Pierre Huyghe’s “In. Border. Deep”

Jeremy Millar

October 21, 2014
Hauser & Wirth, London
September 13–November 1, 2014

Amber is a form of slow catastrophe, a long compression. A transformation, then, of the resin which once flowed thickly down branch and trunk before these extremities were replaced by those of heat and pressure found deep within chthonic sedimentation. A “beaming sun” (elektron) caught underground, amber’s classical name was “electrum,” and it was said to have formed from the tears of Phaeton’s grieving sisters after they had themselves been transformed into poplars. Their father was the sun.

The sun, its aurorae, planets, seem to drift through a gaseous space in the film De-extinction (2014), although these supposed objects—these points of light—are little more than an absence in that which surrounds them, bubbles of air caught in amber. Caught, too, are strands of… what, exactly? Of the formerly alive, and particles of dust, too, formerly of the living. Most particular are the two insects caught at their most vital, at the point of copulation, and if reproduction might be considered merely a form of genetic persistence then this, here, is both arrested and enabled by their gem-like enveloping. Their genes persist, as they themselves do, in one form or another.

“In one form or another” might indeed be considered an emblem of Huyghe’s art of metamorphosis, and the paintings of Claude Monet similarly: as attending to constant change, or rather, change’s inconstancy. Monet’s greatest such series was the “Nymphéas” paintings, of the water lilies floating upon his specially constructed ponds at Giverny. Huyghe has taken water, fauna, and, of course, lilies from these ponds and placed them in three aquaria, each standing upon a plinth, a light hanging above each, and while we peer into their murkiness, the glass momentarily thickens into opacity, and our sight is stalled. The sequence of the electrically-charged clouding-over of each tank is different, although these, and the brightening and dimming of each light, refer to the weather conditions recorded in Giverny over the period between 1914 and 1918, and are here accelerated: the shortest day of 1914; the autumn of 1917; and the entire four-year period. Day and night pass more quickly even than scuttling spring clouds, and faster than Monet could have sketched his impressions of their effects. Yet while the snails within move at their same pace, the swiftness of the represented period around them seems to slow them still further, almost to still them.

Stilled, too, is the sculpture of a woman, reclining, cast from concrete and cast across what seems like the sea floor. Strings of pearls loop her headless neck, and yet she seems alive, a warmth emanating from her mottled grey form, a warmth which our touch confirms (albeit with a reticence, this being art, her being naked). The sculpture is a copy of part of a monument created in 1931, and its classical overtones suggests an Ovidian transformation, that of Niobe, perhaps, turned to stone in punishment for her hubris (her children killed also). There is little sense of punishment here, though, no moral to be determined, but rather simply a demonstration of the imbroglio of life, and its shadow cast upon a body cast of stone. How much less alive is she than us? Looking at the moss which now cloaks her crevices and grooves, I am reminded of the bacteria—six different types?—which process the raw fat exuded from the crook of our elbows. Our bodies are, largely, the genomes of other living things—bacteria, fungi, protists—and it is through them, perhaps even for them, that we are alive.

What is it to be human? This is the question which opens the film Human Mask (2014), and which remains open throughout it. A camera makes a glitchy, machinic drift through a devastated Japanese landscape; beneath a watery, griseous light, wooden buildings have been shifted, shunted, and now slant across roads; along the side of one is painted, repeatedly, the kanji script for “people,” although whether this is a sign of their living there, or that it is the resting place of bodies awaiting retrieval, one cannot be sure. There is someone, something, living here, though: a small girl, it seems, sitting at a restaurant counter, her navy-blue dress trimmed in white, her long black hair covering a pale, impassive face. It is a mask, we realize, the face of another, but memories of Teshigahara’s film, and of Noh theater, are caught by the heavy padding of feet, the—no—the hair upon the arms…

The monkey opens the fridge, removes a wrapped, rolled towel, and brings it to the table, although no one is there. A reflex. She—she?—waits, pulls a strand of hair in front of her face and fingers it with the disinterest of a teenager. Another towel, then to the microwave; picking at her fingernails; sitting on a bentwood chair; playing with her hair once more. A Maneki-neko cat beckons from a counter near the till, the ghost of Chris Marker waving, and a real cat sits upon the tatami nearby, sensed, but calm; the monkey’s leg swings broadly, boredly, in time with the motorized paw. The monkey spins, falls, a tap’s drips drop onto a plastic container, the maggots inside pulse, an Insect-O-Cutor flashes into life with death, while flies are caught in fat as if it were…

Through the mask, through the gloaming, we glimpse the blackest of eyes, eyes which gaze upon life, and its slow catastrophe.

Nature & Ecology, Film, Sculpture
Human - Nonhuman Relations

Jeremy Millar is an artist and senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, London, where is is Acting Head of the Writing Programme.

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October 21, 2014

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