“To start [a work], I always need to create a world. Then [I] enter this world, and that walk through this world is the work.”
Says Huyghe, “To start [a work], I always need to create a world. Then [I] enter this world, and that walk through this world is the work.” The works Huyghe creates become in turn evolving worlds that others can walk through, encountering living entities and environments that can range from intellectually provocative to hauntingly beautiful.
The Work of Pierre Huyghe
If a traditional definition of sculpture is an object experienced in space over time, Huyghe’s practice expands the possibility of the three central precepts of this definition—object, space, and time. Huyghe’s achievements have deeply affected our understanding of sculpture’s possibilities even as he explores new avenues for his own work, delving into urgent issues raised by technology and media—identity, representation, community, knowledge—as well as enduring questions regarding time, exhibition ritual, and the role of the artist and our shared connections to each other.
“We are so delighted by the choice of Pierre Huyghe as our 2017 Nasher Prize laureate,” says Director Jeremy Strick. “His expansive view of sculpture so wonderfully embodies the goal of the Nasher Prize, which is to champion the greatest artistic minds of our time. His incorporation of living systems, situations, films and objects into his sculpture highlight the complexities between art and life and challenge the very limits of art-making. And at this moment, when the environment and culture are so under threat, Huyghe’s imaginative, uncanny approach to the serious ecological and social issues facing our planet tie his oeuvre to the ancient purposes of sculpture: they possess a shamanistic quality which tips the mimetic into life.”
Huyghe developed his early work in actions—for example, returning items he had purchased to their original places on store shelves in Dévoler (Unsteal, 1994)—and their representations, exploring the ways that cinema and photography can shape our experience of the world, our sense of identity, and how we perceive and remember events. In Rue Longvic (1994), one of several billboard works, he placed a billboard on an old building; the photograph on the billboard showed a woman walking by the building, a doubling of the passerby in the photograph documenting the billboard’s placement.
Manifestations with actors, questions of the ownership of a person’s experience and identity, and the creation of films based on these issues culminated in one of Huyghe’s best-known works, The Third Memory (1999-2000), about John Wojtowicz, a bank robber whose 1972 crime was sensationalized in the American media and inspired the Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino as Wojtowicz; twenty years after Wojtowicz was paroled for the crime, Huyghe traveled to New York to ask him to share his version of the story in a set constructed on a soundstage in Paris to resemble the bank as seen in the film. Wojtowicz, who had long sought to reclaim his story from Warner Brothers, agreed. Huyghe filmed Wojtowicz reenacting and directing actors playing the roles of others involved in the robbery, then interspersed it with footage from Lumet’s film. Wojtowicz’s reenactment of the day’s events has uncanny echoes of Pacino, raising questions about the extent to which the very film said to have distorted an individual’s experience had in fact infiltrated his very memory of it.
As The Third Memory suggests, collaboration has been a key element of Huyghe’s practice since the beginning, and it merged fruitfully with his concerns about the effects of technology, memory, and intellectual property in the project he undertook with the artist Philippe Parreno, No Ghost Just a Shell (1999), in which they purchased the rights to Annlee, the “shell” of a manga character. In addition to films by Huyghe and Parreno featuring Annlee, the two made the character available to other artists, including Dominque Foerster-Gonzalez, Liam Gillick, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Eventually, Huyghe and Parreno signed a legal contract to yield their copyright to Annlee, bringing their use of her “shell” to its conclusion.
Huyghe has been associated with relational aesthetics, a term coined by the critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud to identify a new type of art based on human interactions rather than the creation of art objects. Bourriaud has defined relational aesthetics as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space,” i.e. the museum or gallery. Building on Marcel Duchamp’s contention that the viewer completes the work of art through his or her response to it, artists associated with relational aesthetics often aim to broaden the context of art by emphasizing communal experience over the individual experience of objects, with the artist working to facilitate the occurrence of such interactions.
