2017 Nasher Prize Laureate Pierre Huyghe

An Essay by Curator Catherine Craft

The 2017 Nasher Prize Laureate Pierre Huyghe has profoundly expanded the parameters of sculpture through artworks encompassing a variety of materials and disciplines, bringing cinema, music, and dance into contact with science and philosophy and incorporating time-based elements as diverse as microclimates, ice, rituals, parades, robotics, computer programs, games, dogs, bees, or microorganisms.

The 2017 Nasher Prize Laureate Pierre Huyghe has profoundly expanded the parameters of sculpture through artworks encompassing a variety of materials and disciplines, bringing cinema, music, and dance into contact with science and philosophy and incorporating time-based elements as diverse as microclimates, ice, rituals, parades, robotics, computer programs, games, dogs, bees, or microorganisms.

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 image, cinema, and photography can shape our experience of the world, our sense of identity, and how we perceive and remember events. 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; 20 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 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 their films featuring Annlee, the two made the character available to other artists, including Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Liam Gillick, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Eventually, Huyghe and Parreno signed a legal contract to yield their copyright to the character, 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 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 throughhis 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 a new community in the Hudson River Valley, New York, that included a parade, a speech by the mayor, and fireworks. Huyghe created the conditions for the events, 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 “DNA” from which the myth grows.

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 20th-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 dynamic representations as complex as their subjects. As Huyghe insists, “I’m not interested in representing or documenting a reality, as it is given, and I’m not interested in building fiction. What I’m interested in is to set up the condition for a reality to rise within an existing context, to produce a new reality, and then, only then, seize this reality.”

This disarming description of a seemingly straightforward process is belied by the increasing complexity of Huyghe’s work over the past 15 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 time-based.” 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 program.” 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 and contingent events, 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], variation of intensity, porosity, seem to be more important today.”

Time and rhythm are also the foundation of Huyghe’s practice, particularly in developing new projects. This is most evident in his approach to the exhibition format, which he considers as a medium: “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, always in formation—the trajectory to an elsewhere.” This temporal reversal manifested itself 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 25 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, an ecosystem at once more random and more hypnotic, with fugitive apparitions—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 differently—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 conditional setup, 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 fields, 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 nontraditional 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 living elements, from the “weather” of L’Expédition scintillante and Double Negative to plants and animals 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 a multitude of “agents” 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, datura, and Afghan poppy, for the bees to pollinate and then otherwise let the environment more or less take its course. Placed in Huyghe’s network, the plants and animals 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 interest in living systems and his incorporation of them into his art has become one of the most prominent aspects of his practice in recent years. In one of a series of an aquariums inhabited by a range of crabs and other sea life, a hermit crab inhabits a shell that is 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 film Untitled (Human Mask) (2014) explores the parallels between humans, animals, and machines.

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 not indifferent to the public but indifferent to the idea of addressing them. I rather think of an active witness, immersed within the works that change and 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 in the Marmara Sea becomes a mesh 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.

To develop works involving living systems and technology, Huyghe gathers a team of scientists and researchers from many different fields to provide advice and assistance, with the aim of creating largely self-sustaining systems that can run with as little assistance from the artist as possible. His attention to the divisions we have built between nature and culture, living systems and their elusive complexity, elicits insights, as no other artist today does, into our place in the world, our relationship to it and to other living beings, whether other humans, a dog named Human (as in Huyghe’s Untilled), or microscopic, potentially deadly cancer cells. The last of these were instrumental in his work Living, Cancer, Variator (2016), shown last fall at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris. In Living, Cancer, Variator, the systems of the museum building and all its inhabitants were brought into interaction with living cancer cells in a subtle and powerful demonstration of the interdependence of all life forms, machines, and algorithms, as Huyghe explained: “Any change occurring in this environment modifies the development conditions of an in vitro cancer, which reacts, accelerates, adapts. Of what is human, here, only remains the immortal cellular rhythm, the activity itself…. The illness manifests the variations of its evolution through the thermal, hydraulic and electric circuits present in the building, irreversibly transforming the habitat, the organisms’ life and in return modifies itself.”

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. Huyghe has also drawn inspiration from individuals in other fields, from scientists and science fiction writers to philosophers and thinkers. 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, hybrid, generative, 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 groundbreaking 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 evernew discoveries and artistic possibilities. In that, we found him exceedingly deserving of this significant award.”

With appreciation to Pierre Huyghe for his input to this essay.

Pierre Huyghe, Cambrian Explosion, 2014 Live marine ecosystem Exhibition view of The Roof Garden Commission: Pierre Huyghe at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. © Pierre Huyghe Photo: Hyla Skopitz, The Photograph Studio, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. © 2015.