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Loss of Artistic Control
Pierre Huyghe’s Biotope at documenta

For the Deutsche Bank-sponsored project “A Journey That Wasn’t,” Pierre Huyghe embarked on a search for the rare Albino penguin. In an exhibition in Berlin, he allowed ants and spiders to take over the gallery space, while dogs and bees currently inhabit his surreal documenta garden. The French artist’s works do not, however, derive from a naïve love of animals. Achim Drucks on Pierre Huyghe’s biotope for documenta and the boundaries between art and life.

Where is Human? The white dog is one of the stars of documenta 13; she even made it onto the cover of Monopol and Zeit magazine. But there’s no sign of the animal as I stroll through Pierre Huyghe’s art biotope. Maybe Human doesn’t feel like being ogled anymore as a living work of art? Did the hordes of visitors get on her nerves to the point that she simply took off? And in the first place—can a dog be a work of art? Apart from her name, the pink-colored leg the French artist gave her has the effect that Human is not perceived as a mere animal. Unfortunately, however, I can’t study this first-hand; the dog simply won’t show up. One thing becomes abundantly clear during a visit to Huyghe’s plot of land: working with animals brings with it a certain loss of artistic control—at least if you let the animals run free. 

“Human is sleeping in the shed,” explains a young man who takes care of the Podenco dog and the garden she lives in. “She needs some peace and quiet.” But not because she’s overly stressed by her role as a work of art—Human is simply following her nature. She ran around with a curator’s dachshund for two hours in the Karlsaue, which must have been a sight to see: the long-legged elegant greyhound and the small dachshund zipping around the old trees and artist’s pavilions. The garden’s caretaker had to hop on his bike to catch the two.

On the other hand, I have a bit of luck: Human’s roommate Señor is there. Curious, the puppy heads for a pair of visitors. It’s not the people he’s interested in, however, but the two dogs they have with them. The three approach one another with a joyful wagging of tails. This has all been seen thousands of times before, but in an art context you automatically try to glean some extra bit of meaning from the situation. Even if it’s only to envy the animals for their uncomplicated way of getting to know one another. Or to realize that the two dogs clearly perceive Human’s presence in the form of olfactory messages that might be telling them how it feels to live in this strange environment.

You have to search a bit for Huyghe’s biotope. It’s hidden behind a few bushes at the end of the Karlsaue. Even during the documenta-free time, the area is the exact opposite of the beautiful baroque park. This is where plant refuse is normally collected so that it can transform into fertile humus; now, plants grow freely in the name of art. Untilled is the name Huyghe gave to his work, not "Untitled," as one might at first think. "Untilled" land is land that is not cultivated, making this an apt title because the overall impression is makeshift, like an overgrown lot. Path sections are stacked between overgrown hills of compost; a pile of black gravel sits near algae-covered puddles. But a sculpture has been installed here, too: the reclining figure of a woman on a cement block. Instead of a head, however, she has a huge beehive on her shoulders, which lends the entire ensemble something totally surreal.

This "head" consists of thousands of bees’ heads and bodies that communicate continuously with one another. A buzzing cloud that thinks as a whole, without a central organ. Swarm intelligence, so to speak, replaces the brain and human understanding here. Decentralized coordination, reaction to the signals of individual members, and simple rules—these help the bees to organize themselves effectively—and they can only respond to complex situations together, as a whole. Can they act as a role model for us humans? The success of the Pirate Party would indicate this. Using new forms of political involvement and opinion-making, the Pirates appeal to many peoples’ desire to become directly involved in the political process.

With its reference to non-human forms of intelligence, the inclusion of dogs, bees, and plants, Huyghe’s Untilled is one of the works at documenta that conveys the director’s concepts most effectively. For Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the focus of the show is the “question as to whether we can imagine a universe that’s less anthropocentric, a world of thought and active life that’s not based especially on humans.” This is why, she continues, “I’ve become known as the artistic director of documenta who’s interested in the positions and perspectives of dogs—it’s true, and I mean it quite seriously.” Christov-Bakargiev is concerned about the “forms and active manifestations of knowledge among all living and non-living producers of the world.” And that means not only people, but also dogs, bees, and maybe even path segments.

Here, however, the swarm of bees also has a very concrete task to perform. It pollinates the blossoms in the garden, ensuring that the plants procreate. For his documenta project, Huyghe selected several highly particular plants, each of which yields substances used in witches’ brews or to make drugs: the extremely toxic foxglove (which contains digitalis) has beautiful pink and white flowers, and soon the deadly nightshade and jimson weed will bear their poisonous fruits as well. Cannibis also grows here, as well as rye, a harmless grain that is often home to ergot, a fungus from which LSD can be extracted. Coca plants cannot, however be seen; it’s illegal to cultivate them, even in an art context. And so we’re in a psycho garden where shamans can find a rich choice of fuel for their travels to the realm of the gods and spirits. Substances are grown here whose ingestion alters consciousness and breaks down ordinary notions of the self and the world—at least for as long as the high lasts.

Settings like these that are reminiscent of controlled experiments have become typical for the work of the artist, who was born 1962 in Paris. Yet he first became known with technically complicated works, such as his video- and light installation Le Château de Turing, for which he received the Special Award at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Or his ambitious film A Journey That Wasn’t, which was sponsored by Deutsche Bank and premiered at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The first part of the project consisted of an expedition to Antarctica, where Huyghe filmed rare albino penguins. The site for the second part was the ice-skating rink in New York’s Central Park, where a musical version of the adventure in ice was performed using fog machines, artificial icebergs, figures of penguins, and a live orchestra. In the film, the two parts are superimposed and ultimately lead the viewer to doubt the truth of the documentary images as well. 

Since that time, Huyghe has been working increasingly with animals, and his art has become more direct and less technical. This was also evident in his 2011 exhibition Influants at Esther Schipper. When people entered the gallery, an announcer called out the name of each respective visitor into an apparently empty room. Robbed of one’s anonymity and with a heightened awareness, the visitor entered the white cube only to discover moving black dots. A closer look revealed ants and spiders crawling about the place. Visitors each reacted in their own way: interested, amazed, or disgusted. They automatically transformed into collaborators, and all at once began moving with great caution in order not to step on the insects. Or they fled in fear as quickly as possible in the direction of the exit.

On the other hand, his film The Host and the Cloud (2009-2010) features a kind of human zoo. An empty museum building became a temporary habitat for a group of actors whose performances varied between choreography and spontaneous improvisation. They played with puppies, were hypnotized, took drugs and reacted to them. The whole thing ended in a mass orgy. The film of the action seldom reveals what we are really seeing—whether it’s art, or real life arising out of an artificial situation. A dissolving of boundaries between reality and fiction is the essence of Pierre Huyghe’s works; process and chance play a key role. And so just as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev would like to take leave of the human fantasy of omnipotence, Huyghe appears to increasingly relinquish artistic control—to animals that resist direction, or to people who become collaborators.

Huyghe’s documenta work doesn’t just happen to be in the compost pile; this is a place whose extremely fertile soil not only nourishes plants, but also ideas, associations, and feelings. Watching the bees, the dogs playing, or in talking to other visitors, one can ponder the differences between life and art, the perception of animals and of humans. Or contemplate whether life and society can’t be organized differently. With Untilled, Huyghe has created a biotope that can change our perception—even without partaking of psychotropic substances.

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