The Abject Decadence of Pierre Huyghe

or Backwards with Pierre Huyghe

This is a story about time travel. It is about my own journeys back and forth in that do-we-even-know-if-it-exists dimension we call time. It is my attempt to see the Pierre Huyghe survey at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, but somehow seeming to do it all in the wrong order. In a similar vein, I was in the middle of reading Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe quartet of novels in reverse order, starting with the most recent Let Me Be Frank With You, when he begins to ponder dementia, and working backwards to the first volume when Frank is in his more youthful thirties with a son who has died and a wife who has divorced him. The modern classic of this reverse time travel is Martin Amis’s dark novella Time’s Arrow where smoke billows backwards down the chimneys of Auschwitz, bodies grow from the ashes, and humans walk backwards out of the camp and home to their ghettoes.

Before Huyghe’s artworks had even been installed, I had previewed the show for another magazine, but I had not actually seen the work. I had seen other exhibitions of Huyghe’s overseas, so I knew about his use of spiders and insects crawling though gallery spaces (which they do here), and I knew how he had once injected a gallery dealer with a flu virus, to be passed on ad hoc to those coming into contact with him. I knew about his trip to Antarctica (A Journey that Wasn’t, 2005) to find a mythical penguin on a newly discovered island. I knew about his swarm of bees rather decadently veiling a statue in an abject landscape, and—more recently—of that monkey wearing a Balthus-like mask of a young Asian girl (see the cover of Frieze, January 2015), drifting around a deserted café near the burnt out Fukushima nuclear facility. And then there is that dog with a pink leg that looks a close cousin to Marlene Dumas’s mostly monochrome painting of her daughter, who has one arm painted bright red. I knew all this, I just had not seen any of it yet. And most of it, as I would find out, is in this exhibition.

The next stage in my quest was an invitation from Liquid Architecture, Australia’s leading group of sonic experimenters, to join a bus trip from Federation Square to TarraWarra for a half-day conference and series of events inspired by Huyghe’s work. So I was on the bus (still not having seen the show), and I was listening to vocalist Marcus Rechsteiner and keyboard player Guy Blackman respond to Huyghe’s exhibition and his love of time by performing a kind of punk/rap cocktail of songs to do with the notion of time. 

All of the songs, delivered in a sub-karaoke fashion that would have made Sid Vicious sound melodic, dealt with different aspects of time, from Living in the Past by Jethro Tull to One More Minute by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. Place names and commercial signs flashed past and were quickly ad-libbed into the repertoire. The bus was packed, and I thought this is what it must have been like on Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus, driving across the States, with a destination board miss-spelled as FURTHUR. 

And then we are there. The Yarra Valley spreads before us on a pitch perfect day of sunshine and wine. And then we are in a lecture room with about two hundred others, except we realise we are in one of the exhibition’s main galleries, and the oddly-shaped neon lighting hanging above us, is in fact an astonishing artwork conceptualised by Huyghe. The panel of Victoria Lynn, Amelia Barikin, Susan Cohn, Justin Clemens, Tom Nicholson, and Kristie Miller assemble at the front. Gradually, I realise there are more artworks in this room, specifically Huyghe’s seminal foundation statement for The Association of Freed Time (1995). It is around this work that the whole exhibition, covering several galleries and thirty million years, has been built. 

I can hear artworks in other rooms that I have still not seen. The forum speakers examine time in an almost Cubist way, from every angle, and I am reminded of that great two year period of paradigm-changing revolutions from 1905-06, underscored by Einstein’s formulation of the special theory of relativity and Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist inventions. Time and space would never be viewed in the same way again, and at least two terrible beauties were born—the nuclear age and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Susan Cohn and Justin Clemens performed an unforgettable double act, taking to the microphone together and sparring back and forth on different aspects of time, and in so doing critiquing the neon artwork hanging above us. As the catalogue describes it, ‘A cluster of neon circles…resembling the circles of the “Borromean knot” (a popular form of ring), this neon sculpture is inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan who based his theory of human subjectivity on the model of the “Borromean knot”. Huyghe’s takes its inspiration from an unfinished drawing by Lacan, who sketched the knot as three interlinking registers: the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary (RSI). Each register is interdependent on the others: if one ring breaks, the others fall away.’ 

At this point, our resident jeweller-cum-time traveller Susan Cohn pulls off the three stunningly beautiful large rings that have been hanging around her neck and gives us a practical demonstration of the Lacanian principle. 

