LOS ANGELES — Art world elitism permeates Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which seems tailored to an insider audience of artists and collectors that contrasts with the museum’s stated mission of “representing Los Angeles’s uniquely diverse population.” The exhibition — which originated at the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris and traveled to the Museum Ludwig, Köln — was sponsored by Christie’s auction house and blue-chip galleries Marian Goodman, Hauser & Wirth, and Esther Schipper. Indeed, Huyghe has achieved high stature in the market as an early proponent of what Nicolas Bourriaud termed “Relational Aesthetics” in the 1990s. Meanwhile, in the intervening two decades, artists have been embracing terms like “social practice” and “public practice,” maintaining a focus on audience engagement and input that contrasts with Huyghe’s prescriptive strategies. His work is participatory in the passive way that an arcade game or a sporting event is participatory.
Upon entering the exhibition, one encounters what seems to be an alternative ecosystem, populated with living creatures such as bees, ants, spiders, underwater creatures in tanks, and a dog identified as an artwork. Taken together, the videos, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and interactive media works on view suggest an alternate present or near-future in which human beings tinker with the natural world, seeking idealized forms over sustainable ones. In “Nymphéas Transplant (14-18)” (2014), Huyghe references Claude Monet’s “bioengineered” pastoral paradise at Giverny, which the painter created when unaltered nature failed to satisfy his vision. Huyghe has taken a cross-section of Monet’s pond and extracted it into an aquarium that clouds up, creating an Impressionistic effect that Huyghe likens to Monet’s paintings of the pond such as Water Lilies (1920-1926). “Nymphéas Transplant” is also one of several works that demonstrates Huyghe’s ability to work with interactive technologies without making those technologies the overt subject of the work.
Huyghe’s works are intentionally enigmatic and resist interpretation, creating what the artist describes as a “non-knowledge zone.” Rather than push the viewer to engage with any particular theme, the exhibition is designed to inspire one to wander and explore with leisure. Huyghe’s aesthetic updates the Romantic tradition for a technological age. He is given to dramatic atmospheric effects — he’s incorporated weather machines into more than one of his works, and the galleries are thick with fog — and draws from tales of exotic voyages. His meditations on exploration and the sublime maintain the imperialist values of their 19th-century origins in that Huyghe has a tendency to portray foreign or unfamiliar landscapes as fantasies, for example by lingering on the beauty of Arctic landscapes from a distance, without allowing the specificities of the places he depicts to inform or transform his perspective. This allows some troubling ethical questions to surface which the artist never directly confronts.
In “L’Expédition scintillante” (2002), for instance, Huyghe creates a suite of works that allude to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 fantasia in which its protagonist, Pym, travels the globe in search of adventure, discovering alien landscapes and encountering murderous natives. Huyghe presents a blackened, cratered landscape, which is a reference to Tsalal, an island Pym discovers where everything, including the inhabitants, is entirely black and no white exists. Poe expresses unmitigated racism in his description of the non-European peoples encountered by Pym. The people of Tsalal are duplicitous and violent — a common depiction in travel literature of the colonial era, serving to justify imperial ambitions with a “civilizing” narrative.
Huyghe displaces this “civilizing” agenda onto non-human creatures by literally adorning them with humanoid faces and names. A hermit crab is given a human mask in which to make its home. An Ibizan hound christened “Human” (2012), with her foreleg painted pink, wanders through the exhibition in the company of a human handler. Svelte, white, and domesticated, she is a ready stand-in for the ideal contemporary art viewer. Most horribly, a monkey is forced to wear a human mask and perform as a waiter in the video “Untitled (Human Mask)” (2014), a work that, again, takes a distant, aestheticized view of what is, up-close, a tragedy of human mistreatment. The monkey’s human face is female, porcelain, with slanted eyes and long, dark hair, and her environment is Fukushima, Japan, post-nuclear-meltdown. If the artist intends to represent the human wrongdoing of service labor or nuclear disaster, he instead commits a jaw-droppingly exploitative act of animal cruelty mixed with Orientalism. Elsewhere, in “The Host and the Cloud” (2010), a white European man speaks of his desire to travel to China and fulfill his love fantasy with the actress Gong Li, an exploration and an expectation that speaks directly to the imbalance of power that Huyghe is uninterested in deconstructing.
