On paper, "Pierre Huyghe" at the L.A. County Museum of Art might seem like just another retrospective: a gathering of video works, installations, photography, actions and conceptual pieces produced over the course of the 52-year-old French artist's career.
But that's about where the similarity to a traditional retrospective ends. For one, Huyghe's show isn't a chronological series of works. Instead, it's one big, mind-bending experience, tied together by angled, maze-like walls, myriad videos, spaces that throb with light and darkness and smoke, plus a hound that trots confidently through the galleries whenever she pleases.
It's like a theme park. Except that this is no manufactured happiness-by-Disney kind of world. It is ghostly and funny and apocalyptic and weird. At several points in the show, I felt as if Huyghe was allowing humans to return to the planet in the wake of our own demise. (For the record, the animals are perfectly happy to employ all of the detritus we've left behind.)
All of this gets at how to describe what Huyghe — one of the cool kids of conceptualism — is driving at in his work. If conceptual art is less an object than a thought experiment, then what is the idea that brings all of these disparate pieces together? Is it questions of environment? And how we relate to it? Manipulate it? Destroy it?
Huyghe likes to leave the exact interpretation open, says Jarrett Gregory, the LACMA curator who worked on the show.
"But I talk a lot about this as an autogenerative system," she says. "He sets up a set of constraints and then lets things evolve as they might."
That might mean putting a bunch of performers in a shuttered museum to see what they might do (Huyghe's 2010 film "The Host and the Cloud") or placing a group of animals in a tank ("Precambrian Explosion") or letting that dog saunter around a museum (a piece, ironically, titled "Human").
Certainly, Huyghe is not the sort of artist who likes to over-explain his work. The exhibition comes free of wall text, just a simple map with titles and credits. And the catalog isn't much help, containing foggy descriptions such as:
The public is exposed to its own form, a constellation constrained by the physicality of the exhibition space, made visible by its presence.
In other words: not always helpful.
"Don't look for wall labels, just get lost in it, become a part of it," curator Gregory says. "There is a synchronization to it ... I try to think of it as a body that has its own rhythms. Parts go on or off, pieces might be dormant ... People will see different things depending on when they go. Everyone has their own experience."
She's right. I didn't read any of the coverage, the press releases or the catalog before I set foot in the space and I'm glad for that. It heightened the show's unexpected moments.
That said, I'm curious and I'm a writer and I like to know how things were made and how ideas emerged. Which is why I think some sort of guide is in order. Plus, I heard a befuddled woman in the gallery plaintively asking a guard, "Is there anything written about this guy so we know what he's doing?"
Well, now there is. I've created my own unofficial, opinionated guide to many of the works on view at the Huyghe show. Each of the numbers listed here matches the numbers on the museum's exhibition map.
But unless you've already been through the Huyghe exhibition, my advice: Stop reading right now. Go see the show. Then come back and finish the piece so that you can have an understanding of where some of Huyghe's work came from and what it might mean. Or, if you're totally analog, you can print it out and take it with you and read over cocktails at Ray's. Whatever you do, save the reading for later. You will have a trippier experience for it.
Herewith, the officially unsanctioned High & Low guide to "Pierre Huyghe" at LACMA:
No. 2. "Á Part" from 1986-87
This video, made when Huyghe was in his twenties, is the earliest work in the show. The artist's father was a commercial airline pilot who got free plane tickets, so once Huyghe wrapped up his schooling, he took a world trip. The Super 8 film he made is a journal of his travels, which includes a visit to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. (Interestingly, this is the site of director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 psychosexual cult classic of the same name.)
Huyghe's vacation film anticipated his interests in a lot of ways, says Gregory: "You get to so many of the ways that he sees things. There is a curiosity for the world. There are monkeys, there are dogs, there are animals. It's a wonderful, unusual document."
Nos. 3 and 4: "Or" from 1995 and "Umwelt" from 2011
In these two works, you can see Huyghe getting totally conceptual about art history, specifically the history of minimalism. "Umwelt" consists of ants and spiders on a wall. In Gregory's words, these creatures, when they're out and about, bring to mind "the charting of a line." Likewise for "Or," a photo of a bifurcated road, which is all about pathways.
When I was at the museum, there was only one ant ambling around, and it was doing some zig-zaggy scuttling, which made the piece feel a little less about lines and more, 'Look ma, I'm playing with bugs.' (In case you're wondering, the insects live in a specially built habitat inside the wall.)
No. 10: "Zoodram 5," 2011
One of the more mordantly funny pieces in the show, it consists of a live marine ecosystem with a hermit crab rocking a copy of Constantin Brancusi's mask sculpture "Sleeping Muse" in lieu of a shell. A nod to art history, but perhaps also the future: After humanity is gone (or barely present), animals will find wondrous and practical ways of employing all of our artifacts.
Gregory says Huyghe thinks of his ecosystem tanks not as nature encased, but as microcosms of the world. "They're discreet animals put together who can coexist, but who don't necessarily get to co-exist," she says. "Here, they get to live together. And when you get to the crab with the mask, it becomes very theatrical."
No. 12: "The Host and the Cloud," 2010
This is a two-hour film that likely requires its own trip to the museum since it is long and involved and because it doesn't sport a traditional plot, which is why Antonioni's metaphoric "Zabriskie Point" might be instructive. (More on that here.)
