Matilda Fraser – 9 February, 2014
Human's behaviour is, like the rest of the exhibition, predicated according to rules that have been set prior. Watching over time, it is possible to see how in this institutional incarnation, she has been trained to follow a minder around, patiently tracing circles around the gallery. At the same time, a live creature in a gallery setting invokes an electric uncertainty - much as the energy in the room at a performance, there is the sense that something could go wrong - that anything could happen.
25 September 2013 - 6 January 2014
In October, Paris grows colder, and yet the winter in Europe is one of the mildest in recent years. Walking into Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, I am greeted by the snow I’ve been waiting for - piled on the floor in an elegant mound, with a cloud of fog floating just overhead like a fabricated ghost. Every so often, it rains. The occasional bee flies past, returning to Liegender Frauenakt, the reclining marble figure capped with a hive-head, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe oneself coming ashore in a magic land, divorced from the natural, pragmatic world.
The survey encompasses the last twenty years of the artist’s practice. According to Huyghe, it is not the most “important” artworks of his career on display; but rather those that can play off against each other, act as tools which still have possibilities left to them. The works bounce off each other.
There’s a tendency to conflate the Pompidou showing with Untilled (2012), the widely acclaimed dOCUMENTA biotope installation; it operates according to the same organic and non-linear logic as Untilled - objects aren’t placed, but “dropped” into the space, colliding and overlapping with each other, different eruptions of sound or creature intervention happening at different times. As in the figures that loom out of the darkness every so often with a faceful of LEDs, or a gigantic bird’s head. Or the electronic brrrs of Atari Light (1999) being played by astute children who have realised that it is a game, or indeed, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights abruptly piercing through the entire space at five-minute intervals (it’s mee, your Cathee, I’ve come h….). And other artists are implicated into the installation, too: the remains of Mike Kelley’s previous show in the same space, or miniature Brancusis within the hermit crab tank, or the dirt-covered Mère Anatolica by Parvine Curie present in the first chamber of the exhibition. One is forced to surrender to the parameters of this environment, predicated on choreographed coincidence and correlation.
This follows Huyghe‘s notion of “dropping” rather than arranging works: “You don’t display things, make a mise-en-scène […] you just drop them. And when someone enters that site, things are themselves, they don’t have a dependence on the person. They are indifferent to the public.” Huyghe also speaks to the notion of deregulation, positing it against deconstructing; not against, but outside, the normal hegemony of presenting and creating work.
In The Host and The Cloud, a film work, here are the same rules, or lack of them. Constant symbols, touch-points and patterns arise again and again: a coronation ceremony where the players sub in and out, taking turns at being king, or catwalk models parading in empty foyers. As in the hypnotic film works of Jesper Just, characters seem less to be autonomous individuals than interchangeable carriers of dialogue and actions. The film is disrupted every so often by the appearance of Human (2011-2013), the iconic dog-as-artwork who was the star of Untilled. The dog is a girl. Her spine is a tight coil high on her back, like a row of hammers inside a grand piano. The pink paint is fading from her foreleg. Even for a Podenco Ibicenco (her breed), she is remarkably thin.
Human‘s behaviour is, like the rest of the exhibition, predicated according to rules that have been set prior. Watching over time, it is possible to see how in this institutional incarnation, she has been trained to follow a minder around, patiently tracing circles around the gallery. At the same time, a live creature in a gallery setting invokes an electric uncertainty - much as the energy in the room at a performance, there is the sense that something could go wrong - that anything could happen. And all of the show feels like this, like an amusement park, one of the really good old ones with rides that were actually pretty dangerous. One is constantly waiting for some hapless visitor to get caught underneath the Weather Score.
At one point, watching The Host and The Cloud, a figure onscreen - evidently drugged - apes the famous dance of Michael Jackson in “Thriller” in total silence. During this, a docent - tall, thin, a close-shaved haircut half-revealing a cranial scar which is, in photographic form, reproduced in the catalogue at the door - is this the ghostly gardener from Untilled? - walks through the room, followed by the serene white dog, Human, and a cellphone goes off, playing the song in question, in perfect time with the crazed, solemn dancer. At another time, the same occurs, but this time the tune emits from the pocket of the bird-headed man. Every projected outcome has been accounted for, here. Everything is under control.
In December, the dog looks tired. There are fur blankets strewn in odd corners, looking like exotic animals themselves, and Human lies on these at intervals, moping, as the endless stream of visitors passes by. And the dog is doing something new: while its handler sits and peers into the hermit crab tanks, or pretends to write in a small black book, the dog will run, and then stop, and assume an attitude mid-trot. Sometimes one paw is raised, expectant, but it stays like this for minutes at a time. And she accepts pats from visitors passively, unresponsively, and at this point there is a rustle as iPhones are pulled from pockets in concert, zooming in on this thin-boned creature white as Greek entablature. The dog has become sculpture. This makes me wonder about whether dogs can get the same performance fatigue as that of a performance artist. Where did she learn this behaviour?
A work that hangs over Human like a shadow is Exposición No.1, of Guillermo Vargas, in which an emaciated street dog was tied up in a gallery, purportedly with a sign instructing visitors not to feed it. This work - and a further work, Axioma (2013) attracted controversy due to widely circulating and unfounded reports that Vargas intended to starve the dog to death in the service of art. Walking past the Louvre at 4am, an Alsatian barks at me from inside the Pyramid, and for a moment I catch myself taking it for an artwork. Huyghe‘s work echoes into the real world.
It’s curious to think of Human, or Axioma, as service dogs, like seeing eye dogs, customs sniffers or like Laika, the subject of Russia’s earlier space missions, sent into orbit to her death, co-opted for human concerns. Is it fair, I wonder? And perhaps the rest of the works can be seen in this way, Human endlessly retracing her steps throughout the air-conditioned, white-walled rooms. Unlike the fields and forest of dOCUMENTA, the Pompidou space is as hermetically sealed as a specimen jar, and all of these works which rightfully belong in the natural sphere sit inside the gallery like portals to micro-worlds, butterflies pinned to cards in a drawer. The loose earth is dried onto the stone steles in the entranceway.
The key, perhaps, to understanding the dynamic of this presentation again goes back to Huyghe’s organic processes. And the show, here in this consumable but still living space, makes for a positive contrast with the slick and somewhat lifeless Parreno survey down the road at Palais de Tokyo. There’s a certain difficulty to positing retrospectives and how to say anything “new” in the re-presentation of old work - Michael Stevenson’s MCA Sydney survey, curated by Glenn Barkley, is a great example of how it can be done successfully. In that instance and in Huyghe’s, the exhibition is conceived of as an entirely new work in itself. Despite the hyper-accessible nature of the show, it gives a sense of optimism - there’s still a sort of vengeful flash, here, not entirely safe.
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