It is tempting to imagine that Huyghe is trying to lend these animals the social freedom afforded to human beings through his acts of masking and naming, much as he did when he and Philippe Parreno granted legal autonomy to a stock manga character named Annlee as the culmination of their series of works, No Ghost Just a Shell (2000–03). Perhaps he is thinking about Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a liberating synthesis of human, animal, and machine. However, the superficial way in which Huyghe attempts this synthesis amounts to another form of assimilation where non-humans, non-males, and non-whites must suffer in order to survive and achieve in a white supremacist culture.
The limitations of Huyghe’s worldview as they apply to humans are evident in the work the artist commissioned for the opening at LACMA, inviting a “Public Writer” to draft a narrative of the event, in a reprise of a performance first realized in 1995. The document, which hangs as typewritten pages on a wall, exclusively lists the names of beautiful, white-skinned art-world insiders. If the “Public Writer” is a member of a “public,” the contrast between his/her version and LACMA’s “uniquely diverse” general audience is stark and potentially alienating. Whether attempting to insert minority audiences into a Eurocentric art framework or to insert animals into the social dynamics of humans, Huyghe reinforces, instead of challenges, a social construct that systematically privileges some living creatures while harming others.
In “Unwelt” (2011), Huyghe references another work of literature, Philip K. Dick’s The Preserving Machine and Other Stories (1969), a book that predicts human obliteration by sentient animals and sentient objects. The text, in which shoes fall in love and insects plot human destruction, seems to anticipate the Anthropocene school of scientific philosophy that suggests that humans’ callous relationship to the environment has engineered an epoch of ecological destruction. As in Dick’s stories, ants and spiders run rampant across the walls in “Umwelt,” but unlike the apocalyptic ants of The Preserving Machine and Other Stories, they are constrained and pose no threat to human visitors. Bees swarm around the head of Huyghe’s “Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)” (2012), consuming the human face of the sculpture, but remain bound to the work’s Neoclassical formal conceit. Like the aquarium creatures, the bees in the exhibition appear undisturbed by the human activity around them, but remain confined to a space that is ultimately engineered by and catered to humans.
One would hope that Dick’s radical politics would inform Huyghe in some way, but here again we see how the aesthetic distance taken by the artist undermines empathy. Huyghe’s resistance to interpretation is also a resistance to accountability, and his juxtaposition of white, affluent humans at play with animals in a state of subjugation demonstrates the shortcomings of radical thought as understood by Eurocentric men of leisure with limited recognition of the autonomy of any subject — human or otherwise — except themselves.
Pierre Huyghe continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles) through February 22.
If I see one more art review with the word privilege in it I’m sure I’m going to scream
If I see one more art work leveraged on latent (white) privilege, I’m sure I’m going to do something more than scream.
Anuradha Vikram fails to mention that Huyghe based his film on the true event of a monkey “employed” by a Japanese restaurant owner (who, then, is falling prey to “orientalism”? a term Vikram throws around without discrimination) to serve his clients. The video is on Youtube and has gone viral. Huyghe has created other works like this one, where fictional and real overlap, one feeding the other. Contrary to the review’s assessment on animal treatment, Huyghe’s film beautifully evokes the ambiguities at the junction of human / animal, “natural behavior” / performance, much, I would say, to the monkey’s advantage. I am hard pressed to find animal cruelty. Quite the opposite: the piece unfolds as a silent meditation that goes beyond the commonplace binaries this reviewer revels in. I’m baffled to read about concerns over the rights of a hermit crab, but no mention that the shell it lives in is a nod to Brancusi.
Cultural centrism, racism, gender discrimination are no doubt important issues, but here, in this review, they come off as politically correct catch-phrases du jour. These are, at best, shallow, and at worst, as binding, normative and conservative as the views and behaviors they seek to condemn. Slapped on to Huyghe’s works – the monkey, the reference to Poe’s fantasy island – they bear little connection with anything. The French would say that it’s “hors-sujet” (look it up).