But the real fount of Huyghean knowledge lies with Amelia Barikin. She co-curated the exhibition with Victoria Lynn. They both contributed to the catalogue, but Barikin has additionally produced a book on Huyghe called Parallel Presents: the Art of Pierre Huyghe (MIT Press, 2012). It started life as her PhD thesis, and she has done a wonderful job turning it into a book that is both scholarly and very readable. I was not surprised to learn that Dr Charles Green was her supervisor. His own The Third Hand set the bar for PhDs into books, and now Barikin takes on that mantle. On the cover is an image from the video A Journey that Wasn’t (2005). A ship is seemingly stuck in Antarctic ice while a group of humans in orange and lime green jumpsuits set up a tripod on an ice flow. As I left the gallery with the neon lights, the conference chairs now all neatly stacked like a Carl Andre installation, I entered the next gallery and the same video was playing against a huge wall. The mythical penguin was emerging, many times larger than life, from an icy outcrop tinged with a golden glow.

In the same space, a strange machine that could be a distant relative of Dr Who’s Tardis, or a sophisticated smoke machine from a stadium rock concert, or a New Age Juke Box, sends out beams of light that change colour every few minutes. It is called L’Expedition Scintillante, Act 2 (2002). It was a prototype for A Journey that Wasn’t so is well placed next to that work, although totally different in its final realisation. Huyghe explains it in a Centre Pompidou publication Pierre Huyghe (2013:98) as, ‘An object, at once a lighthouse and a stage, an attractor and an emitter, is lost in the space. A game of light is emitted in accordance with the music, Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies. Echoing early psychedelic light shows, it offers a tentative formalisation of the experience of an “interior journey”, induced by hallucinogenic drugs. Ceiling shutters synchronized to the rhythm of the machine open and close, leaving a gap of colour extending beyond the object.’

In other gallery spaces, I observed the pink-legged dog and the bee-shrouded statue in the documenta car park; I saw the tiny figure of the artist sleeping inside the great Crystal Cave in the Naica Mine in Mexico (this project brought together a mathematician, a shaman, a mineralogist, an animal trainer, and a specialist in pain treatment, an algologist); and I saw, in De-extinction (2014), two insects caught mid-copulation thirty million years ago, frozen in time in an ancient piece of amber.

At this point, in my mind I was returning to a Neo-Cubist fragmented world that at times seemed to exist less in TarraWarra’s magnificent galleries and more in my own head. It is a tendency I have written about recently in relation to the work of Danh Vo’s Venice projects, which I called Zombie Cubism, and to the French artist (based in Port Melbourne) Mathieu Briand. Briand’s vast project, Et In Libertalia Ego, Vol II, oscillates between Tasmania and Madagascar, was recently on view at MONA, and forces the viewer to internalise various shifts in time, comprehension, and geography. Different facets are revealed, as with Vo and Huyghe, and we are forced to double back through time and memory to complete the picture. 

I emerge into the golden sunshine. Liquid Architecture projects continue on the lawns and in the corridors. Slightly dazed, I am lead upstairs to an amazing semi-circular office space, lined with Australian and world art magazines going back decades. I am invited to sit at a computer screen. And there, I am given a screening of Huyghe’s Fukushima monkey. Jennifer Higgie, in her Frieze cover story earlier in the year, writes that Human Mask, as this work is called, ‘was partly shot on a drone camera in Fukushima in 2011 after the earthquake-triggered tsunami had caused the meltdown of three nuclear plant reactors, the evacuation of 300,000 people from the area and at least 1,600 deaths; the sense of desolation is palpable’. Soon we are inside the deserted restaurant, and the nineteen minute film of the macaque monkey who once was dressed up as a girl to serve customers ‘in a Noh-like mask and a glossy, brunette woman’s wig with a bow’ now hops from table to counter, the only human presence the crackling loud speaker announcements in a language most of us do not understand. Very J.G. Ballard. There is a pathos about it, distinctly at odds with the luxury of the TarraWarra vineyards and the blue domed sky above the Yarra Valley. 

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2011–12. Alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Colección CIAC AC, Mexico; Fondation Louis Vuitton pour la création, Paris; Ishikawa Collection, Okayama, Japan. 

Pierre Huyghe, A Journey that wasn’t, El diario del fin del mundo, February–March, 2005. Expedition, Antarctica. Courtesy the artist.

Pierre Huyghe: TarraWarra International 2015, installation view. TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Australia, 2015. Photograph Andrew Curtis.

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Human Mask), 2014. Film, colour, stereo, sound, 2:66, 19min. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London and Anna Lena Films, Paris.

Dr Peter Hill is a Scottish-born Australian artist, writer, independent curator and academic.