Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe
Hauser & Wirth
London, U.K.
September 13 − November 1, 2014

No one can accuse Pierre Huyghe of making things easy for gallery-goers. Indeed, gleaning something from the seemingly disparate works in the French artist’s first solo exhibition at this gallery takes some work. Consisting of video, sculpture, three aquariums and a site-specific wall piece, the exhibition is, according to the gallery’s press release, a meditation on the passage of time, the works encapsulating a chronology of 30 million years. This is true, I suppose, but it feels like there has to be more to it than that.

Walking into the dimly lit gallery, viewers first see a moss-covered sculpture of a recumbent female figure. The sculpture contains an internal heating system that replicates human body temperature. We are allowed to touch the sculpture, feeling the warmth of the upper back and the coolness of the hips. Touching the sculpture feels transgressive but it is, perhaps, too easy to consider the object as nothing more than a novelty.

Further into the space are three aquariums, filled with water and plants taken from Claude Monet’s ponds in Giverny. Monet’s ponds were artificially engineered into being in 1893 and became the subject of his Nymphéas series. The aquariums are made of glass that hides their contents when they aren’t illuminated; when they suddenly do light up we see water lilies, and salamanders and fish darting for cover. (We also read that the lighting sequence is  based on the weather conditions recorded at Giverny between 1914 and 1918 when Monet produced the Nymphéas works, but knowing such minutiae about the work doesn’t seem to add much.)

The first of the two videos in the exhibition, De-extinction (2014), finds the artist recording images of insects encased in amber in extreme close-up. The whirring of Huyghe’s camera has been enhanced, and sounds like the scuttling of mechanical bugs. The second video, Human Mask (2014), is the most compelling work in the show, and is based on a real situation  in Japan in which a monkey – wearing a mask and a wig – had been trained to work as a waitress. The film captures the masked monkey alone in her habitat, shuffling around the empty restaurant. It takes us a moment to figure out what sort of hybrid creature we are looking at. Is it real, or is there digital trickery at work? Once we realize that it is a monkey, we start to feel concern. Is it feeling frightened and anxious, pursued by a camera in this strange setting?

A more affecting connection between these works may be that they are all poised on a ‘border’ separating being from not being. The sculpture is warm like a human body, but it is not flesh. The aquariums are a simulacrum of Giverny 100 years ago, and the creature in Human Mask is neither human nor animal, but something in-between. Like the insects trapped in the amber, the works float in the realm of the uncanny, but this does not make them inscrutable and inert. Rather, the works interact in a poignant and melancholy way.

Pierre Huyghe’s travelling retrospective appears at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until February 22, 2015.