 and closed in 2005.) Freighted with ethnographic installations based on now-extinct premises, it also boasts superb late-modernist interior details; its two auditoriums, where some of Huyghe’s events took place, are especially splashy. The 50 or so invited guests were free to ponder, and violate, these spatial models—to go backstage and be onstage at the same time, as it were.
The grid of flashing ceiling lights in the entrance was the initial sign that the building had been rigged as an assisted readymade. Recalling Huyghe’s Les Grands Ensembles, a 2001 film depicting apartment towers whose lights flash on and off, the introductory grid suggested that blinking lights, and blinkered vision, would be a leitmotif. In the lobby, one encountered a seated troupe of worker drones wearing what looked to be LED-lit masks shaped as open books. Like Kabuki stagehands, they were meant to be both seen and unseen. Their masks’ lights would ultimately be manipulated by a sinister master avatar using a kind of remote control device.
Roaming legions of young helpers in black became more jovial and rambunctious as the evening wore on. While waiting for an elevator, one watched a group clad only in underwear rushing toward a stairwell. You could wander in and out of the dressing rooms, and even join a cast party. Occasionally a closed door would fly open to reveal the stunning, redheaded French supermodel Audrey Marnay striding forth in one after another catwalk outfit—angel’s wings, hot pants and mini slicker, a vintage chiffon robe de style.
The guests were not privy to the carefully orchestrated timetable of events—only to a schematic floorplan with clusters of dots at different locations, which suggested a freewheeling treasure hunt. But gradually minders began to shepherd small crowds of observers toward the main events. Fierce animal-headed demonstrators wielding placards calling for the inalienable human rights of avatars; a sinister figure named Bungle on trial for Internet rape (and sentenced to virtual castration); adorable puppies gamboling in the lobby; a young couple having simulated sex in a sound booth to the tune of Claude Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun,abysmally played by a fractured chamber group: these were a few of the more than 40 live acts occurring simultaneously on five floors of the museum.
Walking through a storage area, you almost tripped over a woman in a lab coat lying on the floor. Her brain waves were being monitored by a laptop as she “slept.” Was she a metaphor for the museum-as-patient? In the darkened exhibition galleries, you came upon a spotlit vitrine containing a life-size male figure (mannequin or model?) lying in an open coffin and wearing an oversize wolf’s head, bringing to mind Little Red Riding Hood (a French fable if ever there was one). The inner wolf was definitely released, making chilling yelps in a darkened corridor, during a final orgy scene in the basement; it featured plenty of champagne, cigarette smoke and look-but-don’t-touch flesh.
Huyghe’s third live event at the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires takes place on May 1. He has a site-specific exhibition, “Season of the Festivals,” at the Reina Sofía, Madrid, through May 31.
Photos: Two views of Pierre Huyghe’s live event The host and the cloud, on Feb. 14, 2010; at the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires.