Interview by Aileen Kwun
Portrait by Pascal Perich
For his latest high-profile commission, French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe dug into New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, quite literally. To create the work—this year’s installation for the museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden (through Nov. 1)—Huyghe took a number of the museum’s granite floor tiles and pulled them up from the ground, stacking them aside to reveal earthen sediments; trickles of water from an aquarium on a plinth appear to slowly pool into the crevices, spawning signs of life and entering the circulatory system of the site. The result, a sort of archaeological dig overlooking Central Park, is, as Huyghe’s work tends to be, otherworldly.
“You’re on top of layers of history,” the artist says of the work. “If you go even deeper under the building, you go into Central Park and confront all these resources, natural and controlled, yet you’re in the present, on the roof, walking in the present time.” He adds, “Once you remove the floor tiles, you’re ready to dig through the museum.”
Of the installation’s unofficial title, “Rite Passage,” Huyghe stresses it’s really just a signifier, noting that rite de passage had been written on one of his many notes for the project. He’s nonplussed by the detail, perhaps because he views an exhibition as a form that’s maleable. “I’m very interested in the notion of exhibition, and for years I’ve worked with that format: the question of how things appear, and at which rhythm, which condition,” he says. “More and more, I became interested in this notion of ritual. I consider the exhibition a ritual, and I consider this ritual to be an evolving organism.”
An exploration of things as living organisms has been central to Huyghe’s practice for years, and the fantastical array of mediums used in his artworks—living animals, ecological environments, digital programs, and manmade structures, in addition to drawing, photography, music, and film—are aptly reflective of that. At his recent retrospective, which traveled from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, and then to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, works exhibited included a beehive-headed sculpture, a ceiling installation of the video game Pong, and an Ibizan hound named Human that trotted around freely with a magenta-painted leg.
Inside the Met’s rooftop aquarium installation are a large floating rock, mirrored in symmetry by a mound of sand and pebbles, and two primordial freshwater species (American brook lamprey and tadpole shrimps). “They’ve been chosen in a very specific way,” says Huyghe of the creatures. “They’re both what I call ‘living fossils’: animals that existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and which you find as fossils, but still remain unchanged, not only in the formal aspect—which is less what I am interested in—but also in instinct and behavior.”
The tadpole shrimps—alarmingly reminiscent of the arcane “ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” vividly depicted in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—mindlessly move and dig into the ground, existing somewhere between cognition and an extension of nature’s preordained program for evolution. “The daily actions of survival will be the same,” Huyghe says. “Knowing that, it’s as if programming a machine—you set it to a BPM, doop-doop-doop, a framework; of course, there’s a bit of uncertainty, where things are undetermined. We evolve and there’s an entropy, but on the other hand, there’s a recurrence—a constancy—that will perpetrate.”
Over the course of the summer, that entropy is sure to involve a few wild cards in the form of rain showers and thunderstorms, and while the installation will be monitored periodically by Huyghe’s studio staff, he anticipates an element of change that can’t be fully planned for. “It might overflow; the top is open. I really see it as a preserving machine,” he says, in reference to a short story by sci-fi fiction writer Philip K. Dick in which the protagonist, aiming to preserve an arts institution’s high culture holdings in the event of apocalypse, creates a machine that transforms classical music masterpieces into various animals. When he releases them into the wild and later recovers them, he finds each has undergone evolution, making their musical scores distorted and cacophonous as a result—a fitting parable of man’s grapple with nature. Adding to Huyghe’s experiment is an automated program that causes the smart-glass walls of the vitrine to pulsate intermittently from opaque to transparent, causing “a certain economy of visibility,” Huyghe says.
Downstairs, inside the museum’s galleries, another of Huyghe’s works makes its New York premiere. Called “Untitled (Human Mask),” the 19-minute film depicts a macaque monkey as it carries out its duties as a trained wait staff in a sake restaurant outside of Tokyo. Dressed in a uniform, a white mask, and a long, brunette wig as it wavers between boredom, anxiety, and a repetition of its learned action in solitude, the scene is at once macabre, haunting, and humanizing.
Despite the multilayered juxtapositions presented in his complex works—between artifice and nature, animal and plant, chaos and order—Huyghe resists any readings that pit any one force against another. “I don’t try to put a moral on the way that humans are impacting nature, because I just think we are nature,” he says. “Technology is an extension of man, so in a sense, a nuclear power plant is man, is nature. He is the energy of the hive. When you look at the birds-of-paradise and see how they make their nest, then see an artist do a rooftop installation,” he says, in good humor, “it’s a different expression of different species, I’m assuming.”