I didn’t see elitism either. If one were to talk about LACMA fulfilling, or not, its mission as related by this review, then we might as well question the display of a single work by Bruce Nauman (his counting hands, which I personally enjoy) in a gallery almost the size of Huyghe’s entire space, or Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, the implementation of which caused a lot of people to spill ink (or pixels) over “elitism” and tax payer’s money. The Mass nevertheless draws happy crowds of both art insiders and occasional museum visitors. As far as Huyghe goes, what more democratic and playful way to engage the audience than the greeter who asks visitors their names and calls them out as if announcing the arrival of an Archduchess. Sadly, this article omits to mention this simple yet resounding performance.
In my view, Huyghe’s retrospective had an aura of mystery – something that engaged the imagination. It blended the real-world relational aesthetics Vikram mentions with something more elusive, ungraspable. It’s truly a feat that Huyghe embraces rather than rejects the contrast between reality and fiction, political and poetic.
This review is tangled in the tropes of much art-criticism today where the rhetoric of political correctness, a stand-in for critical theory, fails to offer any valuable insight on the work. Catchwords such as white male, colonialism, euro-centrism, imperialism are tossed around with little relevance to the work itself.
But I did love one term in this review: the “Eurocentric men of leisure”. It would make a great name for a band. For another piece of art-related literature that overuses this worn out and abstracted notion of a white male (but more playful and certainly better written), see “The Doorman” by Our Literal Speed in last fall’s issue of “Afterall”.
Anonymous comments are against our policy. Please read the policy next time before commenting.
“rrose” (selavy) is hardly anonymous. Perhaps the correct term is “pseudonym”?
For the point of this, it’s effectively the same thing. And you are well aware of that.
No, Hrag, pardon me, those are two different things: a comment made with a pseudonym can be traced to a particular, possibly recurring source / author. An anonymous comment cannot. But what I am well aware of, is that you did not mention anything like this to the three other commentators who posted as Robert, Mere Ubu, disguised vincentian – pseudonyms, it seems, or “anonymous” posts, as you seem to prefer. As such, there was little reason for me to think that posting as “rrose” might be contravening a policy.
With the exception of Robert, all those individuals have commented regularly and for a long time and are known. Robert’s comment was brief and mostly an aside, so I decided it didn’t require moderating. You are directly criticizing the author, and she deserves to know who is making the criticism. You might be in the employ of Huyghe, or you might work for the gallery, museum, etc. Moderation of comments is at the discretion of the publication.
Thanks for your response, which is thoughtful if limited. My perspective is informed by my study of art history which reveals a pattern of representations of animals as manifestations of subjugated “Others” in French art going back to the 11th century. If you want to talk about Brancusi – and yes I caught the reference, I just wasn’t that interested by it – I would prefer to talk instead about the relationship that art and art history plays in supporting the political aims of a ruling class whether aristocratic, capitalist, or academic (in Huyghe’s case).
Regarding the YouTube video of the monkey, I can think of nothing more exploitative of an animal than what you describe, and fail to see how Huyghe re-enacting it amounts to a critique. Are you suggesting that because the restaurant owner was Japanese, there can be no imperialism involved? Most of Asia would beg to differ with that assumption. Huyghe’s appropriation does not demonstrate sufficient self-awareness of his position with respect to representations of Asian bodies to transcend an Orientalist level of engagement with the subject in my view. How do you see the recreation of this exploitative action as being “to the monkey’s advantage”? Critiques of my characterization of this as Orientalism are valid only if they propose that Huyghe is doing something more deeply engaged than borrowing selectively from imagery generated in an Asian context for the benefit of a primarily white audience.
It bears noting that I have been a vocal critic of “Levitated Mass” albeit not in this forum. My point is that poetics is not a substitute for ethics. I don’t deny the poetics of Huyghe’s exhibition, but I find that they reinforce a Romantic worldview (and I use that term historically) which is rooted in the application of soft imperialism through consumption and idealization rather than physical violence, its “hard” counterpart.
