Last summer I viewed Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. At the threshold of the show stood a young man who, when he saw me, asked for my name. “Cynthia,” I said. “Cynthia,” he announced. On the carpet beneath my feet was a worn path, presumably from the feet of previous visitors. I followed the path, which led to a series of large rooms that were empty for the most part. In one room stood a large tank; in another, nothing. Along the walls were holes where, it appeared, paintings had been previously hung. The rooms were darkened; visitors stood inside in small groups, as if trying to figure out what was happening. I stared awhile at the tank, which was filled with tiny hermit crabs, and then walked further.
The tank is a repeated object in many of Huyghe’s works. They featured prominently in his retrospective, and a massive fish tank currently sits on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum as part of the Roof Garden Commission. Huyghe’s tanks are filled with strange, beautiful creatures. On the roof of the Met are tadpole shrimp, while inside the tanks in the retrospective were hermit crabs. The tank is an enclosed space. The viewer stands outside it, watching the creatures engage in their everyday activities. The tank is a lens through which we can better see Huyghe’s overall project. In an interview with Emily Nathan for Art in America, Huyghe stated:
The work is not “displayed” under a narrative — that’s a system I avoid. I could not imagine a chronological order, either. As you say, most of what I have done is construct situations that happen within a given body. Every one is a constellation network of process, all sorts of heterogenous and anachronistic things come together or are associated within a constructed situation, and so it is difficult to present them in a site where they were not originally, or to organize them in a linear way.
The contained space of the museum gallery is akin to a tank. The visitor makes her way through the rooms of the museum, absorbing and processing what she sees.
At the Ludwig Museum, three women were sitting in an alcove on a large white block, a makeshift sofa, watching a screen. I joined them. “Streamside Day (2003),” a film that takes place during the construction of a town, was playing. To watch nature change into the suburban before one’s eyes is an eerie, rather melancholic experience. And yet, it is also a cause for celebration. In an interview with George Baker for October magazine, Huyghe explained, “Streamside Knolls is a new village in upstate New York on the Hudson River. Streamside Day is the celebration of a custom invented for this new place, and it took place a month before the opening of the exhibition at the Dia called Streamside Day Follies.” In the film characters in plush animal costumes, horses and rabbits, appear alongside the new inhabitants of the town. The cinéma vérité style creates a sense of reality (this is actually taking place as it is being filmed), but the absurdity of the costumed characters creates a puncture, a rip in the narrative. The strangeness of the costumed characters enacts the folly of what is taking place.
After I watched the short film, I felt sad, strangely altered. I knew nature was being destroyed by humans, but I hadn’t ever seen it in action. Absorbing the film, I had been changed. I walked away from the alcove, and from the corner of my eye I thought I saw a beautiful white dog, but my brain said “no.” And yet: I walked in the direction I thought the ghost dog had walked in. Soon, I was at a glass door that led outside. Before me stood a statue of a reclining nude woman, her head a beehive. I was too afraid to leave the gallery (would I be allowed back in? would I sound an alarm? would the bees attack me?), so instead I stood alone at the precipice, staring at the statue’s strange golden head. The “hive” is the mind: this is where all the activity occurs. But the hive is also where the bees live — and the bees are dying. Without bees, humans won’t survive. I know this and yet I forget all the time. (The sculpture, “Untilled [Liegender Frauenakt]”  is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA].)
After awhile, I felt calmed: I’d be using my mind to figure out what the hive-as-head meant. I turned around and from the ceiling was hanging a beautiful fur jacket. I thought of trying it on, and then I wondered why it was hanging here. As I was wondering, the dog walked by. It had a spray of bright pink paint on its body, but seemed happy. I followed it.
