It’s late August, and Pierre Huyghe is running out of time. For the past two months he has been working without a day off on a solo show for Hauser & Wirth in London—his first with the powerhouse gallery—and it is set to open in about two weeks. Each time I call him in Paris, late at night, his preferred interview time, he’s either still working or sounds exhausted. He’s editing sound on a new film, pushing to finish it for the show. “I’m a bit tired,” he admits on one call, “and my brain is washed by the rain of work.”
On the last day of the month, a Sunday, Huyghe rings from his Paris studio and he sounds almost giddy. “In the studio we have computers, printers—we have right now, as I talk to you, a plastic box with albino frogs in it and two water tanks containing samples of water lilies,” he says. He speaks quickly and with a thick French accent, but he’s perfectly understandable. In photos he typically sports a sly, knowing smile, and you can almost hear it as he’s talking, but then he turns serious. “This is not a place where I produce. Never,” he says. “This is not a place of production—it is a place of research.”
Over the past 30 years, that research has resulted in one of the strangest and, perhaps, least understood bodies of work in contemporary art. It is certainly one of the most eclectic. Huyghe has ventured on a science vessel to Antarctica in search of an uncharted island and its albino penguin, directed a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), planted a temporary (and very unusual) garden in Madrid, filmed a documentary about the early New York hip-hop scene, invented holidays, created a weather-generating machine, taken students on vacation, and used bees, dogs, ants, spiders, and an art dealer infected with the flu as living readymades.
Actual objects are something of a rarity for him, though he’s recently been building sophisticated, uncanny fish tanks, and populating them with various kinds of underwater plants and sea creatures, such as a hermit crab that lives inside a model of Brancusi’s 1910 sculpture Sleeping Muse. As he often does in his art, he sets up the situation, drops in the ingredients, and lets nature and time go to work.
A new series of fish tanks that he made for his London show are based on the landscape around Monet’s Giverny studio. “He diverted a river to create a pond,” Huyghe says, positioning the Impressionist as an unlikely forebear. “He took water lilies that probably could not have survived in the local climate and crossbred different types to get the kinds he wanted.” Huyghe replicated that ecosystem in the tanks, working with scientists to artificially reproduce the weather conditions, light, and humidity of Giverny 100 years ago.
These projects share certain concerns—how natural and artificial systems operate, how media affect memory, and the relationship between humans and animals. In spite of these commonalities, his work also displays an almost-frightening randomness, and a desire to operate at a number of different points on the very edge of art. Huyghe was interested in science when he was young, he tells me, but gradually shifted into art. “I was reading that as a place of freedom, a place where I could work on things that I was passionately in love with,” he says. “It was the most welcoming place for this love to be.”
Huyghe graduated from Paris’s École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in 1985. He first gained attention about a decade later, as part of the gang of artists—which also included Rirkrit Tiravanija, Carsten Höller, and Philippe Parreno—whose work was grouped by curator Nicolas Bourriaud under the banner of “relational aesthetics.” Bourriaud’s 1996 show “Traffic,” at the CAPC musée d’art contemporain, in Bordeaux, France, defined the movement, focusing on art that took the form of live events and interactive situations that often involved members of the public. For his own contribution to “Traffic,” Huyghe showed Singing in the Rain (1996), a work that involved a performer atop a white pedestal singing the eponymous song on February 2, the anniversary of Gene Kelly’s death. For the rest of the show, the singer’s shoes and raincoat lay on the scuffed platform unused.
Three years later Huyghe released what many regard as his masterpiece, The Third Memory (2000), a film about the 1972 robbery of a Brooklyn bank that inspired Sidney Lumet’s movie Dog Day Afternoon (1975). By allowing the robber, John Wojtowicz, to re-enact the crime, Huyghe demonstrates how media representations of the event warped Wojtowicz’s recollection of what actually happened.
Though Huyghe is arguably France’s most acclaimed mid-career artist—he represented the nation at the Venice Biennale in 2001, won the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize the next year, and has appeared in editions of just about all of the important international biennials over the past two decades—a retrospective of his work always seemed fairly improbable, given the site-specific, and often-ephemeral, nature of his art.
Nevertheless, a survey show has come about. It started at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in September of last year, traveled to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in April, and arrives for its final stop, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on November 23. Some are surprised that Huyghe agreed to it.
“I remember when we had this discussion about the retrospective, and at first everybody who knew Pierre would laugh,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, says. “They’d say, ‘Oh, Pierre can’t make a retrospective, because everything’s so specific to the situation, it’s almost the absolute opposite of his practice to make a retrospective.’ But Pierre was very serious. He said, ‘No, no, that’s exactly why I need to make a retrospective and not make a new work but try to make sense of my works and what I’ve done.’ ”
Huyghe has been adding new pieces and altering the exhibition as it travels—it is, in effect, as in flux as many of his artworks. “He can only do things that are a little off in that way,” Govan says of how Huyghe has embraced the survey. “For him, I think, [agreeing to] the retrospective was a contrarian gesture.”
