Pierre Huyghe Explains His Buzzy Documenta 13 Installation and Why His Work Is Not Performance Art

Pierre Huyghe Explains His Buzzy Documenta 13 Installation and Why His Work Is Not Performance Art
Pierre Huyghe, "Untilled," at dOCUMENTA 13

In the words of his friend, Rirkrit Tiravanija, French artist Pierre Huyghe “has a talent for creating a cultural confrontation out of the most unexpected elements.” These often happen in unlikely locations.

For over a decade, Huyghe has consistently worked outside of museum and gallery structures. In 2005 his work was found on Central Park’s Wollman skating rink, in a musical performance inspired by a trip to Antarctica. In 2008, it was found “literally growing” in the Sydney Opera House for a 24-hour period, when he transformed the concert hall into a fog-filled arboretum. In 2010, Huyghe even took over gardening duties at Madrid’s Crystal Palace for the Reina Sofia, planting a calendar’s worth of flora representing different seasons and holidays throughout the year and then letting them battle for ground rights. That same year, Huyghe presented the amorphous and surprising work, "The Host in the Clouds," a year-long performative work held at the closed site of the former Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. Working within the shuttered institution allowed Hughye the freedom that can only be borne of certain restraints, and piqued his interest to go even further afield.

As an exhibiting artist at this year's dOCUMENTA 13 — as well as a juror for the Kassel exhibition, and faculty at Banff Center for the Art’s associated residency, The Retreat — Huyghe has remarked that his most recent interests have little to do with the institution, less to do with performance, and everything to do with “presence.” “Untilled” (2011-12), Huyghe’s dOCUMENTA 13 project, is installed around a park's compost heap, although the installation's unfurling growth and insidious expansion — which includes a painted dog, a beehive-headed sculpture, poisonous fruits, and marijuana, among other natural resources — seems more predicated on the loss of artistic control.

ARTINFO Canada sat down with the artist in Banff to discuss this latest project and its implications for the art object. Touching on the work of Tino Sehgal, Jerome Bel, and the four walls of the Museum of Modern Art, the expansive Hugyhe had a lot to say.

This is your first time in Banff; how are you responding to it, and has being here changed your perception of your dOCUMENTA project?

I find it interesting that Carolyn [Christov-Bakargiev, Artistic Director] decided to initiate another stage of the dOCUMENTA exhibition, and it's particularly interesting that it should happen in North America. We are here in this remote place trying to make sense — or not — with all these thoughts. I don't know if I know Banff better now, but I like this kind of configuration, with no need for an outside resolution, no pressure, only altitude. With a suspension of resolution, we are not in the expectation of an outcome. And with this expectation removed, it's a place where exchanges are not there to be quantified. It's another modality of the exhibition. 

Has the mix of participants in this residency been a productive one?

Yes, I was just thinking about this today. We are not here in the expectation of an outcome. With this expectation removed, it's a place where we can really exchange, freely. This doesn't usually occur during exhibitions, this time given to exchange without immediate efficiency. It’s partly why this moment in Banff works. Constructive ideas appear out of a utilitarian function, and that usually only happens with close friends; it's a configuration that doesn't happen often.

What is your perception of dOCUMENTA in the bigger sense? It's still a fairly ambiguous project.

The city was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and dOCUMENTA started in a place of trauma. The first exhibition appeared with the reconstruction of Europe and as a way of re-thinking the relation between man and his surroundings. This dOCUMENTA didn’t put man, ideology, and his discourses in the center. It took a non-anthropocentric approach, and reflected also on other entities and things, on matter.

So it seems fitting that you produced the project you did, this year. Was the project suited to this environment in particular?

I would not say that. “Untilled” wasn’t done for dOCUMENTA. I was moving around these ideas anyway, but the frame of dOCUMENTA allowed it to occur. I understand why some issues could seem tailored to it, and why you ask the question, though.

I’m always trying to understand the context and condition under which something can appear. I'm not expressing or illustrating any of the issues; that would be highly boring for me! The idea of “Untilled” was recent and came nearly by accident.

Can you explain how it was nearly an accident?

I was searching for a place related to a previous idea, and found the compost of the Baroque park by accident. It was literally a moment in which I could have gone left, but turned right.

