Pierre Huyghe at Centre Pompidou
If you walk to the Centre Pompidou in Paris from the direction of the Seine, you will most likely end up in a little public square that stretches between the Beaubourg and the church of Saint-Merri: Place Igor Stravinsky. Here, in a shallow basin measuring 580 square meters, sixteen sculptures made in 1983 by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle entertain onlookers with their entirely whimsical demeanor, surfing along and spraying water at each other. The bright colors of the kinetic statues, the joy and lightheartedness of their movements, make the whole composition look like a sculptural spin-off of Disney’s Fantasia. But it wouldn’t have seemed so remarkably flawless had the administrators followed the original instructions left by Tinguely, who never wanted the water in the basin to be treated, as he preferred that moss eventually be allowed to grow (this did not happen, and the sculptures today looks almost identical to when they were unveiled exactly 30 years ago). This little anecdote may bear some connection with the concerns and interests of another artist – Pierre Huyghe – who as we write, is installing his first major retrospective just a few meters away from that fountain, in the South Gallery of the Pompidou.
The exhibition, which is to run in Paris until January 2014 and will later travel to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne and LACMA in Los Angeles, features about 50 of his projects, spanning some two decades of his career, and eloquently demonstrates the artist’s recent obsession with “live situations.” Huyghe would probably have loved to see the moss grow on those sculptures, to witness the impermanent epiphany of a living environment slowly invading the “space of representation,” in a similar fashion to what the French artist did with “A Forest of Lines” in 2008 (when he overrun the Sydney Opera House with hundreds of trees, transforming the concert hall floor into a forest for 24 hours). Somewhat akin to what happened in Sydney, Huyghe has transformed the Pompidou in a world unto itself, not orchestrated, but living at its own rhythms. The Paris show, curated by Emma Lavigne with the assistance of Florencia Chernajovsky, is a jungle of objects, spaces, and narratives that change, evolve or even decompose according to the pace of organic life, emphasizing once more the “living dimension” of the artist’s most recent ventures. Take, for example, his project for dOCUMENTA (13) last year, and the controlled wilderness he recreated behind the bushes at the end of the Karlsaue Park.
Speaking about that work, the artist said: “There is repetition, chemical reaction, reproduction, formation, and vitality; but the existence of a system is uncertain.” In other words, most of the action takes place with limited, if any, control by the artist. Growing moss is welcomed here, even encouraged. And as a matter of fact, the Paris show is itself basically “growing” on another representation – the rails and remains of the Mike Kelley exhibition that was in the gallery immediately before Huyghe’s retrospective. This self-generating world is conceived to vary in time and space, almost indifferent to human presence, past and present; and the unregulated nature of such an experiment is meant to generate unfixed narratives and “breathing” monuments (actually, it all operates as the opposite of a monument, since the works, rather than representing a firm statement, are subject to continuous shifts between different resolutions, releasing and receiving in a state of permanent osmosis). Huyghe is more interested in transitions than conclusions; he ’s looking at the stops along the railroad rather than the final destination, inquiring into the dynamic chain of events rather then the epilogue. And some of these events are so temporal that they literally fade or melt away over time, like the ship made out of ice that the artist placed in the Kunsthaus Bregenz as part of his “L’Expedition Scintillante: A Musical,” in 2002. The viewer can predict the eventual doom of what he’s looking at, but this fate is not centered on the human element in the room (“Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do,” as Bowie would have said).
The slow erosion of the image plane is somewhat inevitable; the flaws of biological reality are disclosed, and Huyghe’s finger is pointing right at the minuscule imperfections of these “live situations,” at the moss that tries but fails to grow on Tinguely’s sculptures. The treated water of the fountain in Place Stravinsky marks the exact border between the vital aspect of things and the orchestrated, even spurious narratives of Disney fairytales. And it is no coincidence that one of the most iconic works on show at the Pompidou is the 1997 video Blanche Neige Lucie, where the artist filmed the woman who was the voice of Snow White in the original French version of the Disney movie. Alleging that her voice was “stolen”, the woman in the video claims to have sued the studio over the rights to her interpretation of the part. As the interview goes on, the aura of candor and purity of the cartoon slowly evaporates and the “living dimension” surfaces. And somehow you’re stuck with a voice in your head that seems to whisper, “let the moss grow.”