Monkey waiters and axolotls: the disconcerting art of Pierre Huyghe
Source:The Guardian Author:Adrian Searle Date: 2014-09-18 Size:
Truth and fiction, past and present blur in the French artist’s fascinating new show, which includes a monkey masked as a Japanese child, lilies stolen from Monet’s garden and a stone sculpture that’s warm to the touch...

Fantasy world … a still from a video by Pierre Huyghe, from the show In. Border. Deep

A public-address system warns of an approaching tornado as the car drives between wrecked buildings somewhere near Fukushima in Japan. The landscape is unpeopled. There’s just us in the car with the camera at the start of Pierre Huyghe’s film Human Mask, driving among broken wooden buildings unmoored from their foundations.

Now we are inside, where a girl in a blue dress sits in the gloom, her face an expressionless mask surrounded by lustrous black hair. The face is an artificial, impassive blank, giving nothing away. Is she a marionette or a masked child actor? Her arms and hands are furry and not quite human. Nor are her movements as she pads from light to dark, all alone in a filthy restaurant kitchen and in rooms hung with drapes decorated with a bamboo motif. A cockroach darts across the floor. Did I see maggots?

In close up, lively black pupils look through the eye-slits. She sits and peers about, toying with her hair, examining the hem of her dress, examining herself in a mirror. Is she afraid, bored, lonely? Somehow we project a fantasy of her feelings on the mask’s immobile planes. She could be an actor in a Noh play or a performer in a lost Greek tragedy, except there is no script and there are no directions, just a sense of loneliness and the approaching storm. She could be the last creature on earth.

Monkey magic … video still by Pierre Huyghe.

The “girl” is a macaque monkey who worked as a waitress in a real Tokyo restaurant, handing out towels and performing other simple duties for the amusement of the clientele. Now the restaurant has closed and she has no role to play, except to be this enigmatic presence. Real monkey, real restaurant, Huyghe’s fiction.

This beautifully paced 19-minute film is but one of several fascinating and disconcerting new works that make up the exhibition In. Border. Deep. This is the first UK show since the French artist’s 2006 Tate Modern retrospective, yet it feels somehow overdue.

In. Border. Deep is a strange show – even those full stops in the title give you pause. Huyghe’s art often catches you out. The garden he created in a huge park in Kassel at the last Documenta, with its live, wandering dogs and an entire manipulated ecosystem – including tadpoles, ant nests and an astonishing reclining nude sculpture with a living beehive for a head – was a marvellous place to linger in. More an interrupted dream or an unfinishable story, Huyghe’s Untilled was an uncertain place. For all the effort he put into it, it is difficult to describe as a work. I felt as unsure of my surroundings and how to be as that monkey left to its own devices in that restaurant.

Last winter, I visited Huyghe’s exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Parison three occasions, trying to grapple with its complexities. The crowds – the show was always packed – made looking almost impossible, and I kept hearing about various interventions, both human and canine, that I had missed. Everyone I spoke to almost seemed to have seen different exhibitions.

I arrived at Hauser & Wirth to find the artist sprinkling live spiders from a jar on to a large, headless stone figure originally commissioned in the 1930s for some official tableaux. Huyghe’s recast version, with its pools of water and patches of moss growing here and there, looks as if it had just been dragged in from years in the rain. Most disconcerting of all, the body is warm to the touch, as though it were alive.

Historical curiosity … an insect in amber, from a film by Pierre Huyghe.

Beyond the warm stone body stand three large aquaria, lit by orange overhead lamps. The lights go on and off. The aquarium glass is also switchable, sometimes letting us see in, at other times reducing visibility to a yellowish murk. Carp foraging on the bottom of one tank are hidden in a cloud of stirred-up silt. A water boatman oars by. And look – there’s an axolotl! The little Mexican amphibian, almost extinct in the wild and unique with its external gills like tiny branches, sits in a patch of weed. The light goes off again.

Lilies are growing in the tanks too. They have been taken by Huyghe from the artificial ponds dug by Claude Monet at his garden in Giverny, which provided Monet with the subject of the enormous cycle of Nymphéas paintings that occupied the last decades of his life. Still growing, still constantly changing, Monet’s meticulously planned water garden can be considered as much a part of his art as the paintings themselves. You could even say the paintings are as much a product of the garden as they are of Monet’s hand and eye and the trails of his brush. It is all of a piece, the real and the image, the garden and the paintings, the then and the now.

So it is with Huyghe, I think. Even the lights in these tanks are programmed to reproduce, in quick-time, the weather recorded at Giverny when Monet was painting the Nymphéas that now hang in theMusee de l’Orangerie. At the Pompidou, Huyghe left visible traces of the Mike Kelley installation that had occupied the galleries previously, and scraped through the paint on the walls to reveal previous colour schemes. On one gallery wall at Hauser & Wirth he has scraped through the white emulsion to reveal red. A prehistoric stone scraping tool sits on the floor beneath.

In a second film, a hi-tech motion-control camera focuses and refocuses on a glutinous mass of 30m-year-old amber, finding fragments of insects caught in the globs of fossilised sap, including what is apparently the oldest known example of copulating mosquitos, all to an amplified soundtrack of whirrs and jolts from the camera’s servos. Back in the tanks, live mosquito larvae dance among the fish and the lily roots, before emerging as adults to fly off in search of blood. Yours or mine would do. The cycle continues, whatever stories we might tell.

[Editor] 刘建兰

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