This summer’s rooftop installation by French artist Pierre Huyghe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art digs into the primordial history of Manhattan. The Roof Garden Commission opened in May and continues to November, during which pooling water between excavated paving tiles and an aquarium inhabited by lampreys and Triops crustaceans will evolve within a controlled ecology.
The exhibition is far less flashy than Dan Graham and Günther Vogt’s manicured lawn, vine-covered structures, and glass architecture that transformed the Met’s roof last year. Much of Huyghe’s work involves living creatures interacting with somewhat stark installations, such as his “Untilled” sculpture with a beehive for a head in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, which today only is streaming online.
At the Met, three main elements inhabit the sparse piece: a boulder from New York’s bedrock (similar to the exposed schist seen throughout Central Park); ripped-up paving stones with dust and debris from the boulder scattered in exposed spaces; and the glass box where the animals swim below a hovering boulder of lava. Periodically the aquarium’s walls go opaque — part of a liquid crystal system. It’s one of several hidden systems which subtly control the installation: water pumped into the paving stone pools encourages plant growth to invade the gray ground, and the water system of the aquarium keeps the animals alive, selected as species for having barely altered in millions of years.
Visitors who don’t stop to read the wall text might be a little baffled by the seemingly unfinished installation. There is something interesting about examining Manhattan as a fossil full of life, of reminding viewers of its prehistoric past which often isn’t considered. These ideas could have been fleshed out more in Huyghe’s installation, which doesn’t have a clear navigation other than keeping from twisting an ankle in the paving stone trenches. Yet the city has the scars of ancient glaciers, and that exposed bedrock which rises out of Central Park’s greenery just outside of the Met is a reminder of the landform’s rocky underground which allowed the city to stabilize its giant skyscrapers, giving it the character it has today.
Pierre Huyghe: The Roof Garden Commission continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 1.