Pierre Huyghe

Read our feature on the Kurt Schwitters Award-winning artist, from the October 2013 issue

By Christopher Mooney

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2011–12 (installation view, Documenta 13, 2012, Kassel). Photo: © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and Esther Schipper Pierre Huyghe, Colony Collapse, 2012 Performance, Les Arènes d’Arles. Photo © Lionel Roux and the artist Pierre Huyghe, Zoodram 4, 2011. Photo: © Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy the artist

In retrospect, as I reflect back on the human moment I spent in a Paris café with Pierre Huyghe last June, it should have come as scant surprise that the words ‘encounter’ and ‘event’ peppered so many of his declarative statements. Linchpin terms of contemporary French philosophy since Alexandre Kojève’s well-attended Hegel class at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) in Paris during the 1940s, the two words have fuelled contemporary French art and its curation since the whole relational aesthetics funfest centred around the Palais de Tokyo in Paris during the 1990s. 

Huyghe, one of France’s most philosophically attuned contemporary artists, is not only a founding member of the relational art movement, but, during this particular encounter, was talking to me about his biggest public event and encounter to date: his hometown retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, 25 September to 6 January 2013.

I have no manifestos

Time ticks on, new questions emerge: was the selection of the event’s opening and closing dates determined by Huyghe’s One Year Celebration (2003–6), a calendar of new public holidays conceived by artists, architects, musicians, writers and art critics? These include Celebrate the Shoelace Day, Interspecies Love Day and the No 1 Celebration, ‘a celebration which takes place with nobody there’. Can someone tell me which Huyghe-generated celebrations fall on 25 September and 6 January? My present self-centred perceptual lifeworld (or umwelt, to use the Jakob von Uexküll-coined term preferred by biosemioticians, posthumanists and the biosemiotic-inspired posthumanist artist Pierre Huyghe), though Google-enriched, does not contain the full calendar.

The Huyghe retrospective is a celebration of two decades of ongoing and ever-evolving Huyghe events and encounters. Celebrations, social rituals and all of time itself – human, calendric and anachronistic – are reimagined in many Huyghe works, first as events and encounters, then as artefact. His film The Host and the Cloud (2009– 10), based on a ‘real situation’ series of scripted and unscripted encounters between 50 ‘witnesses’ (Huyghe’s preferred word for performance spectators or gallery/museum visitors) and a host of performers in the defunct Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris, was shot on Halloween, Valentine’s Day and May Day. 

Fish, uncooked and alive, are on the retrospective’s menu, as are other living organisms

Another film, Streamside Day Follies (2003), also based on an unscripted event/encounter, centres on a Huyghe-contrived community parade and feast in a new fictional/real housing development in New York’s Hudson Valley. La Saison des Fêtes (2010) was a garden of Halloween pumpkins, Valentine’s Day roses, springtime cherry blossoms and Christmas trees. It is now a film that, along with the vestiges and documentary elements of these other ‘entities’ (another key Huyghe word, borrowed from the philosophy of language), will be present inside the Pompidou, while others – including a reclining Modigliani nude recast in concrete, with its head obscured by thousands of live swarming bees – will be enclosed in a special extension jutting out into the courtyard.

A unique series of human moments, an artist’s retrospective is a form of bildungsroman. In looking back, the tenses shift, contexts widen, nouns take on new meanings, and deictics – ‘here’, ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘that one there’, ‘last Thursday’ – behave erratically. That a Huyghe retrospective is a particularly unstable entity is best reflected by the second phrase uttered by the artist in my presence: “I have no manifestos, but let me just say that it would be nicer to talk about the recent things rather than to just jump into the past.”

Past and present are ever-present Huyghe values, as are fiction and reality, but these do not come up in this interview as often as the aforementioned ‘event’ and ‘encounter’, followed closely by ‘language’, ‘code’, ‘protocol’, ‘role’, ‘elements’, ‘markers’, ‘rules’, ‘conditions’ and ‘behaviour’. Many of these are von Uexküll designations, as prismed through the philosophical works of thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben.

Past and present are ever-present Huyghe values

Huyghe’s first words, however, are these: “First, I am going to move closer...”
He pulls his chair in tighter to the table. “And put this sugar...”

He places a sugar cube under one end of my iPhone, raising its built-in microphone off the table. It is a deft and astute intervention, a felicitous mise-en-scène. The artist chuckles at his handiwork and tucks into a plate of fish. (Fish, uncooked and alive, are on the retrospective’s menu, as are other living organisms.)