Relational aesthetics is less a movement than Bourriaud’s designation for common interests he saw manifesting simultaneously in a number of artists in the 1990s. Yet even as relational aesthetics was being taken up and debated by the larger art world, Huyghe’s work was reaching beyond it in such projects as Streamside Day (2003), a celebration he devised for the new community of Streamside Knolls in the Hudson River Valley, New York that included a parade, costumes, a speech by the mayor, and fireworks; Huyghe created the conditions for the activities, then stepped aside for the community’s inhabitants to carry them out. However, the celebration itself was only one aspect of Huyghe’s project: he also made Streamside Day, a two-part film that began with his “score,” Huyghe’s term for the sort of creation myth he made for the town, which paralleled the trajectory of a young girl, whose family is moving to the new development, with that of a fawn—a “real” imagining of the beginning of the Disney movie Bambi—wandering through the forest and into one of the newly finished houses. This “score” was followed by a filmed account of the celebration.
For Huyghe, the celebration was an investigation above all into time and rhythm. Occurring on October 11, 2003, it presented itself as a ritual that could recur, or not, or in another form, each year. While starting from a trajectory familiar in twentieth-century art—create a performance or event, document it, and conclude with the document becoming the event’s artifact and institutional surrogate—Huyghe created a system that has the potential to circle back on itself continually, with each repetition affecting our perception of what came before it. Likewise, Huyghe’s films relate to these events, not as journalistic records but as representations as complex as their subjects. As Huyghe insists, “I’m not interested in documenting or representing the reality, as it is given, and I’m not interested in building fiction. What I’m interested in is to set up a reality within an existing context, to produce a new reality and then, only then, document this reality.”
This disarming description of a seemingly straightforward process is belied by the increasing complexity of Huyghe’s work over the last fifteen years. To produce these other realities, the artist has only one requirement, a concern that runs throughout his art. “What I do,” he explains, “has always been on a time-based protocol.” Huyghe’s focus on time accounts in part for the strong presence of other time-based practices in his work, such as live situations, films, or music. This is most observable in the durational quality of his extended projects, as in The Host and the Cloud (2011), which unfolded over one year, punctuated by occasional events during holidays, among actors in a disused museum. Contrasting himself to artists involved with Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Land Art, Huyghe has commented, “The earlier artists were mostly concerned with space and sculptural resolution, whereas temporal issues [and change] seem to be more important today.”
Time and rhythm are also the foundation of Huyghe’s creative practice, particularly in developing new projects. This is most evident in his approach to the exhibition format: “Usually, we think of an exhibition as an endpoint, a resolution of something. The exhibition is not the end of a process but a continuously changing ritual—the starting point to an elsewhere.” This temporal reversal manifested itself most recently in Huyghe’s acclaimed retrospective, which opened at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2013 before traveling to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it closed in 2015. In Paris, his exhibition occupied museum galleries previously used for a posthumous Mike Kelley survey, and Huyghe simply installed his work with and around the old signage and walls used for the Kelley show, presenting events, objects, images, films, and documents from his twenty-five-years of artistic activity in new configurations, effectively disrupting the biographical continuity expected from a retrospective. Rather than creating the sharp juxtapositions familiar in the modernist strategy of assemblage, the exhibition’s workings had the feel of a living environment at once more random and more hypnotic—a demonstration, on the level of an individual career, of what Huyghe has long insisted upon: that his art’s origins as “time-based protocols” allow them to be played, and replayed—what Huyghe, lacking the language for his format in the vocabulary of art, often calls his “scenario.”
Huyghe’s approach to making art—to create a situation, set a scene, provide a set of conditions, then step back and allow things to unfold on their own—has grown to projects and exhibitions of almost mythic proportions, taking on subjects well beyond the usual purview of art. L’Expédition scintillante: A Musical (The Scintillating Expedition, 2002) presented, in three “acts,” staged in separate galleries, the “visual scenario” of a prospective expedition to the Antarctic. Within Huyghe’s “series of speculations on the unfolding of a still-absent collective project,” visitors entered a building animated by a program—climate, image, sound—and confronted a moored boat made of ice, slowly thawing, fog rising from a glowing monolith, and a skater cutting figures on a rink of black ice, disparate environments sharing the transformational states of water as solid, liquid, and gas.
