“Does an image come to mind? An emotion?”
(from The Host and the Cloud, a film by Pierre Huyghe, 2010)
It’s hard to describe the Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962, France) retrospective currently at the LA County Museum of Art without making it sound gimmicky. When you enter the show, a man in formal attire asks your name, then loudly calls it out for those milling inside to half-hear. There’s a real dog walking around, its leg painted pink. There are several interactive features, including controls where viewers can turn the lights on and off, suddenly and unwittingly making it impossible to see a film projected on a wall around the bend. Not one but two titled pieces consist of ants and spiders on a wall—maybe you can see them when you pass by, maybe they’ll have wandered somewhere else. A 1999/2014 piece called Timekeeper shows, in nested rings on a small spot of gallery wall, “a succession of exhibition layers.” These things could easily be obvious, even obnoxious—yet if you decide to take seriously the work in this show, which is drawn from over two decades and spans multiple mediums and moods, its seriousness, and depth, comes through. Its playfulness and humor too.
The show is organized to feel like a single (though divided) space, or perhaps experience, with rooms of varying shapes and sizes demarcated by temporary diagonal walls. The nonlinearity of the possible paths, and the sheer breadth and diversity of work means people are flowing in multiple directions through a heterogeneous space in a way that starts to make it feel more like a park than a museum—you can’t take it all in (one film, The Host and the Cloud, is itself more than two hours long). There’s a sense of path-crossing, but also spacious anonymity.
It’s a strange park, and there’s very little informational or critical text to guide viewers unfamiliar with Huyghe’s work. The first time I saw the show, it took until L’Expedition scintillante, Acte 2 (Light Box, 2002), about halfway through, for me to open enough to stop reacting and start loving (which it seems to me is the pivotal point of everything: the transition from knowing too much to humility, from closed to open, each of us triggered to pivot by different stimuli). L’Expedition scintillante is a dark room in which colored light and smoke dances inside a rectangle to Erik Satie. You stand or you sit. You look at it from one angle or several, see different things. It is much more easily beautiful than most of the show, and it softened me.
Up until that point I had been preoccupied with a still-unresolved question about Huyghe’s relationship with, or approach to, or use of, the Other. Animals, children, and women are frequent subjects—or objects—in his work. I had been pricked by the emaciated-looking and shy-seeming dog, the live aquatic organisms edited together and dropped into display cases, the near-naked woman pictured in a glass box in the middle of two drawn forests full of forlorn creatures (Monster Island, 2009).
I’m not at all resolved about the questions of consent and objectification surrounding the placement of living things, especially living things with less agency or real social power than the one doing the placing, in cases in an art museum. Even if I were resolved about those, other interesting questions are thus floated—about the placement of living, moving things in a space mostly dedicated to the celebration of inanimate objects, notably including objects that represent living things in stillness.
Monster Island shows in its center a picture of a nearly naked woman who looks like a fashion model, possibly cut from a magazine, in a glass case in an open space between two woods populated by lurking creatures who each seem very alone but must be crossing paths, much like us in the gallery, like us anywhere. When I open to Huyghe’s work I see that it operates this way, engaging layers and twists of questions that neither the work nor the viewer can escape being tied up in. This is one of the ways these works that at first feel inscrutable start to feel very directly, intimately about some of the threads of our lives.
In one section of the two-hour-long film The Host and the Cloud (2010), a hypnotized woman talks about being scared of rabbits as a child—so scared that she would rather see them die than risk continuing to be near them: “I don’t want them here. I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to save them.” Later, these words appear as subtitles: “ . . . the notion of danger that you perceived. Does an image come to mind? An emotion?” In a shorter film, Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), Huyghe shows a monkey wearing a mask of a human woman as it wanders alone around an abandoned restaurant. It’s a sad and sometimes sweet scene, and one Huyghe has only partially created. He made the film after learning of the monkey, who had been trained to work as a waitress in a real restaurant.
The relationship between the primal (fear, loneliness, emotion generally) and mediation of the primal (through art and commerce, metaphor and image, caging of the self and the Other) is a recurring theme. In one of the living-aquatic-ecosystems-as-installation, there is a hermit crab covered in a remake of Brancusi’s Sleeping Head. A 2003 poster, Or, shows two paths diverged in a dry desert.
The 2006 film Streamside Day, like many pieces in the show, manages to be both bleak and tender. Quiet and full of chattery business, it documents a community celebration in an in-progress tract-home development, with a stilted and meaningless speech by some community leader, bad music by a local dude with a guitar, dusk encroaching like Sunday dread over the dirt of unfinished lots, but also a kind of Sunday grace, kids playing til it’s past too dark to, people finding fun and connection wherever it is to be had.
One of the few explained pieces, No Ghost Just a Shell (1999, the title alluding to the earlier-’90s Japanese anime/manga Ghost in the Shell), includes a legal agreement through which Huyghe and Philippe Parenno purchased a fictional character, Ann Lee, from a company that creates figures for cartoons, video games, and advertising, in order to free her. They announce that they have bought her and “removed her from the cultural industry . . . so she can continue to exist independently of the industry she belonged to.” They note that different authors have attempted to write her/her story.
In the next room an entire wall is devoted to what looks like an abstract painting called Shore (2013). The notes indicate that it is a “site-specific sanded wall” made of wall pigments and turtle fossil. It is an abstraction made from the here and the real, and turtle fossil.
This is a much deeper show than it seems when you walk in and meet a dog named Human with its leg painted pink, and funnier too. The first major retrospective of Huyghe’s work (at LACMA after the Centre Pompidou and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne), it contains some pieces in their entirety as well as some fragments, remnants of live performances and the like. There are films, installations, drawings, collages, and interactive pieces like the remote-controlled lights that reflect Huyghe’s roots in relational aesthetics.
The work is concerned with relationship in a very broad sense and in very specific ways. The names of each viewer echo through the exhibition as she or he enters. There is a sense of occasional immersion but also plenty of space for critical/reflective distance. The variety of the work begs questions about the relationships between pieces and eras and mediums. And throughout there are recurring, and varying, threads about the most elemental relationships of contemporary life: the multiple mediations of the primal, freedom and circumscription, creativity and criticality, all of these different forms of life and the spaces in which life is housed, institutionalized, represented, bought, trained, freed . . .
I return to one of my first questions, about Huyghe’s relationship to various Others and to consent, and it occurs to me that the fact that there is not a specific fetishized Other but rather an engagement with various marginalized subjects might mean that what I am seeing is not simple objectification of the Other but a kind of global concern with themes of contemporary life that recognizes different subjectivities and relationships to power and to everything. You cannot think seriously about the world we live in without thinking about difference and various forms of power (which is always relative), and you cannot feel deeply about the world we live in without feeling both connection and alienation of multiple sorts.
At another point in The Host and the Cloud, some distance from the hypnotized woman remembering a childhood fear of rabbits, there is lovely footage of light coming through slowly moving human hands.
Huyghe said in an interview with the NY Times that the pink leg on the dog “breaks the form of ‘dog,’ makes you look at it as something else.” And this is the tricky thing: the dog is a dog. It may be called Human in this art show but it is a real, live dog, perhaps slightly emaciated though the exhibition notes reassure us that this is just how this breed looks, who seems at least somewhat uncomfortable about constantly encountering strangers, and who did not choose to be there. Also: I am a person/viewer, quickly moving from “the dog is a dog” to a speculation on its feelings about socializing and etc. The show works like that. Huyghe might have some consent problems. We all do.