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Pierre
Huyghe

Words by
Éric Troncy
From Issue 13 — Winter 2011/12

Described by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud as a researcher, traveler, narrator and organizer of events, artist and filmmaker Pierre Huyghe explores the borders of fiction and reality, avoiding the finished object for contemplation in favour of an unending, continuously developing story.

Born and trained in Paris and now living in New York, Pierre Huyghe is an artist and filmmaker, as well as an occasional philosophy professor, who creates scenarios that explore the borders of fiction and reality. French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud has described him as a researcher, traveler, narrator and organizer of events. His work is at once playful and engagée. Two of Huyghe’s recent projects have garnered the enthusiastic attention of an international audience: a full-length feature film, The Host and the Cloud, presented at Marian Goodman in Paris in early 2011, and the mesmerizing aquariums commissioned by the latest Frieze Art Fair. After taking part in Documenta 13, Kassel, he will have solo exhibitions at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, in 2012, and Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2013.

The Host and the Cloud left a lasting mark on Pierre Huyghe’s work. The unexpected range of possibilities offered by the film, composed of three events held at the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires over a period of several several months, created a special moment in the twenty years or so during which Pierre Huyghe’s work has been taking shape. The complexity of its production had many consequences: for three years, Pierre Huyghe devoted himself to the project more or less full-time, and it is worth noting that he refuses the marketing of fetishes and souvenirs resulting from that venture. During that three-year period of time, only two works have appeared in Huyghe’s rare and controlled output. During the post-production process, a digital character was added to The Host and the Cloud to guide the viewer within the narrative. This digital character was a rabbit.

The rabbit has been summoned many times by the classical writers of fables (Jean de la Fontaine, Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian), and it points to an important, fabular aspect of Pierre Huyghe’s work, which is littered with animals: the stuffed animals of The Golden Fleece (2003); the fawns of Streamside Day Follies (2003); the penguins of The Scintillating Expedition (2002); the bird which places the seed on the concrete of a Le Corbusier building in This is not a Time for Dreaming (2004); penguins, again, in A Journey That Wasn’t (2006); and the live rabbits and dogs let loose in the space where two days of events took place in The Host and the Cloud. Like the fabulists, Huyghe uses them as quasi-characters, not far removed from humans, setting up the dreamlike distance necessary for the invention of an individualized narrative. The absence of morality in Pierre Huyghe’s “fables” points to a period when judgment has been “exchanged,” to use Jean Baudrillard’s term, for an immaterial “other thing.”

The artist does not offer a finished object for contemplation, but rather an unending, continuously developing story.

The Host and the Cloud has marked Pierre Huyghe’s oeuvre and left an indisputable darkness, as though the painful introspection represented by the film had brought to light a deep melancholy: the sort that strikes a person who remembers his past, appraises its abandoned possibilities, reviews its choices, submits his judgment to examination and does not let himself off easily. Naturally enough, this darkness takes on a material form in the series of works which immediately followed The Host and the Cloud. Huyghe’s first Aquarium Project, which was presented simultaneously with The Host and the Cloud and at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, is just like the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires: a theater, an enclosed space, with a score that adds very little detail. This time around, the actors have been swapped for animals. Huyghe arranges the aquaria like theatrical spaces, with the animals performing the function of actors. The yellow fish in the first Aquarium Project was chosen for its behavior: edgy and fast, swimming here and there through a murky world, while slow, spider-like fauna threatened it from below. Just as in The Host and the Cloud, the actors—here, the aquatic creatures—have no written role. Each incarnates a feeling. Borrowing the formal structure of Untitled (Light Show) (2002), air has been replaced by water, and the light of a suspended system dramatizes its atmosphere. These works present animals that have lost their kindly quality, and now do not express anything other than fear, solitude, threat and permanent danger. Jean-Luc Godard suggested that instead of restoring old films, it might be better to envisage restoring the viewers, and this is precisely what Pierre Huyghe does in his film production. These aquaria are closed, abandoned worlds, which we have to learn to look at in order to restore our cognitive principles and our ability to negotiate works of art. The artist does not offer a finished object for contemplation, but rather an unending, continuously developing story. The most recent of these Aquarium Projects (four have been produced to date) presents a hermit crab whose shell has been swapped for a replica of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse. Without its natural shell, the animal has taken refuge in this disguise, and the Muse’s head has become its head. This surrealist quality can be put in tandem with the world of David Lynch, and his Inland Empire in particular, which remains the main reference for The Host and the Clouds. Huyghe envisages a second version of this work in which the “landscape” will be stripped and refashioned with plum-colored lava stones.