Only after L’Expédition scintillante did an expedition take place, with Huyghe heading to the Antarctic to seek an island slowly being revealed by the melting ice, documented in the aptly titled A Journey That Wasn’t (2005), which was in turn complemented by A Journey That Wasn’t, Double Negative (2005), presented in New York at the ice rink in Central Park with a musical score based on the mysterious island’s topography. The dizzying route by which one work echoes, overtakes, parallels, or documents another becomes a virtuosic display of Huyghe’s attentiveness to temporality, along with his interest in the ways seemingly solid boundaries—whether between artworks or different states of water—become porous. Referring to the work of Robert Smithson, who posited a distinction between site and nonsite (respectively, institutional spaces for artworks, such as museums and galleries, and non-traditional places away from such venues), Huyghe has countered that he is interested instead in the “in-between.”
Huyghe’s radical respect for time and for the freedom of other players in the situations he has produced is nowhere more important than in the growing role played in his work by natural elements, from the “weather” of L’Expédition scintillante and Double Negative to the flora and fauna that increasingly populate his works, most notably, perhaps, in Untilled (2011-12), his contribution to Documenta 13. Huyghe was scouting a place for his project in a park in Kassel, Germany when he came upon its compost heap. He chose the site for his project, to which he added several elements in what appeared an otherwise out-of-the-way area of the park. Two dogs, including one with a leg painted bright pink, roamed the plot of land, and Huyghe also added a concrete sculpture of a classical reclining nude with an enormous, active beehive engulfing her head. He planted the site with psychotropic, pharmaceutical, and poisonous plants, including marijuana, foxglove, and nightshade, for the bees to pollinate and then otherwise let the environment more or less take its course. Placed in Huyghe’s work, the flora and fauna simply continued to, in his words, “co-evolve.” The artist’s remarks on Untilled are rhapsodic in his assertions of what is present, and absent, in the work. His sense of liberation, even from the elements of his own practice, is palpable:
The set of operations that occurs has no script. Particular elements, images leak in a contingent reality – physical, biological, mineral – and grow without us. There is antagonism, association, hospitality and hostility, corruption, separation or collapse with no encounter. There are circumstances and deviations that enable the emergence of complexities. There are rhythms, automatisms, and accidents, invisible and continuous transformations, movements and processes, but no choreography; sonorities and resonances but no polyphony. There’s repetition, chemical reactions, porosity, reproduction, formation, vitality, but the existence of a system is uncertain. Roles are not distributed, there is no organization, no representation, no exhibition. There are facts, but no rules and no politics…. It is endless, incessant.
Huyghe’s willingness to enlist flora and fauna into his projects leads to searching questions of the extent of human control over nature, aligning them with questions of the artist’s control over his work, using contingency, instinct and evolution. In one of a series of aquariums inhabited by a range of crabs and other sea life—some of which prey on each other—a hermit crab inhabits a shell that is in fact a copy of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse. The sculpture’s appearance in an underwater environment carries a shock that touches upon the inappropriate setting for a great work of art, along with the undeniably poetic effect achieved by the combination. For one 24-hour rotation of the earth, visitors to the Sydney Biennale could visit the astonishing Forest of Lines (2008), with a thousand trees and mist filling the main concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, an environment structured by Aboriginal songlines of mapping, direction, and place. Likewise, the recent video Human Mask (2014) arose from Huyghe’s discovery of a Youtube video showing a restaurant in Japan with a macaque that wears a mask and dress to serve customers. When Huyghe investigated, he learned that the restaurant is near the zone off-limits due to radiation leaked from the Fukushima nuclear plant after the 2011 tsunami. His film combines footage of Fukushima, shot by a drone, with the monkey wearing a human mask, alone in the restaurant: “I got interested in automatism and contingency; an animal and a machine doing human tasks, trapped within human representation and becoming their sole mediators.”
