Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Through a Glass Darkly" (on the Pierre Huyghe exhibition at LACMA) by Douglas Messerli

through a glass darkly

by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Huyghe Pierre Huyghe exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 23, 2014-February 22, 2015

On the surface, the new show by French artist Pierre Huyghe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a retrospective, the artist’s first in the United States, which, as the press information notes, brings together about 60 works from the past few years. That, by itself, might represent a grand project worthy of our attention. But Huyghe’s new show is not simply a complex installation of various live situations, objects, films, and drawings—all of which are presented here—but comes together as a vast single work that simultaneously suggests a cabinet of curiosities (a kunstkammer) while taking its viewers down a kind of rabbit’s hole, like that in Alice in Wonderland, in which we experience a Madhatter-like tea party (sans teacups or liquid libations). In visiting this show one also is face with sense of being swallowed up by Dorothy’s tornado in The Wizard of Oz, only here we observe not ruby slippers, but golden ones, hinting perhaps of the golden state in which the Los Angeles museum sits, Huyghe’s show interplaying with the very landscape of the museum in which the exhibition is housed.      Beginning with the name-announcer, who ushers each “guest” into this strange, angularly walled space—as if we were about to enter a room of celebrities amidst a grand ball—we stumble into this world somewhat confusedly, not sure of which direction to head. I chose to move left to a corner “spider,” before choosing an small Alice-sized entrance made from cor-teen, riveted steel and plaster wall, almost as if I was crawling into a small space rather than, had I chosen the other direction, to enter a slightly larger room, also displaying spiders, that leads into a vast room where light is a bit more available, depending upon the success of visitors playing with joysticks that tune-up the overhead lighting panels (Atari Light, 1999) into various patterns. There I found museum director Michael Govin, playing with the controlling apparatus—a bit like his real life position—in order to see if he might “light up” the room. All of the show’s early halls, however, are kept fairly dark, making the viewer’s passage through spaces a bit like peering “through a glass darkly.” Significance is not a sudden thing in this artistically conceived world, but comes gradually as part of the process of exploring it.

     For example, what to make of the large aquarium at the center of the occasionally enlightened space? The aquarium (Nymphéas Transplant), a real-life eco system with swimming fish, appears brown and bracken-coated, reminding one a bit of the often polluted waters one observes in older, dilapidated Chinese restaurants which once served live fish. Are these water-bound denizens left-overs, one asks onself? Even if fish survive in this setting (we are told in informational materials that it is a safely filtrated space), we see them as the remnants of a once freshwater system. Tiny plants seem to be growing out of vents in the floor, as if nature lives on only in remnants, appearing through the cracks of this clearly post-apocalyptic world.

     Nearby are several videos and films, one concerning identity and hinting at issues of power, sexuality, violence, and play (“The Host and the Cloud”), in which—following the logic of Alice in Wonderland, some individuals are declared King, while others dress up like Ronald McDonald; black and white rabbits play near a cereal box. In another nearby film (“Human Mask”) images of what appear to be houses, moved by the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, are depicted as part of a world in which all human spaces have been reclaimed by a natural force that has equally destroyed

any remnants of nature itself; the half-humans who survive seem to have been transformed into werewolves, with hairy arms and hands. Insects crawl over everything. Moving into another space, one observes sculptural objects that may remind one of stalagmites, as if one has suddenly entered a cave.    In a large totally black room we are awed by panels of scintillatingly beautiful plays of smoke and light (L’Expédition scintallante) accompanied by the music of “Afternoon of a Faun,” reminding us a bit of light shows and tableaux vivants, since nearby—at least in my several visits to this space—lay a dog named Human, a two-year-old Ibizan hound, whose natural visage, with its ribs quite prominent, make it at first appear almost if the animal were starved. In fact, this is the natural look of the animal, which we are asked not to pet, and who has worked with Huyghe in several installations. But the appearance of this almost sleeping beast once again suggested, in the blackened cube in which I stood, that the remnants of natural beauty we were witnessing existed somehow at the expense of living beings. The world of Huyghe’s cabinet of curiosities suggests that, if nature has once been subjugated to human life, it is still surviving and gradually returning to control what is left of the now nearly-barren human-created space.

      Furs are tossed into several corners, hinting perhaps that those who once wore the skins of animals are no longer present, yet reminding us that we once chose to kill animals for them. In what struck me as a humorous aside, museum information suggests they are posted throughout the rooms as spaces where Human, the dog, can comfortably curl up.

     When one finally stumbles back into daylight at the end of these various darkly lit entrances and exits—wherein exist, incidentally, numerous other objects, films, and events that I have not described above—we perceive that we are back into a territory within the confines of a yet larger kunstkammer, the museum itself, where Huyghe wittily puns on LACMA’s large sculptural installation of Levitated Mass by placing his Precambrian Explosion, a large mass of stone hovering within a marine landscape before the back window view of the Michael Heizer work. On a nearby sidewall is large annotated Silent Score, a musical composition that exists only in its visual manifestation, another example of a repurposing of objects and events. To the right of the Precambrian Explosion lies Huyghe’s vast L’Expédition, Acte 3, a broken black ice rink with bubble-like features that can only remind Angelinos of the nearby La Brea tar pits, almost a prediction of the possibility that the nearby buildings themselves might someday be replaced by a vast stilted amoeboid structure referencing the tar pits.
     Just beyond the far doors lies a final logical conclusion what we have witnessed within, that in this post-apocalyptic world, nature may take over the art itself, as it apparently has the Untitled sculptured nude, whose head has been swallowed up by an active beehive. Nearby sits a pile of what appears to be salt, implying perhaps, that it is dangerous to turn back upon the past, or even to what we have just “come through” as D. H. Lawrence might have described the visual and psychologically complex experience the attentive viewer has just encountered.    Yet we know, surely, that we must turn back, even with the risk of turning into a pillar of salt, to revisit Huyghe’s strange vision, to re-explore his dark glass if for no other reason but to reevaluate and re-eexplain any narrative we have dreamed up for ourselves. Perhaps this inter-play of natural and human-created spaces is more positive than it first has seemed; maybe we have learned something through our original journey that may redeem the bleak world we have imagined for ourselves.

      Certainly I intend to re-visit this exhibition again and again, certain that I shall discover new meanings each time my name is called and I agree to click my golden shoes in order to squeeze down that irresistible rabbit hole.

Los Angeles, November 26, 2014

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