Watch your step at the Artist's Institute—you might kill part of the show
“Spiders do not like living in galleries,” says curator Jenny Jaskey of the Artist’s Institute on New York’s Lower East Side. “They just don’t want to stay.”
Jaskey is referring to the group of nimble, brown cellar spiders crawling around the Institute’s intimate Eldridge Street basement space. She released batches of these spindly arachnids into the gallery three weeks ago as part of Pierre Huyghe’s current exhibition there, and many have since disappeared—venturing outside, burrowing out of sight, or getting stepped on at the show’s opening. But a few remain, slowly scaling the gallery’s matte-white walls.
The four-part show, or “exposure to witnesses,” as Huyghe calls it, examines the ways that spiders and other small organisms like flies and rats change, grow, and adapt over time. Inspired by chemistry, natural history, and evolution, the French artist’s scientific investigations have transformed the gallery into an experimental laboratory.
Huyghe’s meticulous program adheres to the distinct objectives of the Artist’s Institute, a non-profit organization established by Hunter College in 2010. Each year, the gallery mounts two six-month exhibitions of works by individual artists, which are supplemented by series of lectures and films, and aided curatorially by Hunter College graduate students. Past seasons at the Institute have been devoted to the work of Haim Steinbach, Lucy McKenzie, and Rosemarie Trockel, among others.
The aim of these long, but ever-changing shows is, as Jaskey says, “to give more time and attention to an artist’s work.” The gallery becomes an immersive space dedicated solely to the roots of the artist’s practice and process. This first installment of Huyghe’s show, titled “Il y a” (It is), reflects his fascination with physical processes like birth, death, and generation.
Jaskey reaffirms this on the second stop of our tour. After locating the spiders, she pointed out a large, metal grate hanging above the front desk. Two fluorescent, blue lights shine from within, resembling an indoor/outdoor space heater. It’s actually a fly zapper, she explains, by Mexican artist Fernando Ortega.
Every time an insect flies into the fly electrocutor device, the gallery’s lights are tripped, creating temporary darkness. The dead flies provide food for the spiders, and the darkness offers an opportunity to showcase Huyghe’s stunning, glow-in-the-dark creation Dress For Radium Dance.
The ensemble is inspired by a garment worn by dancer Loie Fuller on the occasion of a private performance she gave for her friend Marie Curie. Fuller, who often incorporated pyrotechnics and elaborate costumes into her routines, crafted a dress in Curie’s lab out of phosphorescent salts. Fuller performed for the chemist in the dazzling white dress to thank her for her help.
Jaskey modeled Huyghe’s radiant interpretation of Fuller’s dress during our visit. Playfully, she twirled in the darkened gallery, allowing the fabric cape—which was coated with a waxy, phosphorescent finish—to come to life. The dress gave off a light green glow that illuminated the space.
When electricity was restored, Jaskey discussed a private performance held at the Institute at the beginning of the month called Hatch. During the event, a fertilized, incubated buttonquail egg was placed in the center of the gallery just as it was about to hatch. The process of the egg cracking and the tiny baby bird emerging became a performance.
Finally, Jaskey revealed the last species invited to join Huyghe’s new ecosystem—brown rats. For Hole for Rat, a deep, narrow tunnel was dug through the Institute’s floor, creating a channel for rats to freely enter and leave. He also procured the rat sex-pheromone Squalene from a rat lab and applied it to various surfaces of the gallery. The scent of this colorless liquid, which is emitted from the clitoral gland of female rats, has also been known to attract cockroaches.
Jaskey reports that as of yet, the only outside creature to come through the gallery has been a mouse. But she’s ready and excited for whatever critters are to come.
“Pierre Huyghe” will be up through August 17 at the Artist’s Institute. A retrospective of his work is scheduled to open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in November.