As a viewer who felt profoundly alienated by the experience of this exhibition (which stands in contrast to my experience of previous Huyghe installations, as contrary to your assumption, I have followed his work for many years), it is my right as a critic to express my unease in the best terms available to me. It’s also worth noting that Huyghe has consistently appropriated imagery and content from artists characterized and derided as “new media” by the contemporary art establishment, who in fact treat the ethical questions I have raised with a great deal more care than does Huyghe. Furthermore, an entire discipline of critical race theory has been built around the Lacanian construct of the mask as identification, which underpins the whole of my argument, and which I recommend you consult (Fanon and Bhabha are good places to start) before dismissing my point of view as “political correctness.”
Thank you for your reply. I am grateful for this opportunity we have to exchange our thoughts. I only wish I had had the time to respond sooner.
I agree: poetics should be a substitute for ethics (“po-ethics”?) But these are very different fields, that can operate without infringing upon each other. Poetry is not always concerned by the ethical: but that does not mean it is un-ethical. Art, poetry are not necessarily ethics-based. I’d be happy to discuss this further but allow me, for the time being at least, to continue with my point, which, I assure you, is no monkey business 🙂
I did not, in the case of Huyghe’s film, see such a contravention to ethics. While he has indeed sourced his material from an ethically questionable situation – a restaurant owner “using” (and we might be more nuanced about “using” that particular word) a monkey to perform dining service – Huyghe sets the animal in a space and time that do not match those of the source. In the film there is no one to serve or “play monkey” for. Humans (“white” or otherwise), in fact, are nowhere to be seen. In other words, there’s a transformation, not a replication of conditions. When I wrote “to the advantage of the monkey” I should have been more clear and stated that, in my view, the film restituted to the monkey a dignity that had been violated by the YouTube video. Of course one might say that the monkey is still objectified and serves the gaze of the film’s viewers. I think that would beg for more nuance. How, for instance, is that fundamentally different from a filmed actor/performer? I think it might be useful, also, to return to Dog Day Afternoon: the process of dispossession / re-possession of the central character is similar. So, again, the monkey’s presence unfolds in an area between animal and human, which would invalidate the binaries evoked, of human vs. animal and the notion of subjugation / representation. My qualm is that the critique you offered reifies the monkey as animal when, precisely, Huyghe’s film, blurs the line between human and animal. Furthermore, the argument poses the monkey as victim / Huyghe as perpetrator. I start to wonder if the victimization is the result of applying a theoretical frame, which, in the present case, is not validated by (at least my) empirical observation. Not to enter a Deleuzian – or delusional – debate on the nature of theory, but I find that theory, critical or otherwise, cannot stand alone without empirical observation.
I did not claim that Huyghe’s piece offered a “critique” of the YouTube material. Nor that it should. That the initial video is of questionable ethics, we’ve established that – but that Huyghe has to operate in the form of a critique of it, is not, I feel, a requirement. To claim that his is an endorsement seems quite a stretch.
To clarify, I am not contesting “your right as a critic to express (your) unease”. I hear myself quoting Voltaire, but I’ll spare you. But I am perplexed by your assessment of several works: it seems guided by a will, first and foremost, and almost in abstracto, to apply a specific (but ill-fitted) theoretical lens. There seems to be a desire to settle a score with something, and, serendipitously Huyghe’s work performs as a vessel for that.
As for the orientalism you signal, we may have to agree on a definition of “Asia” and “Asians”. Huyghe’s use of the mask is congruent with the source of the work: Japan and the mask in the YouTube clip (albeit a rather degrading one, but I see no such degradation in Huyghe’s). Yes, if the Japanese restaurant owner uses a Japanese mask I find it hard to turn around and say that Huyghe succumbs to orientalism.
What do you mean by “most of Asia beg to differ”? Is this Asia minus Japan? Or is Japan not a part of Asia – as some like to say England is not a part of Europe? Are you saying that Japan harbors imperialistic views? That the Japanese owner too falls prey to orientalism? Perhaps you could clarify this.
The audience I saw at LACMA was much more varied than the “white” you evoke – I assume you are talking about skin color? I should point out that the recurrent use of that word, or “white audience”, “Eurocentric”, and “male” becomes somewhat disturbing – in addition to constituting further reification and simplification of groups that are, needless to say, diverse. The same goes with “most of Asia”. That those words are validated or used by critical frameworks that perhaps seek to reverse the direction of discrimination does not make their indiscriminate use more acceptable – this, perhaps, is a question of ethics.