The works in the Pompidou retrospective are not so much curated as, to borrow a favourite phrase of the artist, ‘just dropped’ into the show’s space and duration. Huyghe’s work is as much about artistic agency as it is about anything else. To describe his method and art – not what it means, since he leaves that up to its beholder, but what it does – he eschews ‘practice’ and ‘process’ and opts instead for ‘compost’. 

Huyghe eschews ‘practice’ and ‘process’ and opts instead for ‘compost’

This is not a metaphor: Untilled (2011–12), for example, the site-specific ‘biotope’ Huyghe set up at Documenta 13 last year, was held in the compost area of Kassel’s Karlsaue Park. The heterogeny of built, found and just-dropped entities included, along with plants, animals and piles of this and that, the beehived Modigliani nude, an uprooted tree once planted by the German artist Joseph Beuys and a bench by the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

“The compost is the place where you throw things that you don’t need or that are dead,” Huyghe says between bites of fish. “I used the same methodology for Untilled, using personally important markers and dropping them within that place. You don’t display things. You don’t make a mise-en-scène, you don’t design things, you just drop them. And when someone enters that site, things are in themselves, they don’t have a dependence on the person. They are indifferent to the public. You are in a place of indifference. Each thing, a bee, an ant, a plant, a rock, keeps growing or changing.”

The container becomes a growing medium, where new events and encounters occur

The idea, then: indifferently sharing specific Huyghe spaces and times causes the identities of the things and beings contained within – art, bee, artist, spectator – to break down, dematerialise. The container becomes a growing medium, where new events and encounters occur, and new art takes root and thrives. 

Huyghe’s ecosystem aquariums (the largest was presented at the Frieze Art Fair, London, in 2011; the smaller Zoodram 2, 2010, is in the retrospective) are further riffs on the same theme. Each is a microcosmic theatre whose real-life aquatic performers, selected by Huyghe for their specific behaviour traits, create unscripted and plotless narratives that play out in real time but are not time-based. 

The context and conditions imposed by the artist, however, more or less ensure a predictability: for example, the star of one aquarium, a hermit crab, quite naturally makes its home in the bronze cast replica of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (1910) that the artist submerged in the tank. Otherwise, the players are left to construct their own stories and, in so doing, potentially reflect or elicit emotional encounters with the land-based lifeforms gazing in at them through the glass. Huyghe’s work with human performers, as individuals, groups and communities, is similar.

there are, among the 60-odd leaking entities, films, sculptures, happenings, live ants and spiders

“If you consider each entity as a written element – every artist and performer has a style, a way to write a language, just as a writer or a musician does. What I’m interested in here is to have this language written within reality, meaning a mineral reality, a biological reality, a physical reality. As in a compost, right? You throw a piece of lettuce or a banana or I don’t know what and there will be a metabolisation. It’s not that the banana disappears, but it will do something else, right? It will achieve a different intensity of being a banana. That’s what I’m interested in, this banana-ness, and this variation of intensity and how things leak into each other.”

While there are no bananas in the retrospective, there are, among the 60-odd leaking entities in this indescribably protean array, films, sculptures, happenings, live ants and spiders (first seen as Umwelt, 2011) at the Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin), machine-generated snow, rain and fog, a puppet, music, mind-altering plants, books, works occasioned by the reading of books, works occasioning and occasioned by a South Pole expedition (including a large ship made of slowly melting ice) in turn occasioned by an Edgar Allan Poe story, and a frisky white dog with a painted pink leg named Human – the same Human that gambolled artistically around the Karlsaue for 100 days last summer. 

(At the time of this writing, Influenced, 2011, gallery price, ex. tax, €35,000, a piece first shown at Esther Schipper consisting of ‘a person in a space carrying the flu virus’ – either already sick with it or having volunteered to be injected with it – is not included in the retrospective’s list of works.)

The retrospective itself is perhaps best conceived of as, to use Uexküll’s word once again, an umwelt, a ‘sense island’, ‘significant environment’ or ‘cognitive map’. These definitions are Uexküll’s, to which should be added biologist Herman Weber’s: ‘the totality of conditions contained in an entire complex of surroundings which permit a certain organism, by virtue of its specific organisation, to survive’.

Now add the word ‘art’, or define ‘organism’ as art – art that barely needs an artist or a public and is almost self-generating – and you begin to get a sense of the moment where Huyghe is, if not already, then certainly headed: “It would be interesting if I could take this indifference towards something that will keep going over the course of a long period. Find a site to do things with no timeframe, with no constraint.

Not that I don’t like constraint, but not the same constraint all the time. Not the constraint that is always dictated by what the museum thinks you are going to do or perceive. So to free myself from that, maybe I will find a site to build something, to develop something, maybe with technology, that I could see over the course of time be deeply transformed and materialised. I’m interested in that direction.”

This is an edited version of the article first published in the October 2013 issue