Pierre Huyghe Calls You Out, Then Sets You Free

“Liz Luna!”

As you approach the threshold to “Pierre Huyghe,” a gallery guard-cum-town crier asks you for your full name. Name Announcer (2011), the first piece in the retrospective, then loudly proclaims your name into the exhibition’s vast, dim catacombs. Throughout the show, the faint echo of names become a subtle (occasionally cheeky) soundtrack for the theatrical and enigmatic exhibition.

“JoAnn Burciaga!”

Contemporary French artist Pierre Huyghe’s international retrospective is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the only U.S. venue for the show. Having traveled from Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, the LACMA presentation is organized by Jarrett Gregory. After working closely with Huyghe on the exhibition, Gregory called the artist “a generous and demanding collaborator” when we spoke recently about the show. Huyghe, whose work spans installation, film, and performance, has in the past referred to traditional art spaces as prohibitive, so it is perhaps no surprise that the retrospective, organized thematically rather than chronologically, feels nothing like your traditional museum show.

“Beth and Paul Davidson!” 

The galleries of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion are completely transformed by acute and obtuse angles, walls that seems to lean in and stretch away, creating cave-like shapes that obscure some pieces installed within the space and illuminate others. The varied works and the architecture of the galleries create a certain score of oppositions, filled with moments of crescendo and diminuendo, light and shadow, comedy and seriousness. Near the entrance of the exhibition, Zoodram 5 (2011), a live marine ecosystem (in which, if you observe for a moment, you might see the miniature resin replica of Brancusi’s 1910 Sleeping Muse being unwittingly “worn” by a live crab) echos the oil painting De Hory Modigliani (2007), situated in a dark corner and overshadowed by the glow of The Host and the Cloud (2010), a film that overcomes the gallery wall and draws the focus of many visitors.  

  • Installation photo, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

    Installation photo, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

  • Installation photo, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

    Installation photo, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

“Tanya Paz!”

A few yards away is one of the hallmarks of the exhibition. Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), one of a handful of new works joining the LACMA presentation, is projected large on the main gallery wall. The disquieting film shows a monkey masked as a young woman waiting tables, or as Huyghe has described, “she is trapped within her role, forced to enact the human condition.” In front of the film sits another aquarium structure, Nymphéas Transplant (2014). Walk by too fast and you miss the magic: this live marine ecosystem is lit from within, and the light changes at various intervals, making the walls suddenly opaque. All you can see is the murky glow of chartreuse water—certainly none of Monet’s water lilies (alluded to in the title) can be found! Then, the scene is illuminated as a strange world of prehistoric-looking creatures and plant life drift together behind the momentarily translucent glass. As Gregory pointed out, here we find “wildlife from around the world that wouldn’t normally cohabitate—[with Huyghe] there’s always a twist…”

“Mr. and…Mr. Winston Churchill!”

Two of the most easily missed pieces in the exhibition are placed within its only fully enclosed space, the only real “dead-end” in a show that otherwise allows visitors to roam unobstructed. Behind a thick velvet curtain, A Journey That Wasn’t (2005) depicts chilly scenes of whales and penguins, and the glacial, icy waters of Antarctica, before transporting the viewer to Central Park, mid-orchestra performance—an effect that Gregory describes as turning landscape into musical score. Those who wait till the end of the film get to enjoy L’Expédition scintillante, Acte 2 (Light Box) (2002), which sits unnoticed in the darkness throughout the nearly 22-minute film, until it’s activated. 

“Nathan Levine!”

After meandering through dim galleries for some time, the real delight of the retrospective comes at the northernmost side of the pavilion—a special moment in which, eyes quickly dilating, you suddenly remember you’re at LACMA as the bright Los Angeles sun shines through big glass windows and you catch a slice of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (2012) rising into the blue sky. Just outside the glass gallery doors are two striking pieces: L’Expédition scintillante, Acte 1 (weather score) (2002) drops faux snow and rain from the ceiling, collecting in a mound on the floor and melting in the mild California winter; beside it is the evocative sculpture Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) (2012), a female nude with a swarm of live bees encasing the head, the hum of the bees gently competing with that of the device manufacturing precipitation. 

Back inside the sunlit gallery, the anti-gravity evoked in Heizer’s installation is mirrored in Precambrian Explosion (2014) (another piece making its debut at LACMA), which features a large, roughly textured rock floating, but not without weight, in an aquarium tank. Below, tiny marine life forms crawl, and light from the room creates vibrant prismatic rainbows recalling a Los Angeles sunset. Speaking about the relationship between the retrospective and the west coast context provided by this iteration, Gregory explained, “the exhibition adapts very easily; the works can be porous, so once installed they immediately communicate with the context of Los Angeles—most especially with the city’s tension between urban and natural environments.”  

  • Installation photo, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

    Installation photo, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Filled with refreshing surprises, “Pierre Huyghe” is not an exhibition that comes easily. It is a show that rewards careful looking, the ability and willingness to wander and explore, to pause, absorb, and let the experience unfold.

Pierre Huyghe” is on view at LACMA, Los Angeles, Nov. 23, 2014–Feb.22, 2015. 

Explore LACMA on Artsy.

Installation photos, Pierre Huyghe at LACMA (11/23/14 - 2/2/15). © Pierre Huyghe. Photos © Museum Associates/LACMA