Any interest for or connection with the field of Humanities, such as the one you mention, Art History, should all the more incite caution with regards to the use of those terms. Furthermore, such a connection might also prompt more consideration before stating that Huyghe is part of an “academic ruling class”.
I have read Jacques Lacan, but not the two authors you mention. I fear that Lacan’s work, much like Jean-Luc Merleau Ponty’s, lends itself to a multitude of self-serving interpretations, but I will look them up. Perhaps I need a little updating.
My second paragraph should have read: “I agree: poetics should not be a substitute for ethics”. Freudian slip? 🙂
There’s a basic problem with your argument, which is that a human performer can choose to participate in a project like this and an animal cannot. I’m not reifying the animal, I’m arguing that humans cannot just assign ontological equality with humans to an animal within a human-defined, human-serving legal or social system. It’s disengenuous. The fact that humans are nowhere to be seen within the video is irrelevant to the reality that the monkey is performing for humans. Just because we are all outside the frame – directing, viewing, consuming – does not render us irrelevant. This is in fact the very essence of my critique, that Huyghe makes the human presence a shadow presence and many seem to want to accept that as some kind of liberation. I don’t believe this is so. It’s not a theoretical argument, it’s a labor argument. Who does the work? Who gets the benefit?
With respect to my “most of Asia” comment, the history of Japan in Asia has been one of imperialist aggression toward the continent, and the Japanese have consistently set themselves apart, in a racialized sense, from the rest of the Asian continent. As for the restaurant owner, I think he exploits the animal for the pleasure of himself and his clients in a similar way to how imperialist cultures exploit conquered communities for their purposes. Again, the parallel between imperialist relationships between peoples and human treatment of animals is one I wish to draw.
I do strongly recommend you read Fanon and Bhabha. I’m unclear as to your definition of “self-serving” – is it self-serving to use established philosophies to declare one’s own right to exist and self-determine? But read and consider. Thanks again for engaging with my work.
Having spent time in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, I am aware of how that nation is sometimes perceived by other Asian nations, but I wanted to hear you state it. That seem like a wide-sweeping generalization. It’s like saying Americans lack culture. Or the French are arrogant. In any case, I doubt very much that the restaurant owner, in applying said mask to the monkey, had the imperialist intention you lend to him.
“In a racialized sense”… ?
You say “it’s not a theoretical argument, it’s a labor argument”. A labor argument can be built upon a theoretical premise: your terms are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the claim that you are not writing from a theoretical perspective is rather incongruous, since, elsewhere you summon “an entire discipline of critical race theory…”. Perhaps, your intention was to say that you are looking at this from an empirical point of view, not a theoretical one. Still, it seems that you are applying rather general views.
“… a human performer can choose to participate in a project like this and an animal cannot. I’m not reifying the animal, I’m arguing that humans cannot just assign ontological equality with humans to an animal within a human-defined, human-serving legal or social system. It’s disingenuous”.
Allow me to challenge the idea, very general, again, that a human performer can chose to participate (perhaps we should define “participation”) or not. Such a claim negates that there are areas of servitude / constraint for human beings (which, I am sure, is not your intention since elsewhere you denounce imperialism and orientalism).
If one applies an ethical labor concern to an animal, then one should, conversely, apply to humans the notion that they too, are, ultimately, not at liberty to chose to perform or not, and that they also fall under the same process of subjugation. To apply a notion of “just labor”, or, as you state, “who gets the benefit” (Vladimir Ilitch, is that you?), then, would require to consider the specific terms of the transaction in this film. There’s no evidence in the article that you have — which is why I maintain that your assessment is unfounded and performs a generalization or reification.
One might also ponder how the application of human-driven notions, such as labor, by a human, are relevant to a non-human. I would say that’s another form of subjugation. Are you not, then, assigning ontological equality as well? Are there different equalities — some more legitimate than others?
I too stand up against violations of freedom – animal and human. But I sense that judging Huyghe’s film as a human, but from the POV of the animal, poses a methodological concern. The only way around it, I feel, is to move beyond a uni-directional, reified and abstracted consideration of the situation, to one which explores it in terms of a specific relationship and interactions. Do all humans see the monkey as you claim they do? Does the monkey feel it got the wrong end of the bargain? What do you / we project as a human(s)? Is Huyghe’s intention to stigmatise? How does one (can one?) materially asses servitude / exploitation in the case of this film?
