Artists Interview Features France

Pierre Huyghe creates a buzz in Paris

The French artist’s first major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou features bees, spiders and a dog.

Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe’s mysterious biotope Untilled, 2011-12, was a major highlight of Documenta XIII last year. Rich with poisonous plants and guarded by a ghostly gardener and his dog, the work drew crowds to Kassel’s Karlsaue Park, where it was built around a compost heap. The seemingly haphazard installation was meticulously designed, right down to the types of ants and bees. But it is the unpredictable nature of such environments that is really at the heart of the work and, indeed, his art in general.

Huyghe began his artistic career by exploring the properties of film, reconstructing Hollywood movies such as “Dog Day Afternoon” and creating his own videos, such as those featuring Annlee, having bought the rights to the Manga figure with fellow French artist Philippe Parreno in 1999 (“No Ghost Just a Shell”, 1999-2003). Huyghe was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2001 Venice Biennale and the Hugo Boss Prize the following year.

More recently, his practice has been marked by a growing suspicion of traditional exhibition venues, with Huyghe instead opting to display his work in places such as an ice rink in New York’s Central Park, an empty museum in Paris and the Crystal Palace at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. The Centre Pompidou, however, has managed to lure the artist back to his home city of Paris and into a museum for his first major retrospective (“Pierre Huyghe”, 25 September-6 January 2014). Around 50 works, including the central sculpture from Untilled (a reclining figure with a beehive for a head, and its accompanying dog), will occupy—buzzing, barking and crawling—the inside and outside of the museum. The exhibition is due to travel to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (11 April-13 July 2014) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (23 November 2014-8 March 2015).

The Art Newspaper: What will be on show at the Pompidou? Did you choose the works?

Pierre Huyghe: Yes—I selected the works with the curator [Emma Lavigne]. I don’t want to show “the best of” my career; I don’t like those kind of shows. I’m looking back at what I’ve done and selecting the pieces that could act as tools for the works I will make next. The focus of the show is on more recent pieces, which I think is quite a natural choice. Some works that have been deemed important will not be on show because I might have moved on from there. I’m also trying to bring to the surface some more fragile work or pieces that weren’t exhibited well in the past. I want to show them in such a way that they can trigger something in each other. I want to make the works porous so that they can corrupt one another. This could be through sound, light, something biological, the movement of an animal… it’s undetermined, uncontrollable.

A major thread in your work is the idea of “intensifying the vitality of a given body”. What do you mean by that?

Vitality means the intensity of being alive. I’m interested in how to quantify the different variations of being alive… how to intensify the presence of things. I look at how things change, are transformed, or metabolise. The word might not be perfectly appropriate and I might change it. But I am trying to find a word to say “something that is alive”. I mean the intensity of life within one entity. The project I did for Documenta XIII is a good example of this. The starting point was the living entity: the ants, the dogs, the flowers or the human. What I’m trying to do is play with natural behaviour, animal or human. I know that an animal will react in a certain way. Then I can play with this behaviour and I have something like a script; a natural script. That’s what I’ve been trying to do recently. I want to see a transformation. Even death is a transformation. It is the end for one entity, but it means food and minerals for something else. This never stops.

You have said that staging exhibitions in museums and galleries makes you uncomfortable. Why?

It’s the constraint. Exhibitions revolve more and more around the need to address a target public. A museum’s education department needs visitors to understand, otherwise they won’t be happy and won’t come back. There’s a constraint because the visiting public is diverse, so you need to find a common ground, an average. The work has to be able to speak to a farmer and a philosopher. It’s like TV; you have to lower the level. But I can’t lower the level because I’m not in an industry that sells T-shirts. I feel that museums and art have slid that way a bit, and for me, it’s a problem because it limits the ease with which I do things. I believe in museums, however. I believe in specialisation. If you have cancer, you don’t see a random doctor but an oncologist. I admire people who specialise in one thing, who are in love with something. In that respect, I think museums do good work—I just don’t think that some of what I do can be presented in a museum without being compromised. And then it becomes my responsibility to find a place for [my works] to exist.

Biennials in general are more subtle, but even they close at night, and when I want to do something at 4am, it becomes difficult. Whether it’s the museum, the gallery or the biennial, you have to go to a certain place at a certain time. I don’t want to do something for someone; I just want to do it. The context at the Pompidou is defined—it’s not the place to do an experiment, but that doesn’t mean I can’t play within the rules or the protocol given by the museums. A few years ago, I would have broken the rules of the museum, but I don’t do that any more; very often, that’s just a gimmick. Artists do those kind of tricks because they think they’re smarter than the museum. That’s not to say that I will just install my piece and go outside and smoke a cigarette. Of course I will do the best possible exhibition I can, but I am trying to construct something that will deal with some form of intensity and will allow for the corruption of the works throughout the show. My work nowadays is going in the direction of what I did for Documenta: throwing things onto a compost heap. But [at the Pompidou] it’s not about a park’s history—it’s about these works of mine and how they can change each other. I like the zone of uncertainty, when the totality is unclear.

Animals—hermit crabs, spiders, dogs, penguins—play a big part in your work. What is the significance of this “zoo”?

To a certain extent, I have always used animals in my work. This might have increased in recent years and become more overt. But even in my 20s, I did a show with a lot of animals. I think a major turning point, however, was my show at the National Museum of Art and Popular Traditions in Paris [2009-10]. I became fascinated by the work in progress. I realised that what I was more and more attracted to was the aspect that was undetermined. You frame a rule, set the conditions, but you cannot define how a given entity will interact with another. I can never fully determine what animals will do; it’s certainly not my aim to have one animal eat another, although that can happen. What I show is a set of elements and the way they collide, confront and agree with each other. In a certain way, I construct a play. I don’t want to exhibit something to someone any more. I want to do the reverse: I want to exhibit someone to something. It’s random… I don’t even know what will happen most of the time.

Some of the works in the Pompidou show go beyond the exhibition space and are shown outside the museum. Why?

This was more of a practical decision, as there was a space problem [in that] there just wasn’t enough [of it]. I’m also recycling the previous Mike Kelley exhibition [which closed in August]. We’re not building any new walls, just leaving the ones that are there. This is not meant as a homage to Kelley—we just decided to make use of the available material. I’m only building one wall, outside the museum, where I’m going to create an extension. At the end of the day, if I need the space, I will ask for it.

You have said that an exhibition is a starting point rather than an end point. If this is the case, where do you think this show will take you?

The exhibition will travel first to Germany and then to Los Angeles. I don’t know the details of the German show yet, but the one in LA will use residential houses in Hollywood as venues. This will be the first extension of the work. An exhibition is a process for me, a moment. I have a hard time thinking of the exhibition as a product. There’s always a before and an after, a leak… the work changes, or it can be reconfigured. The relationship with history is not fixed: it has to be renegotiated or changed. There’s always an ancestor that I can go back [to] and shift. Maybe in the future I will buy some land so I can permanently display and experiment with my work.

Pierre Huyghe, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 25 September-6 January 2014


Around 50 works, including the central sculpture from Untilled (a reclining figure with a beehive for a head, and its accompanying dog), will occupy the Pompidou
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