Art Seen: National

PIERRE HUYGHE // LACMA

By Natalie Hegert

Finding Human

As we sidled up to a parking spot just off Wilshire Boulevard, I saw a white dog on a leash out of the corner of my eye, taking care of business, as dogs are wont to do out on public sidewalks. Opening the passenger door I got a better look at the dog, noting how her skin seemed to cling to her bones, revealing each vertebra along the spine. I then remembered the disclaimer included in all written materials about the Pierre Huyghe retrospective at LACMA: “The dog’s appearance is consistent with her breed. She has been examined by local animal safety agencies and is in excellent health.” Could this be…? Her foreleg, dyed a fluorescent pink color, confirmed it. It was Human (2012), the dog that is a work of art by Pierre Huyghe. Besides the stroke of genius luck we had in securing free street parking, we had also spotted the star of Huyghe’s show before even entering the building. An auspicious start.

13932PH_Untilled_6k_labeled

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled, 2011-2012
Alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made
Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Pierre Huyghe, the fifty-two-year-old French artist associated with the “relational aesthetics” set, creates films, installations, photographs, sculptures, and “live situations” often involving living creatures. At Esther Schipper Gallery in Berlin in 2011, for instance, he introduced 10,000 ants, 50 spiders, and one person carrying the flu virus into an otherwise empty gallery.

There are apparently ants and spiders in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion, too, but they were mostly missing in action when I arrived. My partner, however, attests that he saw one ant, one single ant, poised at the opening of a hole drilled in the wall, standing there as if apprehending the grand vista beyond his humble hole-in-the-wall ant life. What luck again, that one of us happened to encounter this single ant at the moment of his sublime discovery of the wider world. Huyghe himself probably would never have imagined it.

At the outset of the exhibition stands the Name Announcer (2011), a man in a tuxedo declaring visitors’ names in turn as they enter the space. My name was uttered with such booming effect as I crossed the threshold into Huyghe’s world, it was as if the sound actually thrust me into the space. Like a reluctant skydiver given a push out of the plane, I was immediately there, no time to contemplate what was happening, the rush of the exhibition had already started. A program was thrust into my hand by another attendant at the door. “You’ll need this,” he intoned knowingly. For fear of bottlenecking the Name Announcer’s flow, I swiftly took the program and then moved to the right, where I could safely watch the first film—an 8-mm film projected on the wall, titled À Part (1986-87)—and study the exhibition program-cum-treasure map. The room is dark. Crumpled on the floor in the corner behind me there was a fur coat. Above it a poster (Or [1995]) of a hill and a path cut in twain, leading in two different directions.

Installation view of the exhibition, Pierre Huyghe, at Centre Georges Pompidou (September 2013 — January 2014).  Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/ Paris. Photo by Ola Rinda

Installation view of the exhibition, Pierre Huyghe, at Centre Georges Pompidou (September 2013 — January 2014).
Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/ Paris.
Photo by Ola Rinda

Unlike your run-of-the-mill retrospective, Huyghe’s exhibition is thematically rather than chronologically ordered, and lacks labels of any kind. The program is the key to deciphering what it is you may or may not be looking at. The program also reveals the extraordinary architecture of the exhibition, as seen from above. Walls and half-walls angle jaggedly through the space, creating acute nooks and niches for discrete works of art between the open areas for viewing the video works. The exhibition operates in a set of what Huyghe calls “emergences and rhythms.” I had the distinct feeling of being pulled through the space by a kind of magnetism, attracted to a sound here and then to some sort of movement over there. With its fragmentary, almost labyrinthine layout, there was purposefully no systematic way to approach the exhibition—that instead, the visitor is meant to explore almost haphazardly. It is easy to miss things this way. But it also opens up the possibility of a sense of discovery, the kind one finds out in the natural world—a feeling that is otherwise difficult to replicate in an institutional setting, but which seems to arise naturally here. While gazing into Zoodram 5 (2011), one of the three aquarium ecosystems in the exhibition, an unexpected and sublime sightline emerged: a hermit crab inhabiting a shell shaped like the head of Brancusi’s 1910 Sleeping Muse nestled in the corner of the tank; through the glass I could see an oil painting after Modigliani on the opposite wall; overhead some neon lights flashed. It was as though art and natural history, from the primordial to the contemporary, had momentarily collapsed into one moment.

The notion of collapse or, perhaps more accurately, entropy, seems to be at work in many of Huyghe’s situations. In one of his best known works, a bee hive replaces the head of a modern statue of a female nude—the collision of a living system with inanimate stone, the collapse of life and representation. The sculpture, Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) (2012), could be seen as an allegory of the dismantling of modernism, or even civilization itself: the eventuality of human monuments to perpetuity succumbing to the indiscriminate rhythms of nature and the deleterious effects of time. It’s neither warning nor judgment, however. Any grand statement it might suggest is buffered by its casual placement in the exhibition—set on a balcony amid three machines spewing ice, water, and vapor, it’s nearly camouflaged by its shady concrete surroundings, with water pooling around its base like so much runoff from an overtaxed air conditioning unit. I’m reminded that human values and efforts here are situated within the workings of time and nature, rather than oppositionally set apart.

Installation view of the exhibition, Pierre Huyghe, at the Centre Georges Pompidou (September 2013 — January 2014)  Courtesy of Pierre Huyghe, Marian Goodman Galler, New York/ Paris Photo by Arash Nassiri

Installation view of the exhibition, Pierre Huyghe, at the Centre Georges Pompidou (September 2013 — January 2014)
Courtesy of Pierre Huyghe, Marian Goodman Galler, New York/ Paris
Photo by Arash Nassiri

But where was Human? We hadn’t seen the Ibizan hound since we spotted her outside. We were just about to leave, when I stepped beyond a curtain into a darkened room where music played to a dance performed by a smoke machine and colored lights. Behind the Light Box (2002), Human was curled up on the floor next to it. An audience was gathered. Silhouetted by the light emanating from the LED mask worn by the dog’s handler, I watched as a little girl slowly and silently approached the dog to take a photograph. The music reached a peak, then the lights went out. The masked man stood up suddenly and Human briskly followed him out of the room. As though instinctively following some primal pack impulse, the entire room stood up and filed out the door after the dog. Huyghe’s “emergences and rhythms” in action.

Five days later, like an apparition, we saw Human again, on a street corner in the Arts District of downtown LA. We turned around the block, parked, and then spotted the dog and her handler walking down the street in our direction. What luck again. We stopped and chatted for a bit. A native of Kassel, he’d met Huyghe at dOCUMENTA, and has accompanied Human to Cologne, Paris, and now Los Angeles. They will be headed to South America next, Chile I think he said. Their days off are spent exploring the city. He wondered if LACMA was too far to walk, and we assured him, yes, he should take a car. We then said goodbye, and watched as Human trotted off after him, heading west.


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Natalie Hegert is an art writer currently based in Los Angeles.

Pierre Huygue at LACMA runs through February 22, 2015.

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