To be clear and sign off, my driving point in this discussion is not to defend Huyghe or his film. I couldn’t care less. It is, rather, to respond to the manner in which you have addressed these perceived issues. They are, by far, too complex to be evoked in a nuance-less and (what’s more problematic and disconcerting for me) self-righteous way.
I think that’s a pretty weak argument. What forms of human-animal transaction presently exist that would allow an animal the freedom to refuse to perform for humans? How would we evaluate how the monkey feels based on the evidence? The best tool we have is empathy, our ability to see the world through the eyes of others whether human or non-human. That’s what I am arguing is missing from Huyghe. As for labor vs. theory, in the realm of theory you may well have valid points but in the realm of labor there is a clear and unequal power dynamic at play. I don’t see how having compassion for other living beings is self-righteous, but perhaps that’s how it looks if you don’t have any empathy.
I agree with you with regards to empathy or compassion as a “tool”, for lack of a better word. In the present case, however, more than empathy, I see a desire to settle a score with an issue that’s wider than and not actualized in Huyghe’s film. Empathy without a sense of clarity is not really empathy.
Vague accusations of “score-settling” aside, what is the clarity you seek? My experience of this show was that it was essentially an upscale circus in which animals are used for human entertainment value. To your point about humans being forced to perform, that is the not-so-distant history of museology: native and indigenous peoples put on display for the edification and amusement of “civilized” Western audiences. No one, not even Pierre Huyghe, gets to opt out of that history.
In the sense of exhibiting animal autonomy, the most successful work in the show would be “Umwelt,” in that the insects released promptly abandoned the gallery and took up residence in the museum’s HVAC system. Not the artist’s intention and certainly not the museum’s. But that seems more a happy accident than a validation of the show in my view.
The concept of “freed time” is predicated on an assumption that the whole world shares the same relationship to time as compartmentalized and instrumentalized, from which Huyghe seeks to liberate us. Why not ask how, if in fact this is the case, such a condition of enslaved time came about? Why not consider how the industrialized conception of time against which Huyghe positions himself, has been exported around the world hand in hand with economic imperialism, offering those who choose to submit the (often false) promise of shared prosperity built on theft and subjugation, while characterizing others who don’t or can’t comply as altogether outside of time and history? Non-Europeans, particularly those who have maintained pre-industrial lifestyles (increasingly rare) are frequently informed by those who control institutions of culture and learning that they are without history and without contemporaneity. If Huyghe wants to talk about “freed time” he needs to also reflect on the fact that his own platform of visibility is built on subjugated time and subjugated peoples. The institution and the artist are not independent actors, rather they are very much interconnected.
You should be getting notifications. I’ll check to see, but the system isn’t perfect, that’s for sure.
Oh I’m sure I will now – just wasn’t getting them before I posted in the comments
Fair enough, they are not identical actors. However as an exhibition reviewer, I feel it’s my responsibility to comment on the interplay of artist, artwork, and institution as it situates the work for the audience at hand and within the mission of the museum. If this exhibition had been at MOCA I think my response would have been somewhat different, certainly I would have been less concerned about the presence of art-world elitism in the space of a private museum focused on contemporary art than in the space of a county museum focused on serving a maximally diverse population. This is just not a LACMA-appropriate show. Additional information I have gleaned since then indicates that its lack of appropriateness to the museum where it’s held extends beyond content into the institution’s capacity to manage the installation itself, but that’s a story for another day.
Regarding the question of freed time, you raise some very interesting points. I think it works much better in the context of human labor-rights movements than it does in a context like this show, with a post-human vibe. Again, my main criticism of Huyghe here is that he seems to think he is freeing non-human beings by subjecting them to human notions of freedom. I think they’d be better off if he just left them alone.
Wink, wink, do you get it? Do you get the 200 references embedded in this show? Have you read everything the artist has and seen every YouTube clip he’s watched? Have you traveled to the hundreds of far flung places around the world funded by your blue-chip gallery? Are you wearing the right shoes? No? Loser!
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