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Human isn’t. Human, I mean. Famously, Pierre Huyghe’s Human is an Ibizan hound with a fuchsia front leg. At Huyghe’s autarchic LACMA retrospective, a fact sheet assured me that the dog was the proper weight (the breed is thin) and had proper breaks (from playing himself). There was no sheet for the human humans, tasked to traipse gallantly through the space to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or don a blinding-to-look-at LED mask, or announce my first and surname as if I’d traveled back in time, prepared to celebrate some freshly coroneted sovereign. That the labor and wellbeing of those performers was left to the neoliberal periphery while Human’s comfort got a broadsheet works quite well as prospectus for the exhibition’s stakes. We may just need the animal if humanism has any chance at all.
The exhibition observed a kind of circadian rhythm, a macrocosm of the dramatic shifts in light played out in the silly, psychedelic L’Expédition Scintillante (2002), (Huyghe doing Light and Space) and the nerdy, roots-and-all lily tanks of Nymphéas Transplant (2014), (Huyghe doing Monet doing Giverny doing God). As if by night, Hughye’s Untitled (Human Mask) (2014) took over a central room. In dark blue tones, a girl inhabits an abandoned restaurant in the abandoned landscape of post-tsunami Fukishima. When she sighs, placing her hand gently on her face, a minor miracle occurs: the hand is covered in fur; the girl is a monkey in a mask. The film languishes in this weird animality. It’s the uncanny’s purview to take our knowns, chew them strangely and return them to us wronged, but better for it. We know what disaster victims look like, but we haven’t seen empathy in ages. Humanism needs a masticating. If only, like the live hermit crabs of Huyghe’s Zoodram 5 (2011), which sport Brancusi masks instead of shells, we could so easily inhabit our own ruins.
That Huyghe’s name has been brandished under the banner of Relational Aesthetics is the best thing that could have happened to Bourriaud and perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Huyghe. Often, this headline distracts from the ethically juicy aspects of his practice for the lame art-worldy ones. The exhibition’s “circadian day” revealed an incarnation of Public Writer performed at the opening, which read like an unfortunate list of overly fortunate proper nouns, strung together with the banal predicate “was there.” And the now-corny Atari Light (1999) hung from the ceiling, ready for an eager couple to play a round traced in office overhead lights. At least this time, Atari had one busted florescent—in 2015 offices are either warehouses or your own living room; the utopian revolution of unregulated, self-organized systems never came. See Adam Curtis devastate Loren Carpenter’s collective Pong experiment, or any metaphoric appropriation of hive-minded bees and ants to justify fascism—two insects of which Hughye makes clever use in Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) (2011-12) and Umwelt (2011).
Streamside Day Follies (2004) is Hughye at his most ambivalent best. The work documents a celebration the artist organized in an upstate New York approximate of a would-be pastoral town. The taupe landscape of cheap construction and dirt not yet sod into grass fuses with the settlement rhetoric of speculative community in a perfect index of American culture, marketed as commodity and sold back to itself. A deer enters a freshly painted living room, searching for the forest that was. Then, to the twisted tune of an ice cream truck, residents parade into town, wearing animal heads, cardboard boxes, or silly smiles. They eat donuts organized by primary color and marshmallows staged as pussy willows. They gather sparsely for a speech and a performance of a Streamside theme song (in a minor key). The freaky animal intervention is Hughye’s genius once again, transforming their privatized partying into public ritual.
Hughye insists that the repeatable “score” of the town celebration is more important than the particular “concert” captured in his 2004 film. This is decent marketing and terrible philosophy. Where the event and its documentation belong in history is not with the good people of Fishkill, NY as a faded memory of an earnest afternoon, but here, with us, as a ballad for a quintessentially American naiveté and its ignored background of environmental harrow and civic heartbreak. It’s a better artwork than it is a parade; which is to say, fuck Relational Aesthetics, it’s for our judgment, not their participation. Of course, Huyghe saw fit to bust an Atari tile, and Human is a walking sculpture we can’t play fetch with. The phony condescension of “relational” is sheep’s clothing for the sticky ethics of the wolf.
At the end of Streamside, an enormous round balloon hovers over the matching houses, reflecting the actual moonlight in a wicked simulacrum. Of course, it can’t be human without the right amount of cruel.
Pierre Huyghe ran from November 23, 2014 – February 22, 2015 at LACMA.