Review: Warm spots in Pierre Huyghe’s often chilly Conceptualism at LACMA

"Untitled (Liegender Frauenakt)" is among the pieces by Pierre Huyghe in the exhibition of the French Conceptual artist's work at LACMA.
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Los Angeles Times Art Critic

The traveling 20-year retrospective of French Conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe turns the Los Angeles County Museum of Art into a mammoth vivarium — a carefully orchestrated, walk-in terrarium-cum-aquarium. The exhibition creates a self-contained ecosystem of plants, sculptures, video projections and installation works, plus a variety of animals.

Those living creatures include bees, tiny invertebrates, a dog, crabs and other spiny sea creatures, puppets, a masked monkey and, yes, even museum visitors themselves. Nature and culture, art and science promiscuously intermingle.


LACMA review: In the Dec. 9 Calendar section, a review of the Pierre Huyghe retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art said that, according to LACMA, the ASPCA had approved the participation of a live dog in the exhibition. LACMA has since said that the SPCA Los Angeles, not the ASPCA, signed off on the dog’s role.
LACMA’s Jarrett Gregory organized the retrospective with curators from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, where it has already been seen. Huyghe (pronounced hweeg) reconfigured each exhibition according to the given situation, perhaps because one cannot step into the same river twice. So don’t expect a typical retrospective, where the evolution of an artist’s work unfolds in sequence.

Here a visitor wanders adrift, accumulating sensations that are fragments of the whole. Artistic ideas keep turning back in on themselves.


Surprising moments of wonderfully bewildering poetry do pop up, at once reflecting and illuminating our brave new transnational world in which technologically sophisticated, ecologically imperiled lives are now lived. Too often and too easily, however, these moments fall between the sprawling exhibition’s cracks.

The show features 51 works, which have been set free in vast, dimly lighted spaces. (Be sure to get the handout map at the entry.) Several are video projections, one set up like a puppet theater, which play intermittently. Many rooms seem empty until something gets turned on.

In one, a sort of Minimalist video game is suspended overhead like an enormous, inverted “Saturday Night Fever” dance floor. A grid of lighted squares crosses a Pong-like diversion that visitors control with joysticks and the kind of cheesy drop ceiling one might find in the basement of a suburban tract house. If only it were all less scrambled and more strange.

One of the most compelling episodes comes near the back of the Resnick Pavilion, just before an outdoor patio installation of overhead machinery producing steady cascades of rain, fog and snow — water in its liquid, gaseous and solid states. Titled “Precambrian Explosion,” the sculpture is a large aquarium.


The work refers to the billions of years between the Earth’s formation and the proliferation of hard-shelled sea creatures that we know from fossil remains. (Biblical literalists will be appalled.) A big chunk of lava rock is suspended inside a large, water-filled glass cube. Exotic sea creatures in shocking pastel hues explore the aquarium floor’s sandy terrain and crawl around on the boulder’s underside.

It takes a moment to realize that nothing appears to be holding up the massive rock, which protrudes above the water line to create a little landscape of unoccupied terra firma. Visually it floats, suspended within a magical fluid space and conjuring Magritte’s renowned 1959 painting “Castle of the Pyrenees,” a colossal chunk of rock that the Belgian Surrealist showed hovering over the sea.

Huyghe also takes to a new level sculptor Jeff Koons’ famous basketballs floating mysteriously within fish tanks, which date from the mid-1980s. (Born in 1962, Huyghe was then an art student in Paris, where he still lives and works.) “Precambrian Explosion” intimates an entire world inexplicably afloat in the history of geological time.

Fast-forward: On a wall nearby hangs a simple little black-and-white snapshot-collage of Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.


The globe of a distant Earth hangs behind and above the tiny lunar human, itself suspended in the inky blackness of outer space like the boulder in the adjacent aquarium. The collage is a study for a proposed film, but its poignant charm derives from its homemade humility.

In the show’s central room, a second aquarium collapses artistic time. Placed beneath the Atari video game overhead and titled “Nympheas Transplant,” it simulates the biological habitat of Monet’s famous water gardens at Giverny.

In the museum the liquid realm appears to be a murky, impenetrable stew until — suddenly and without warning — an internal light switches on momentarily. A tangle of submerged growth bursts into view. It’s like a fugitive flash of understanding in the face of a topsy-turvy Monet painting, one that has been clouded by overexposure to wildly popular Impressionist art.

Another bit of collapsed time turns up near the show’s entry — although it is easy to miss since a gentleman in a business suit stops arriving visitors to ask their names. He then publicly announces you, like a cotillion host or a herald at an 18th century court, the era when the idea of art museums was being born. (Feel free to decline his request, which is somewhere between self-consciously arch and flat-out corny.) Rubbed into the surface of a side wall is a small, target-like circle.


The colored rings expose layers of paint from past exhibitions in the room. The gesture reveals the museum as an exhibition space with a quasi-organic history, which participates in shaping meaning for whatever art is on view now. “Reveals,” however, might be too strong a word for so conventional an aim.

Huyghe’s Conceptual predecessors include artists such as the late Michael Asher, who recorded all the paintings ever deaccessioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and who rebuilt all at once every gallery configuration used for past shows at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Asher’s deaccession booklet is fascinating to read, and his exposed wall studs in Santa Monica created a maze worthy of a modern Minotaur. By comparison, Huyghe’s listless target feels superfluous.

A few years ago Huyghe rescued a sleek Ibizan hound, a relatively rare and elegant breed that makes a greyhound look plump and a Pharaoh dog seem commonplace. She has been featured in several of the artist’s installations, including this one.

Human, as Huyghe named her, is pure white with her right foreleg colored fuchsia, thanks to harmless vegetable dyes. She’s the Wild Kingdom’s exotic David Bowie.


Human was not in residence on the day I visited LACMA. (An attendant cares for the dog’s needs, including periodic exhibition breaks, and according to the museum the ASPCA has signed off on the terms of her participation.) Visitors are asked not to pet Human, whether she is lounging by a disco-lighted, dance-stage fog machine in one darkened room, snoozing on one of the fur throws tossed into various corners as plush doggy beds or loping through the gallery’s several loosely partitioned spaces.

The simple fact that this exotic animal is declared “human” is, of course, a central conceit of Huyghe’s larger aesthetic. It further manifests itself in “Human Mask,” a recent short film that opens on a drone camera’s soaring view of the devastated landscape of Fukushima, Japan, site of ongoing nuclear catastrophe. Then it shifts to a surprisingly docile monkey wearing a blank mask of a woman’s serenely unemotional face.

Meanwhile, back at those rain-fog-snow machines on the rear patio, the human-animal, art-science hybrid turns up once more in an odd mutant sculpture. Huyghe merged a cement cast of an early 20th century reclining female nude by a little-known Swiss sculptor with a buzzing beehive, which replaces her head. (A heating system hidden inside the sculpture warms the hive.) Here the static woman’s mask is composed of live animals.

An academic sculpture has been radically reconfigured into a dominant queen bee, an appropriate sovereign for our distraught and agitated era. Overall the retrospective feels as chilly and remote as a frozen tundra. But there are moments when Huyghe lights a conceptually warming fire.



Pierre Huyghe

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Through Feb 22. Closed Wednesdays.


Admission: $25.

Contact: (323) 857-6000,