Fifty-one-year-old Pierre Huyghe has emerged as a major French artist. His work is smart, singular and fun. Time is both subject and medium, and his oeuvre brings T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” to mind: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.”
Huyghe’s retrospective at the Centre Pompidou is a mix of multimedia installation, paleontological dig and adventure park. There are special effects, a smallish skating rink, performers and fauna-ants, spiders, bees, fish, crustaceans and a dog named Human. Visitors linger, watching videos, gaping at live human and animal participants or retracing their steps to make sense of Huyghe’s complex plays on architecture and art.
He has taken over the ground floor space built for the previous exhibition-of Mike Kelley-like the hermit crab inhabiting a diminutive version of a Brancusi head in Recollection (Zoodram 4, after Sleeping Muse by Constantin Brancusi), 2011, one of Huyghe’s aquarium works. He has cut doorways as needed and reused drywall panels, complete with Kelley’s labels, to roughly construct new rooms and nooks, and fashioned extra space by enclosing the section of the parvis under the Pompidou’s overhanging southwest corner. Huyghe’s 50-odd pieces aren’t labeled; his brochure elucidates certain works, but gives only titles and dates for others; and the duration of the projected videos, some looped and without credits, can be determined only by sitting through them, even for the two hours of The Host and the Cloud (2010).
At the exhibition’s entrance there is sometimes a performer who asks each visitor his or her name and shouts it out, as a court herald would. Viewers then confront an imposing, damaged concrete abstract sculpture, with soil and dead grass clinging to it, by the French sculptor Parvine Curie (b. 1936). Commissioned in 1975, Mère Anatolica 1 once stood before Huyghe’s high school but was later displaced. Few curators would dare Huyghe’s gesture, which grants Curie’s work a renewed visibility while highlighting the fickleness of bureaucratic taste. In the same room, we hear a sound extract, from 1988, of one day at the Institut des hautes études en arts plastiques, a brilliant program that was defunded in 1995 and closed. The voices-discussing Duchamp-serve as another sort of memorial. Curie, the modernist, and Duchamp, the arch conceptualist, here stand as melancholic markers of Huyghe’s beginnings.
In the next room, Timekeeper (1999) is a site-specific, fuzzy, 6-inch-in-diameter target, made by scraping through the existing layers of variously hued wall paint; it gives us a swift aperçu of institutional history as a succession of wall colors. Nearby, actual ants enter and exit a tiny hole in the wall (Umwelt [Environment], 2011), and two spiders go about their business in the corner (C. C. Spider, 2011). Easily missed, the critters call for a quality of attention, and suggest the equivalence of humans and animals, in life and art.
The show then unfolds in multiple spaces and directions: at times, ice falls, rain pours and steam billows; odd documents are displayed, one giving a name to a tiny, inhospitable island south of Patagonia, another legally registering the Association des Temps Libérés (The Association of Freed Time); a black-clad skater gracefully glides on the ice, which looks dark because the rink is black; other unlikely walk-ons appear, though few visitors catch them all. Huyghe makes reality feel permeable, and his exhibition favors exploration over interpretation.
Performers have long figured in his work, but his co-opting of animals physically present in their individual territories is recent. Huyghe’s “Zoodram” aquariums (2009-13), three of which are shown, evoke deep waters. Zoodram 8/Floating Stone (2013), with its impressive lava boulder floating in a medium-size tank, deftly diminishes one’s appreciation of Jeff Koons’s slowly water-logging basketballs and Damien Hirst’s dead-on-arrival shark. The dark rock looms over a minimal white-sand bottom and two arrow crab inhabitants, aquatic siblings of the spiders seen before. Harder to perceive are the pair of baby horseshoe crabs scuttling in the sand. While we are absorbed by the grace of the moving creatures, time stops. The work has a solemn, theatrical beauty.
Huyghe’s rescued Ibizan Hound, Human, and her handler, Martin, haunt the exhibition, as they did the great Untilled (2011-12), which Huyghe created for Documenta 13. The heart of Untilled, set in Kassel’s Karlsaue Park, was a reclining female nude, cast in concrete and sheltered in lush vegetation, her head taken over by myriad bees and their honeycombs. In Paris, the figure and its bees, now called Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) [Nude woman reclining], are isolated behind a low, uneven wall of stone flooring slabs on the parvis. In the park, Human’s lanky, stark white body and magenta front leg (dyed with food coloring) was a magnificent apparition, attuned to the color of the aphrodisiac flowers planted to nourish the bees. In Paris, the dog’s distinctive appearance among the ambling public infused the exhibition with a dreamy quality; her comings and goings seem peremptory, since Martin sometimes blends into the crowd and their relation is elastic. Human reigns over the exhibition like an exiled queen.
Projected far away from the nude figure, A Way in Untilled (2012), like many a Huyghe film, spins a tale of adventure in uncharted lands. Huyghe’s camera explores the Kassel site of Untilled at medium and close range in contrasting light conditions: deep in the night, under a glowing sun, in rain. Extreme close-ups of the site’s wriggling terrestrial and aquatic creatures are interspersed with wider shots of undergrowth and piles of stone blocks and slabs. Human is the star. We follow her foraging; her eye opens and looms huge; a bee dives into the sexy heart of a sun-filled flower; the dog feeds on some beast’s head; the concrete figure glistens under the dark, swarming bees. The soundtrack is that of the setting, jumping abruptly from falling water drops to the earsplitting noise of a hovering fly. Nothing much happens, but suspense builds as we lose our sense of scale and place.
Huyghe establishes a continuum of aesthetic experience by undoing boundaries between artificial and natural, inanimate and animate, human and animal, controlled and self-determining. The works’ resplendence leaves us pondering: what meanings abide in such beauty?
The show travels to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Apr. 11-July 13, and to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 23, 2014-Mar. 8, 2015.
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.