That may be an understatement. Huyghe has been doing almost none of what one would expect an artist to be doing for his or her first major survey show. Rather than demand a carefully laid out series of walls, for instance, he simply used those from the exhibition before his (the Mike Kelley retrospective), cutting holes through some and moving others. When he added walls, he left them unpainted.
“I didn’t want to have a meta-narrative, or a mise-en-scène, or box things in,” Huyghe tells me. “You can get lost in those aspects of an exhibition. I guess that’s why I usually don’t like to have the floor plan of the museum—I don’t care.”
There were almost no black boxes in the show when it was presented in Paris and Cologne. Huyghe wanted there to be “porosity” among the works, he says—and so films were screened on walls not far from sculptures and installations like the black ice rink that was intact during the exhibition’s first iteration and shattered during the second.
When the show traveled to the Ludwig, the artist cut up and rearranged the Pompidou’s walls in the galleries, and for LACMA he’s grafting the Ludwig floorplan into the museum. “I drag the exhibition—it’s like a kidney stone,” he says. “It is a foreign body that acclimates—or not, actually!—to each new place.”
The week I talk to Huyghe, almost three months before the opening in Los Angeles, the show’s curator there, Jarrett Gregory, is already starting the installation process, trying to get a beehive to grow around the head of a cement sculpture that the artist produced for 2012’s Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. Once the sculpture is in place, Gregory says, “we introduce the queen into the hive, and then we have a beekeeper come and look at it about every other day until the show opens.” By mid-November it will be fully operational, and it will still be growing. A dog with one of its legs dyed bright pink will complete the outdoor installation.
In Kassel, the piece was hidden away in an off-trail section of the city park littered with compost heaps and cement blocks. Visitors felt as if they had wandered into a hidden underbelly of the manicured grounds, and the installation quickly became one of the most-discussed artworks in the show. “I thought it was a really interesting engagement with a lot of issues around nature, the environment, landscape traditions, Romanticism, melancholia—some of Pierre’s big subjects,” says Lynne Cooke, who organized a 2002 show of Huyghe’s work at the Dia Art Foundation in New York and is now senior curator for special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
A new film, which appeared in Huyghe’s London show, will also have its U.S. premiere at LACMA. “I discovered that there was a monkey in a restaurant in Japan serving towels to the clients wearing a mask of a young woman,” he says. He ended up visiting that restaurant, which is near areas irradiated by the Fukushima nuclear power–plant disaster. Drones with cameras visit the wreckage now.
“I got very interested in these two things—machine replacing man, animal replacing man,” he adds. The film imagines what the monkey does when it is not playing the role of human. “It’s nature that has lost its naturality, and there’s no way to go back,” he says. “I see that as a kind of Greek tragedy.”
“I think his resilience is amazing,” Cooke says. “He builds teams of people who are very devoted and committed, and his willingness to hone a project over a long time and really stay with it is deeply impressive and critical to the multilayered complexity of the finished work.”
In 2009 and 2010, Huyghe spent more than a year with actors and members of the public in the shuttered Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris, staging private performances—a scripted trial, an orgy, improvised scenes. Details are sketchy because he would only rarely invite a few spectator-participants to visit. He recorded bits and pieces of the goings-on for what became the film The Host and the Cloud (2009–10), which is included in the retrospective. “I think there were only 50 people who saw what I did for two years—the live aspect,” he says. (His galleries sometimes pre-sell his films to finance such projects, and an institution is frequently involved in helping to secure funding.)
“The museum is a place of separation, in a certain way, and I need a place of continuity,” he says. “That’s why I need that site—whatever that site is.” He mentions that it could be somewhere outside Paris or maybe even New York, where he has lived off and on since the early 2000s. (He also mentions his fascination with Michael Heizer’s seemingly never-ending work on his piece City, 1972–ongoing, out in the Nevada desert.)
“I’m trying to make work that is indifferent to the public,” Huyghe adds a few moments later, when I press him for details. “It’s not that I’m indifferent to the public, but the work has to exist in itself, with or without the gaze. It’s like the mole. You know the mole? The animal that lives in the earth?” Sure, I say.
“Yeah, so you can’t see it, but it’s still living, it’s still copulating, it still has children. And then once in a while it surfaces, and you see it, and you say, ‘Oh! The mole.’ And then, five seconds later, it disappears again.
“The retrospective, in a certain way, delayed my research because of the amount of work,” he says. “But I am working on it. I haven’t found the site, but let’s say that’s the next thing I’ll be doing.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 100 under the title “Traveler of Both Time and Space.”