"The Host and the Cloud" was recorded at a shuttered ethnographic museum in Paris over the course of a year. In it, performers stage a variety of scenarios, some of which are prompted, some of which are of their own making. It follows Huyghe's notion of creating a certain set of parameters and then simply letting the action unfold. The film includes dance, a trial, hypnosis, strange rituals and sexual acts. What these might symbolize is something the viewer has to decide for herself.
No. 20: "L’Écrivain public," 1995
This work takes a page from the world of performance: Huyghe invites a writer to chronicle what is happening in the galleries, then posts the pages on the wall for all to read. It has been a different writer for each iteration of the retrospective, which was also shown at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. For the L.A. version, arts writer Andrew Berardini was invited to chronicle the proceedings.
It is an ourobrous of looking: I'm-looking-at-you-looking-at-me-looking-at-you kind of piece. But it could have been a whole lot more interesting if Huyghe had gotten someone from outside the art world to do the writing: a scriptwriter, a ghostwriter, an immigrant kid from a community college in Torrance. For an artist who so frequently reaches outside the art world for his work, this piece feels very insular.
No. 22: "Nymphéas Transplant (14-18)," 2014.
In my mind, the most seductive tank in the show: "Nymphéas" took samples from impressionist painter Claude Monet's garden at Giverny and used these to build his own ecosystem. Over the course of a day, lights come on and off — alternately illuminating and obscuring the tank — in a pattern that replicates weather in France during the time that Monet was painting his water lilies (aka the "nymphéas" series).
The best moments are the reveals, when the tank looks like some sort of crazy primordial soup. It's in those moments where all of the wildlife (salamanders, fish and other aquatic creatures) come into dramatic view and you don't have a chance to think (too much) about what the carbon footprint of this extravagant show must be.
No. 23: "Atari Light," 1999
A ceiling-sized version of "Pong" that visitors can actually play. Who cares about meaning? I kicked righteous "Pong" butt this past Saturday.
No. 24: "Untitled (Human Mask)," 2014
A positively hypnotizing 19-minute film (not always on) that tracks the peregrinations of a monkey who brings hand-towels to clients at a Japanese restaurant while wearing a mask of a woman's face. The situation is real. The monkey does indeed work at a restaurant in Japan. But Huyghe manages to turn it into an unsettingly strange narrative: a human-ish creature playing with its hair, cleaning its cuticles, running in circles out of abject boredom. Start watching the film and you see a monkey; by the end you're watching a woman become unhinged.
"It's all based in reality," says Gregory. "But Pierre thinks about what that [reality] could be. He takes the potential of reality and turns it into something else. He talks about intensifying the present. That's what this is."
Nos. 31 and 48 "A Way in Untilled" and "Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)" from 2012
This video (No. 31) is part of one of Huyghe's most celebrated works, which began as an installation at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, two years ago. Huyghe chose to work around a compost heap at a park, to which he added his own elements: a statue of a reclining woman with a beehive over her head (No. 48; also on view at LACMA), various flora and fauna (from tadpoles to marijuana plants), as well as a white hound with one leg dyed pink.
Once again, the idea is to bring a lot of elements together and just let the action unfold — and that's what this beguilingly feral video documents: a location of decay that is given new life by the creatures around it.
Which brings me to...
"Human," 2012 (throughout the show)
Otherwise known as the dog with the pink leg that occasionally ambles through the museum's gallery. Huyghe isn't just interested in showing a post-human world. He's literally built it at the museum.
"She has a personality and a command of the space that makes her on par with an art work," says Gregory. "She feels like she’s stepped out of the video. That's the experience you have when you see her. And in a way, she's really the real audience for the show."
For the record: "Human" is an Ibizan hound (and yes, they're supposed to be skinny), she has a handler, and she enters and exits the show whenever she feels like it, which is why there is no set schedule for her appearances. (William Poundstone has a good blog post about her participation and her look.)
The sociable canine has been spotted hanging out with patrons at Ray's and Stark Bar at LACMA and partying with art types at République on La Brea. So rest assured she is well cared for. Way better than all the poor pit bulls currently holed up in Los Angeles shelters.
No. 45 "L’Expédition scintillante, Acte 3 (Black Ice Rink)"
Last, but not least, there's a rink of black ice. This was originally part of a three-part installation that Huyghe staged at the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, which chronicled the idea of a journey: smoke, ships, ice. (And literally, a ship made out of ice.)
As part of the retrospective, the piece has had a slightly different iteration in each locale. At the Pompidou Centre, it featured an ice skater. In Cologne, it was cracked. At LACMA, he nods to the Los Angeles' Pleistocene era.
"He added tar from the LACMA grounds," says Gregory. "Parts of it have started melting so it starts forming these pools that look almost like lava."
This is the part of the exhibition that links Huyghe's work in the galleries with the world outside. Enter the show and it is dim and constructed, a maze of installation. Travel to the rear of the show and the space begins to open up.
"It creates a tension between urban space and nature," says Gregory. "You have the videos and the Atari room and the plants and then, as you move through the exhibition, nature takes over."
Just beyond the wall, gazing impassively at the whole thing, is Michael Heizer's giant rock, reminding us that in the end, nature is bigger than us all.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.