About three years ago, discussing what he planned next for his practice, Pierre Huyghe told me that he was on the hunt for a place “to grow the work to the condition I want it to grow,” perhaps a stretch of land or an old building, somewhere maybe a bit off the beaten path. “The museum is a place of separation, in a certain way, and I need a place of continuity,” he said. “That’s why I need that site—whatever that site is.”
While touring possible locations for his contribution to the 2017 Skuptur Projekte in Münster, Germany, late last year, the 54-year-old French artist found one such site, a sprawling, old ice-skating rink, no longer in use, tucked behind a Burger King on the edge of town. “This place will be destroyed, so I could actually act on it as I wanted,” he said, recalling what attracted him to the space in a Skype call from Brooklyn last week.
Huyghe has transformed that abandoned rink into one of the most formidable and mysterious artworks that I have ever seen, an alien environment that seems secretly to teem with life and that operates according to its own furtive schedule. The concrete floor of the rink has been sliced apart and the ground dug up so that visitors can descend along clay pathways that are interrupted by pools of water harboring algae. Just when you begin to get your bearings, a buzzing sound emanates from up above and sleek panels glide open from the otherwise decrepit ceiling, exposing the room to the elements. When I visited on the opening day of the exhibition earlier this month it was raining and water fell quietly into the hulking hall, wetting the paths and trickling into the pools.
At the center of the space, up on a cement platform, is an aquarium with glass that can shift from clear to black. It contains a venomous sea snail, a conus textile, which sports a shell with an intricate pattern that is an example of cellular automata. That organism is tiny, but it plays a key role in the exhibition. “We scanned the shell, which is made out of small or larger kind of triangle shapes, and that became the score that either opens or switches off the glass,” Huyghe said. That pattern also generates sound and, “as the glass switches on or off, it triggers the opening or closing of the pyramids that are on the ceiling.”
There are other systems humming away in the piece, though they are even more elusive. An incubator holds cancer cells whose rate of growth is determined by various measurements that sensors are taking of the space, which is also home to chimera peacocks and bees (though I have to admit that I saw neither during my visit). As the cancer cells change, they guide the behavior of black shapes that appear in an augmented reality app that visitors can download onto their phones. “What you have there is really a network of self-organizing systems,” Huyghe said. “They are in constant displacement. They grow, they evolve, they shift. There’s no master-slave in that regard. They shift constantly.”
Titled After ALife Ahead (2017), it is an artwork that is slowly spiraling into something else, moving away from its creator, and only giving off little glimpses of its operations as it evolves. Through October 1, when Skulptur Projekte closes, rain will keep flowing in, the algae will still grow, and the landscape will continue to change. There’s no telling what it will look like at the end. “I’m interested in letting, in a certain way, self-organizing systems try either to find or to not find a symbiosis,” Huyghe said. “I try my best not to intervene within it.”
At its most piquant moments, Huyghe’s work thrives on the friction that results from the interaction of planned systems and the aleatoric actions that can occur within them once they are allowed to function. He talks about making work that is “indifferent to the public.” His work sidelines you, making you feel you are just one component of a much larger, perhaps unknowable, constellation of people and things and forces—which, of course, you are. It is a disorienting, even sublime world, and strange things are afoot there.
Though the rough-and-tumble ground in the rink looks at a glance like a wild, unplanned dig, it was carefully orchestrated by Huyghe. “I didn’t want simply to blow up—or to destroy—the floor,” he said. “I wanted to find another way to approach that digging, neither construction site nor simple archaeological hole.” Inspired in part by a retro-futuristic grid on the rink’s ceiling, he took the Stomachion logic puzzle invented by Archimedes, which involves cutting up a square into a tangram, and overlaid it onto the floor to create a new grid. “So then a person with this giant blade would cut the concrete exactly according to the system of that thought,” he said.
This was not, to sure, an inexpensive endeavor. Speaking about the ambition of the project recently, Kasper König, Skulptur Projekte’s artistic director, quipped that its cost may have exceeded €1 million, but Huyghe said that was not quite the case. “I love when numbers blow up,” he said good-naturedly. “The project was less than that. But it was quite a big number. It was maybe around €700,000 or €800,000,” or about $783,000 to $895,000. While artists in Skulptur Projekte Münster reportedly receive a budget of around €35,000 toward their work, Huyghe’s galleries helped foot the rest of the bill, and he emphasized this was not a money-making affair for them.
After October 1, the aquarium, the living organisms, and the other equipment will be removed, and the ice skating rink will be destroyed. Following only about 100 days of being public, the display will cease to exist. Bemoaning this and mentioning all the work that had gone into creating After ALife Ahead, I suggested to Huyghe that it should be made permanent, an artwork morphing and growing for the rest of the time in Münster, but he demurred, and spoke about its short lifespan in terms that were almost philosophical. “It was the condition—there was an occasion—that was part of the rule,” he said, cutting himself off. “I mean, that person had that place, and he said, ‘You can do whatever you want with it because I’m going to destroy that place, so you choose.’
“So I decided to do that,” he continued. “Which, to a certain extent, yeah, it’s a pity, but also there’s something quite interesting in that.”