Pierre Huyghe The Menagerie Entertainsby Joseph Nechvatal
Le Centre Pompidou, Paris | September 25, 2013 - January 6, 2014
The exhibition will travel to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (April 11 – July 13, 2014) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (November 23, 2014 – March 8, 2015).
The Pompidou Centre is currently presenting, in retrospective form, about 50 relational art projects by Pierre Huyghe that span more than 20 years. This retrospective is further augmented upstairs in the permanent collection that includes his two-channel video “The Third Memory” (1999), where John Wojtowicz tells his story of the robbery portrayed in the movie Dog Day Afternoon (1975). This retrospective-plus format might appear to pose a problem for Huyghe, as his career has been based in the sly urge to escape all fixed means, terms, contexts, and (one might suppose) judgments. Ideally, this urge for a continuous contextual challenge to meaning by use of a witty lack of restrictions has carried him (and many other Generation X artists) to dodge any commitment to any subject or format whatsoever by jumping from project to project, thus avoiding media specificity like the plague.
However, when the format “retrospective” is superimposed onto his, or any, collection of projects, (providing, according to the press release, “a comprehensive panorama of his practice and research” where the “exhibition space is conceived as a world in itself”) it is impossible to escape an urge for evaluation that totals it up. How does this collection of projects function as a body of work? Indeed, is art a project—or something deeper than that—something more embedded in the body and psyche of the artist? What meaning can be gleaned from Huyghe’s body of work in terms of the history of art? And is it vital to that history?
Huyghe cannot escape the very specific social convention/context of the Pompidou, steeped in Modernity. Even by mixing and overlapping sound/material/concept/ projects into a “poetic” disparate, sensual bouillabaisse indifferent to the audience, as he does here, once that bouillabaisse is served in the fixed terms of the art context “Pompidou,” it is unavoidable to resist comprehensive categorizations.
Thus in his case, I cannot help but reach the conclusion that his is finally an art of the small circus extravaganza (replete with costumes, performances, and animal acts). His is basically the superficial art of a low budget theatre/film art director.
The sad irony of this are the good intentions behind his art, based on the promotion of the natural, animalistic side of humanity conjoined with the 1960s - 1970s humanist lost dream of the decline in the art object's sequestered, fetishistic standing as object d'art. But dematerialized linked relations in a topmost museum by “a major figure in the contemporary art scene” have here turned spectacularly superficial and cliché. What we find now is the pizzaz of a cultural entertainer.
One might ask, how can it be that the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and the deepest financial crisis since the 1930s have done so little to undermine the supremacy of entertainment in art? We need only to look upstairs at the Pompidou exhibit Surrealism and the Object to establish some relative comparisons of failed hubris vis-à-vis the Communist revolution and Surrealism’s current fate as fodder for Madison Avenue commercials.
Gérard Lefort, in the newspaper Libération, has described the show as a “dream catcher,” bringing back dreams of an enchanted irrational world that undermines rational reality. But this is not a time for hazy dreaming. Yet Huyghe’s show of scrappy theatricality (including a live Greyhound dog with the right front leg painted pink laid out on what looks to be a mink stole tossed on the floor) has much to do with dreamy Surrealism. One cannot ignore the late-late-late-surreal look of around 50 works of installation, video, sculpture, drawings, and events; including a seminal sculpture of a reclining beaux-art nude female figure with a beehive as head. This animal-human hybridizing (encountered after bypassing tiny rain and snow showers) is, of course, emblematic of Surrealism. One only need recall the Minotaur of Minotaure, the Surrealist-oriented publication (published in Paris between 1933 and 1939, in many ways the successor to La Révolution Surréaliste) to establish the connection.
But very much unlike Surrealism, the relational art of Huyghe shows absolutely no commitment to an aesthetic position or ongoing involvement with subject or medium (other than apparently being anti-painting—there is a fake Modigliani painting by Elmyr de Hory poorly lit and hanging off to the side). Besides the evident leitmotif of animal life and a Neo-Vitalist philosophy found often in Surrealism, Huyghe’s sensibility shares with Surrealism a light-hearted, comic aspect. That is what makes it so appealing as entertainment. It has the same metamorphosis-like dreamy feel, but now slowed down to a sleep inducing level.
Some of it is pretty fine, like the film that navigates between fact and fiction based on his trip to Antarctica in search of an albino creature entitled A Journey That Wasn’t (2005). It includes a re-enactment of that voyage as an elaborate concert and lightshow in Central Park that some New Yorkers might have seen. This is then followed by his chillout lavalamp-like sculpture “L’expedition scitillante, Untitled,” (2002) a psychedelic smoke and light box accompanied by an Erik Satie popular and romantic piano piece “Gnossiennes”(1893). The film and sculpture both have the same kind of dim fuzzy mystification found throughout Surrealism, now jazzed up with impressive high definition digital technology. Part nature documentary, science-fiction flick, part musical orchestrated spectacle, the film left me wondering whether, as the title suggests, the journey ever happened—or been faked.
Huyghe’s playful navigation between fact and fiction here needs careful analysis. On one hand it is a clever work on the fragility of human memory that might include yearning (I would say nostalgia) for lost utopian desires of modernist purity (represented by the albino) in lieu of the impact of globalization on contemporary values and belief systems. However, so what? That blurring of the traditional distinction between fiction and reality is dangerously close to that of Glenn Beck, the politically conservative American commentator. He too reveals the experience of fictionalized reality “truthiness” to be as palpable as anything in daily life.
All the work is intentionally exhibited as shoddy. Huyghe did not bother to paint the walls white on which he projects a major film Streamside Day Follies (2003). The lack of adequate seating is very uncomfortable. Also films are presented in deliberately obscure ways, such as on the backside of an unpainted wall. There one hears and then finds Blanche Neige Lucie (1997) a short with Lucie Dolene, whose voice was used for dubbing Snow White into French, singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” while the story of her court case against Disney appears in subtitles. The take away is that Huyghe does not actually wish for me to see his work. I went three times and spent over four hours there total, yet I was still unable to see all of the films. Also each time the live performances were different. I watched a lovely figure skater turn loops on a frozen slab (“L’Expedition Scintillante – Acte 3: Untitled (Black Ice Stage”) (2002), I saw the pink-legged Greyhound lounge, saw gimmicky animal-headed actors walk the place, had my name called out on my entry, and watched a couple play pong with the ceiling lights—but never did I see the pair of golden shoes, abandoned on a scuffed podium, dance.
From his detached post-medium view, where the exhibition is seen as test-site-lab, this makes the show more interesting, more enticing, more alive. But from my point of view, it felt kinda crappy, obscure, and half dead—not even a three-ring dream circus.
As in many group shows of media art, soundtracks overlap and interfere with each other. Huyghe wants it that way, so as to see how things corrupt each other by overlapping. He is interested in making possible, multiple, subjective reinterpretations. But for me it was irksomely distracting and disrespectful of my time. Indeed, in the Huyghe exhibition, at times it feels like one is waiting for a bus. This is the dominant emotion: a fearful sense of oppressive disempowering indecision where one hesitates to leave a boring situation out of concern that one will miss something interesting coming along any minute. When it might become interesting is never clear.
Happily there were small quiet works of relative interest, such as “Timekeeper” (1999), a sanded hole in the wall that revealed successive layers of paint left by preceding exhibitions. In like manner this exhibition too will pass into the layers of art history, one imagines, leaving hardly a trace.