After The Host and the Cloud, that ballet of introspection, Huyghe sets the basis for a new scenario in the Aquarium Projects, in which the subject might be the melancholy survival of a single person in a world whose mainsprings are no longer understandable or conventional. He no longer has recourse to actors or puppets, as was previously the case, but only animals that have exchanged their familiarity for something totally strange. It is no longer a question of rabbits or fawns, but of strange and repulsive fish, or of hostile spiders and ants, the only actors in an exhibition presented at the Esther Schipper gallery in September 2011. As far as the “restoration” of the viewer is concerned, Huyghe has here imposed an odd procedure that starts by giving the visitor back his own identity: a “crier” at the entrance to the exhibition asked for the visitors’ first and last names so that he could announce their arrival (Name Announcer, 2011). In the empty white gallery, it takes the spectator a few moments to realize that the place is already occupied by a colony of 10,000 ants (Camponotus ligniperdus) that are being hunted by a bunch of household spiders (Tegenaria atrica). Titled Umwelt (2011), the work pursues this scripted idea of threat and intrusion into a world with uncertain rules. These rules become more explicit when, in the list of the works included in the show, we discover Influenced (2011), with the words “A person in a space carrying the flu virus.” Referring to the “lots of people” in the titles of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s works, this unidentified character (someone with the flu was actually present in the gallery) points to the invisible threat that suffuses the Aquarium Projects and The Host and the Cloud.

There can be no doubt that the tales Pierre Huyghe has told since The Host and the Cloud have been subject to a certain pessimism. The narrative procedures have become more complex, and he now describes malevolent and hostile worlds where the protagonists do their utmost to find their own place. Just as we were summoned as “witnesses” to the Museum of Arts and Crafts, left up to our own devices without any indication of the time or place where the actions might occur, powerless to grasp everything at once, the Aquarium Projects and the show at the Esther Schipper gallery hand us over to unlikely worlds, unarmed. We are inscribed in the work and made to share their menace. Huyghe seems to have set out from the old idea, developed by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Philippe Parreno, of staging the “story of a feeling.” Obviously, time has imbued this aim with a dark hue, and just as in The Host and the Cloud, Huyghe seemed to be drawing up a report of lost personal illusions, re-directing his stunned eye to social relations and the state of art. We see in these works intentions akin to those of Michael Asher, and the production of these impractical works, which are virtually impossible to collect, indicates a violent resistance to the merchandise status that artworks seem, in general, to have opted for. For Huyghe, it is not a question of turning away from images or the cinematographic dimension of the artistic experience; instead, he shifts toward forms that are hostile. The replacement of familiar animals with repulsive creatures attests to a movement in his work toward shadowy areas, as though the exploration of the libidinous dimension of the The Host and the Cloud has opened the way for an exploration of other areas of uncertainty, chaos and disorientation. Huyghe seems to have donned the clothes of the hypnotizer in The Host and the Cloud: it is through him that traumas will be released.

Pierre Huyghe has had solo exhibitions at Tate Modern, London, and ARC, Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2006); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2003); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2002); Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2001); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2000). He has also participated in a number of international art shows, including Documenta XI (2002); the Istanbul Biennial (1999); the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (1999); Manifesta 2, Luxembourg (1998); the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1997); and the Biennale d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (1995). He was a recipient of a DAAD Artist-in-Residence grant in Berlin (1999-2000) and received a Special Award from the Jury of the Venice Biennale in 2001, the Hugo Boss Prize from the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2002, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Contemporary Artist Award in 2010.
Éric Troncy was born in 1965 in Nevers. He attended the École du Louvre and the École des hautes études en Sciences sociales. He is co-director of the contemporary art center Le Consortium since 1996 and he co-founded the Frog magazine. He currently lives in Dijon.
Photography by Ari Marcopoulos

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