After the visibility Huyghe gained from his 2013-15 retrospective and other recent honors, he mused about the possibility of making a work that is “indifferent” to the presence of viewers. Describing artworks as “hysteric objects” that “only exist when there is a gaze to attract,” he explained his aim: “I’m trying to make things indifferent to the idea of addressing the public…. Not that I’m indifferent to the public, but the works exist with or without its gaze. This impulse may have given rise to one of Huyghe’s most intriguing projects, Abyssal Plain. Geometry of the Immortals, undertaken for the 2015 Istanbul Biennale, in which an underwater concrete stage near the island of Sivriada becomes the site of cultural objects from the Mediterranean, including objects by Huyghe, deposited there from the surface, along with sea life brought to the stage by the force of a sea current. Unreproducible in photographs, virtually inaccessible, and still growing, the work leads its own existence, far beneath the waves.
As Huyghe’s interest in “indifference” suggests, he has strong connections to the art of the past, including Marcel Duchamp, who upheld indifference as an antidote to self-indulgent, overly expressive works of art, as well as Robert Smithson and other Land and Conceptual artists who expanded art beyond the museum and gallery. The Conceptual artist Daniel Buren, who has made performance an aspect of his installations of distinctively striped expanses, was an early mentor. Huyghe has also drawn inspiration from individuals in other fields, such as the composer John Cage and the writers and philosophers Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Tristan Garcia, among others. All of them have contributed to Huyghe’s expansive vision of art, which provides almost endless possibilities, including even more traditional types of artworks: “We are not interested in this vaunted ‘disappearance’ of the art object, [we are] not returning to that old trap…however, I see things as transitory, in-between, not ends in themselves or autonomous; they change and have an outside.”
Although his interests range widely, Huyghe continues to find innovative ways to draw them into his art. Asked why he hadn’t studied biology, which interested him in school, he explained why he chose art instead: “I was reading [art] as a place of freedom, a place where I could do things that I was passionately in love with…. [Art] was the most welcoming place for this love to be.” His ground-breaking use of this freedom was crucial to the Nasher Prize jury’s selection of Huyghe as the 2017 Laureate. Says juror Okwui Enwezor: “It was very important for those of us on the jury to continue to expand the purview of the Nasher Prize in its second year with the choice of an artist whose practice is dynamic, challenging, edifying, and in the case of Pierre Huyghe, very enigmatic. Huyghe’s work extends far beyond any tidy definition of sculpture in ways that continue to grow and develop well into his career, allowing for ever new discoveries and artistic possibilities. In that, we found him exceedingly deserving of this significant award.”
About Pierre Huyghe
Pierre Huyghe was born in 1962 in Paris; he lives and works in Chile and New York. He studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In 2013, his retrospective opened at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, then traveled to Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2014) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2014-15). He has had numerous international solo exhibitions at such venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (2010); Tate Modern, London (2006); Dia Center for the Arts, New York (2003); French Pavilion, Venice Biennale (2001); Kunstverein München, Munich (1999); and Secession, Vienna (1999). Huyghe has also participated in a number of group exhibitions such as the 32nd Bienal de Sao Paulo (2016); the 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015); Documenta 13 and 11, Kassel (2012 and 2002); 6th Sydney Biennale (2008); theanyspacewhatever, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2008); Whitney Biennial (2006); and Traffic, CAPC musée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux (1996), curated by Nicolas Bourriaud.
Huyghe has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Kurt Schwitters Prize, Hannover (2015); Roswitha Haftmann Prize, Zürich (2013); Contemporary Artist Award, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington (2010); Hugo Boss Prize, New York (2002); Special Jury Prize, 49th Venice Biennale (2001); and DAAD Berlin Artists-in-Residence, Berlin (1999-2000). Huyghe’s work is in the collection of many museums, such as Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tate, London; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; and such foundations as Fondation Louis Vuitton, Fondation Pinault, and LUMA Foundation.