When Pierre Huyghe leaves you perplexed

Venice. Pierre Huyghe at Palazzo Grassi? It is, inevitably, an anticipated exhibition, more than ten years after its retrospective at the Center Pompidou (2013) and more than twenty-five after the poster “Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno” at the Art Museum modern de la Ville de Paris (1998), announcing the advent of a generation of French artists and, with it, a renewed conceptual approach, recognized internationally. In collaboration with Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, we remember, then purchased the rights to a Japanese cartoon character, Ann Lee, to lend it to other creators, a project opening up a reflection on the notions of intellectual property and virtual reality (No Ghost Just a Shell, 1999-2002). Linked to the theory of relational aesthetics (1995) developed by the art historian Nicolas Bourriaud, his work quickly evolved towards an exploration of the living, by interweaving biological and artificial elements: as at Documenta 13 in Cassel , where Pierre Huyghe topped the statue of a reclining female nude with a swarm of bees (Untilled, 2012). This living sculpture co-created with nature was also presented at MoMA in New York. Since then, the artist has mainly exhibited in unusual contexts, such as as part of the 2017 edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster during which he took over an old disused ice rink with a monumental installation including a biotope correlated with algorithms, the way of an autonomous ecosystem (After ALife Ahead2017).

So here is Pierre Huyghe back in a more conventional museum setting, at Punta della Dogana. It didn't happen naturally. The artist began by looking for a place, around Venice, likely to host a new project. The Pinault Collection teams accompanied him during prospective expeditions to different islands in the lagoon. This quest proving unsuccessful, it was necessary to resolve to occupy the building designed for this purpose. To finalize the course including existing works and specific productions, Huyghe collaborated with Anne Stenne, who was his workshop director for the last ten years. The exhibition curator is therefore perfectly familiar with the “speculative fiction” developed by the artist. Too much, perhaps? The spectator, for his part, is placed at the threshold of the exhibition in semi-darkness, as if he were entering a ritual space, where he immediately finds himself facing a giant screen separating the first room in two. Liminal (2024), which gives its title to the exhibition, appears as a video projection. We see a female character, her face obscured by a black ovoid shape and her chest exposed, moving in a lunar landscape. Behind the screen stands a brass mast supporting an environmental detection system, similar to a dish. This “sensory antenna” emits, according to the booklet, information in the form of signals which modify the gestures of the character on the screen. So we are not talking about a film, but about “real-time simulation”, although this simultaneous interactive dimension remains imperceptible to the visitor. Quite strikingly, however, the aesthetic of these images suggests, in its enigmatic plastic perfection, that of communication for a luxury brand; we could be watching an advertisement for a perfume.

A second video, Camata, is placed at the heart of the exhibition. Filmed in the Atacama Desert (Pierre Huyghe lives and works in Santiago, Chile), it focuses on a skeleton lying face down on which a few scraps of clothing remain clinging. Several years ago, a man died in this arid landscape, face down, a little sand between his fingers. “This skeleton has haunted Pierre Huyghe’s imagination since he discovered it. We carried out archaeological research to make sure he was not a political prisoner,” explains Anne Stenne. Odd ready-made while this specter of bones surrounded by a mechanical ballet of robots which frame it from all angles. Thanks to sensors present in the exhibition space, the film, we learn, is continuously self-edited. Without us understanding what this technical performance adds to the work.

Artificial intelligence

Pierre Huyghe seems fascinated by artificial intelligence. Among the other works gathered here, Offspring (2018) takes up an entire room. This lighting device, evoking the rails of stage spotlights, from which volutes of colored smoke escape, is permanently synchronized with data coming from outside. Here again, the meaning of this device escapes, as if the technological means deployed were inversely proportional to the production of meaning and emotions. The expected revelation eludes ordinary mortals (this is perhaps what the metaphor of the unburied skeleton suggests). With “Liminal”, affirms the mediation system, Pierre Huyghe intends “transform the Punta della Dogana into a dynamic and sensitive environment”. But what if the spectacular scenography did not trigger this fruitful interaction with the public? What if we had, while traveling through these spaces, the feeling of walking on the edge of emptiness, without this causing any vertigo other than that of great perplexity?

Other works complete this solo, notably Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), to date the artist's most shown and most famous video. Filmed in a restaurant near the Fukushima area, it features a monkey disguised as a young girl and wearing a theatrical mask. noh (animal already employed by the establishment before the disaster) and which wanders aimlessly in this disused setting. This film has retained its mystery and its poetry. Aquariums (including Zoodram 6 (2013) where a crustacean inhabits a reproduction of the Sleeping Muse by Brancusi, are also presented, offering the vision of abyssal miniatures – a vivid image device that has become a recurring motif in Huyghe's work. The immobile silhouettes of performers also mark the route, their faces covered with golden masks reminiscent of those worn by the musical duo Daft Punk (Idiom, 2024). Their outfits are designed by Matthieu Blazy, creative director of the Bottega Veneta brand, sponsor of the exhibition.

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