Enigma variations * Pierre Huyghe
20-07-06 Adrian Searle
* This is not a Time for Dreaming. 2004
An albino penguin, a bedroom on the Death Star, Celebrate the Shoelace Day ... Adrian Searle enters the strangely compelling world of Pierre Huyghe.
· Pierre Huyghe: Celebration Park is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until September 17. Details: 020-7887 8000 and
Pierre Huyghe's work is clever and complicated, paradoxical and obscure. I cannot claim to understand what he does, but then understanding isn't everything. Listen: I hear a plaintive, melancholy cry, echoing around a barren wilderness. It is the call of the albino animatronic penguin, whose habitat is a semi-darkened room, empty save for an architect-designed island, a terrain of aluminium honeycomb held up by wires and counterweights, illuminated by an eternal twilight of dim gallery lights. The penguin occasionally turns its head and flaps its wings, as though to signal incomprehension at its plight. The life-size, captive bird is in a room we cannot enter, and can be spied only through a couple of windows cut in the wall.
The strangeness of this tableau, one of the many elements in Huyghe's Tate Modern exhibition, is compelling - but an enigma. You can throw words at it, but they just bounce back. I often have the feeling that whatever I like about Huyghe's work - and there is much about it that is impressive - is irrelevant. His art is bound up with so many caveats and contradictions, rationalisations and complexities that one is apt to get lost. And there are too many words getting in the way, many of which are in a white neon typeface designed by Parisian designers M/M. The signs say: I do not own Modern Times. I do not own 4'33'. I do not own Snow White. I do not own Tate Modern or the Death Star. The question of ownership, posed and denied by Huyghe's luminous disclaimers, is one of the perennial themes of the French artist's work. Who owns ideas anyway?
He has in the past re-orchestrated John Cage's famously silent work for piano, 4'33', for flute; made works involving Charlie Chaplin's movie Modern Times (apparently as a somewhat abstruse critique of capitalism and the protestant work ethic); and made two films with voiceover artist Lucie Dolène about her role in the French version of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and her attempts to regain copyright of her own voice. He also once inserted a diagram of his childhood bedroom inside a plan of the Star Wars Death Star battle station for a print, hence the reference here. All this information may make these elegant signs meaningful and resonant , but they don't exactly speak for themselves. His is an art of hidden depths. Sometimes they're too well hidden.
Perhaps Huyghe wants us to dig into his material, and follow his clues, as though every work were a puzzle. Maybe what he's really asking is for us not to take anything at face value. In another work, This Is Not a Time for Dreaming, Huyghe wrote a puppet play for the Carpenter Centre for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, to celebrate the centre's 40th anniversary. The play features the centre's architect, Le Corbusier (it was his only building in north America), modernist architect Josep Lluís Sert, Huyghe himself, and the curator of his 2003 Harvard show. The play was performed in a specially designed structure inserted in the underbelly of Corbusier's building, and the complexities are bewildering. Yet, despite its subtexts, the film of the puppet play is magical and rich in historical and contemporary allusions. The moment when Corbusier sits on a rock, contemplates the world, then keels over and dies (which is pretty much what happened, the year, after he finished work on the centre), is as moving as it is hilarious.
Huyghe includes his own conflicts with the show's curator, and her argument with Harvard's mythical "Dean of Deans", who is portrayed as an evil monster. The Huyghe puppet looks like an innocent abroad, aware too late that his strings are being pulled. The puppet play, then, is a sort of critique, about the tensions between artists and architects, and the institutions they work with. It is about the failure of the modernist dream, about creativity and compromise, about ambition and the universal conflicts between generations and individuals. It is also fun and extremely engaging.
Would that all Huyghe's work was so captivating. The film A Journey That Wasn't is a glorious mess. In 2005 Huyghe travelled to Antarctica with a group of other artists, ostensibly to search for a strange, rarely-sighted creature. This turned out to be an albino penguin, which Huyghe found by chance on a previously uncharted island. All this may or may not be true (there are too many unlikely coincidences, in my view), though Huyghe certainly went to Antarctica. Footage of the journey, the island and the penguin is intercut with film of a later work, in which the artist transformed the ice rink in New York's Central Park into an Antarctic landscape, restaging his earlier journey as a musical, with a score by composer Joshua Cody, based somehow on the topology of the island. Phew.
Mixing footage of the journey and the musical, Huyghe has created a baffling sci-fi movie, rich in atmosphere, yet lacking in plot, drive or conclusion. Huyghe is better at mood and images than stories.
In the first section of his film Streamside Day, we watch a baby deer, an owl and a racoon in a virgin forest, loud with insects and the roar of a waterfall, all living in unlikely, Disneyesque harmony. In the midst of this the land is being cleared for a housing development. Bambi wanders the unmade roads, and an unoccupied new house. Later, the first families move in, and Huyghe's film becomes a sort of impressionistic documentary of a celebration he inaugurated for the new occupants, which he hopes will become an annual event. The best moment in the film comes when we see two small girls on the edge of the woods, staring up at a big, wild-looking tree. It is a moment of stillness and wonder. The celebration of the new development - with a speech by the mayor, a barbecue and some dismal folk-singing, is neither here nor there. The wildlife has been replaced by entertainers in furry animal costumes. What's left to celebrate, it turns out, is apple-pie small-town America, and to hell with the owls.
If Streamside Day doesn't appeal, how about Andy Warhol Day, Celebrate Jimmy Carter Day, or a celebration of the exact day George W Bush will step down from office? These spoof celebrations, suggested by invited artists and curators, and meant to fill those days of the year when nothing is celebrated, are as benign as they are banal: Near Miss Day, Waste of Time Day, Lovers' Day and Celebrate the Shoelace day. Some, like John Baldessari, make an attempt to up the ante: Let's celebrate the mystical divorce of art and money, he suggests.
How about a Mind the Doors day? In the exhibition's largest gallery, oversized white doors with enlarged brass doorknobs glide and slink and twirl, like choreographed waiters. "Pierre Huyghe places the viewer in the position of a child, both in relation to the scale of the doors and in our response to their apparently magical animation, invoking the potential of doors to become gateways between worlds," the exhibition pamphlet tells us. For child, read irritated adult; the only way I feel I'm being placed in the position of a child is having to read this sort of thing. No one could be troubled, even for a second, by the animation of the doors. In essence, the mechanics of Huyghe's Gates are no more complicated than the average model train set, though, to be fair, there is something disturbing about the way they can sidle up to you, catch you unawares as they make their serpentine circuits of the room. Huyghe moves seamlessly from the ponderous to the trite. Like the penguin, the doors are probably a metaphor.
Before them (or is it behind them), one is neither locked in nor shut out, neither on one side nor the other, neither included nor excluded, neither here nor there. They're a symbol, then, but of what I cannot tell.
Huyghe would, apparently, like us to think of his exhibition as a sort of park, in which we are invited to wander and have adventures. Called Celebration Park, the show doesn't appear to have much to celebrate - the melting of the polar ice-caps, the loss of natural habitats under sprawling suburbias in the US, the failure of modernist architecture, the loneliness of the albino penguin. The idea that we should regard it as a kind of amusement park is a bit obvious, in that this is already the way many people treat a visit to Tate Modern. For artworks, think rides, the museum itself being the biggest ride of all.
I wonder if Celebration Park is really meant as a convoluted criticism of the Disneyfication, not just of the museum, but of the entire modern world. The difficulties of Huyghe's work might be taken as a kind of resistance to its commodification as mere entertainment. Huyghe, though, is a natural image-maker, and often enough these images are vastly entertaining and compelling. Most of the time he seems to know a good idea from a slight one.