Art with a Dose of Imperialism: Pierre Huyghe at LACMA

Human mask
Pierre Huyghe, “Untitled (Human mask)” (2011–12), alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made (all photos courtesy LACMA)

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.

installation view
Installation view, ‘Pierre Huyghe’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou

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.

Pierre Huyghe, “Untilled” (2014), film

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.

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Pierre Huyghe, “Zoodram 5 (after ‘Sleeping Muse’ by Constantin Brancusi)” (2011), glass tank, filtration system, resin mask, hermit crab, arrow crabs, and basalt rock (click to enlarge)

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.

installation view
Installation view, ‘Pierre Huyghe’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou

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.

installation view
Installation view, ‘Pierre Huyghe’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou

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.

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