Shot over the corse of three days, Huyghe’s film The Host and the Cloud (2010), shown at MoMA last month, is a construction of a series of scenarios rather then scenes. Taking place inside a former ethnographic museum on the grounds of a former amusement park on the outskirts of Paris, the project is a series of both scripted and unscripted rituals and events, an experiment in human behavior. What occurs in the film — characters performing and then other characters “trying on” these character’s performances, characters in costume, rituals and interactions — are the very behaviors we engage in when we are inside the confined, continued space of Pierre Huyghe’s shows. For example, after what appears to be a freak storm, the inhabitants of the building become aware of nature: a room is filled with butterflies, a man looks closely at a tank of animals, and so on. These encounters mirrored my own as I meandered through Huyghe’s retrospective. And the tanks within the museum space are microcosms of the human interactions.
Along with the large, oversized tank of creatures, Huyghe’s work on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum consists of lifted and moved stone panels from the pavement. The spaces where the panels once sat are now holes filled with small puddles of water and newly blossoming green weeds. As with his other works, what we have here is a kind of puncture: placing the tank on the roof and pulling the stones away from it are both means of disruption, like the costumed characters in “Streamside Day.” But what is the message of the disruption?
Also at the Metropolitan Museum is Huyghe’s film “Untitled (Human Mask)” (2011–12). In the short film, what appears to be a young girl wearing a mask and wig, her arms and legs covered in animal fur, roams the rooms of an abandoned home in Japan. The camera follows the girl as she stares into space in bouts of reverie. When she isn’t daydreaming, she limps strangely from room to room. As I watched the film, I was ashamed because I couldn’t discern whether I was watching a young girl dressed as a monkey dressed as a young girl or simply a monkey dressed as a girl. The implications were troubling: Was I calling the girl a monkey? I knew this was insulting, and yet I wondered why. What did it mean if I couldn’t tell the difference between a girl and a monkey — are we truly that different, anyway?
“Human Mask” was filmed partially by drone camera in Fukushima in 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami which caused the meltdown of the three nuclear reactors. These scenes showing deserted, quarantined neighborhoods are deeply unsettling. They bleed into those of the monkey/girl wandering the rooms. Amid the footage of the deserted neighborhoods comes a muffled announcement, presumably recorded over a loudspeaker. As the scene changes to that of the girl/monkey, the sound of the announcement is still heard, giving the impression that the girl/monkey is inside one of the deserted buildings.
The rupture in Huyghe’s work, via costumed characters or distraction (fur jacket, dog in gallery), is an opportunity to think or rethink. The giant fish tank on the roof of the Metropolitan changes suddenly, like a blink: in one moment, the walls are white, akin to frosted windows on a car; in the next, the inside of the tank is visible and the strange characters swimming inside can be seen. What struck me when I noticed this blinking was the way our minds work. I know, for example, that the panda bear is endangered, that the beautiful creatures are on their way to extinction. I think of this, I feel sad, and then my mind blinks. Denial sets in. Apathy, laziness.
In an interview with Doug Aitken for BOMB magazine, Huyghe talked about “the blink”:
The show itself was a kind of organism. L’Expédition Scintillante can be translated as “The Blinking Expedition.” When I did the French pavilion in Venice [2001 Biennale], the whole exhibition was a set of events happening and then disappearing again. It was a blinking, pulsating exhibition where these glass doors separated all the rooms. Sometimes you could see through them and connect things and sometimes not. One situation can be transformed into another without losing something in the translation. It can be different but also equivalent. Something may appear then reappear somewhere else. So it’s a blinking organism.
Pierre Huyghe’s work is an invitation to enter the gutter between (worlds, meanings, languages) and remain in that space for awhile: to pause and interrogate both the inexplicable and the known world, to absorb it, to take in the experience and, like a mineral interacting with another mineral, to be changed.
Pierre Huyghe took place at the Museum Ludwig (Heinrich-Böll-Platz, Cologne, Germany) from April 11 to July 13, 2014. Huyghe’s The Host and the Cloud screened at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on July 14–16, 2015. Huyghe’s “Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)” remains on view at MoMA through August 19. The Roof Garden Commission: Pierre Huyghe continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 1.