The compost gave the structure and a construction process, for me. It’s a place where things are dropped, things which are dead or considered useless. The compost becomes a place where things are left without culture, where they become indifferent to us, metabolizing, allowing the emergence of new forms. These elements and artifacts are markers, found in history; they are also things you usually find in a park: a bench, a statue, an animal, a human.

I'm interested in the vitality of the image, in the way an idea, an artifact, leaks into a biological or mineral reality. It is a set of topological operations. It is not displayed for a public, but for a raw witness exposed to these operations.

Where does that leave the art object? How are you regarding it in your work, right now?

That’s difficult to answer. I’m interested in the things or operations in themselves, in the contingency, in the creation of form that would not be exhausted by a sedimentation of discourses.

What do you think about Tino Sehgal, whose work has been received both skeptically and ecstatically? I was made to think of him in association with your 2010 piece, “The Host and the Cloud.” There's a performative and transient object at the center of that piece, though not to the extreme that Sehgal has taken things, where he wants no remaining document or artifact from the piece, not even a wall text. You mentioned at your recent talk that someone queried, isn't the fungus that develops from your compost also 'your work'? I'd be curious to know what you think of Sehgal’s practice, and how you're regarding the object or your own practice, at this point.

Tino is coming from another field — the same as Jerome Bel — and there's an importance to intensify the presence in that work; as I say, “the present, the presence, the presentation.” In Tino, making sure there's no recording, no trace, is important so that the trace never threatens to substitute the actual. 

Having humans as the material of the work could be celebrated, or, as you say, criticized as a product of labor. Tino tries to free the object and himself from the duration, the space, and allows the interaction that theater is attached to. Above that, I think it’s a question of intensifying the present. But yes, I have looked at the work of Tino very closely, and he's a close friend, as is Jerome. And yes, I have my reservations. In my case, the word, “performance” is what I have a hard time with.

Why is that?

I'm not into performance, I'm into love, war! There's a pornographic side of performance and the history of the hysteric subject that I not interested in. The exhibition of yourself and the moment allotted to this exhibition means there’s a time-based protocol at its root. Like, “at 8pm I'm going to expose myself. It will go for two hours and then it will end.” I’m instead interested in a set of operations that do not need to be learned and played, and yet are still not improvised.

If I work now with animals, sexuality, using drugs, or hypnosis, I am essentially interested in something that is not play, something that is in itself. I'm trying not to define the relation between the subjects but only to set the early conditions for potential porosity. “The Host and the Cloud,” is a set of influences, an auto-generating system, a porosity of situations. In “Untilled,” this work in dOCUMENTA, the elements were even more uncontrollable: natural growth, sexuality, animals, plants, chemical reactions: things that exist within a contingency. I’m a witness of these accidents, the fungus being one.

You've mentioned wanting to stay away from museums and galleries, and you have done very well to explore the possibilities within environments that aren't hemmed in by four walls. But I'm wondering what are the constraints that you're now finding in these uniquely expansive environments? What's the new limit?

It's an interesting question, because the expansive environments can also start to feel like a kind of construction... That's why I was paradoxically so interested in finding a closed museum, the museum of the French traditional culture, as a new landscape in which to test the exhibition format. I try to find different formats of exhibition, context, and conditions of appearance, and shift from exhibiting something to being exposed to something. So to stay away from scripted displays and let the exhibition be in itself is very important to me.

A museum like the MOMA, it crushes the work of a lot of artists — I mean, a lot of my friends whose work I've seen at the MOMA (as an example of "the museum"), the work totally died under the protocol of the museum. And it's not a bad museum! 

Is there a limit elsewhere? Yes, there probably is. But it's not a question of venue, or a space-time paradigm that needs to be changed. A conference can be an exhibition, yes, but at the end, if it would only be a question of changing the venue, the time, the modality. It would be a new formalism.

Intensifying the presence, finding its own presentation, its own appearance, its own vitality rather than being submitted to pre-existing models — this is my interest. The exhibition is in itself, in constant change and process, indifferent to us, a creation, the invention of reality, rather than an “exhibition.”

This article also appears on ARTINFO Canada.