Dr. Philipp Kaiser

Encomium for Pierre Huyghe on the presentation of the 2013 Roswitha Haftmann Prize, on 16 May 2013 at the Kunsthaus Zürich

When Pierre Huyghe and his work first emerged onto the scene in the early 1990s, a critical artistic practice was taking shape that was lent extra momentum by the global economic crisis of the period. It could be argued that certain offshoots of the 1980s extended their antennae into the new decade, as that new, politically critical artistic practice engaged with the conditions of its exhibition and the contextual constraints of art. Looking back we may recall the sensation created by Peter Weibel’s 1993 exhibition ‘Kontext Kunst,’ accompanied almost simultaneously by the birth of the journal ‘Texte zur Kunst,’ which was to shape the discourse of the time. The same year saw the now legendary Whitney Biennial in New York, in which the concepts of identity politics and multiculturalism featured prominently. This determinedly politicized art of the early 1990s was countered shortly thereafter by a group of artists who championed a participatory model which the critic Nicolas Bourriaud termed ‘relational aesthetics.’ Twenty years ago, artists were embroiled in trench warfare over the legitimacy of their respective practice, and whether it was critical or affirmative. Yet for all their differences, what I find remarkable is that both groups had a specific interest in artistic collaborations.
There can be no question here of playing one group off against the other, or indeed assigning the art of Pierre Huyghe to one or other of them. The pluralism of the 1990s – thinking solely of the first half of the decade – is reflected in the diversity of his work. And indeed it is precisely that diversity that, initially, caused it to attract so many labels. Huyghe was, by turns, placed in the category of ‘relational aesthetics’ and described as a video artist. What is certain is that Pierre Huyghe’s extremely complex artistic practice is based primarily on ideas and is, in this sense, conceptual. This means that no medium is so specific that one should devote oneself slavishly to its service. At the centre there is always an idea.
In two of his earliest works, ‘Chantier permanent,’ 1993 (Permanent Construction Site) and the foundation of the ‘Association des temps libérés’ in 1995 (Association of Freed Time), we can clearly see the artist’s intentions and his premises. It may even be maintained that these two works are manifestos: manifestos of presentness and impermanence.
But first things first. In 1993, accompanied by a photographer, Pierre Huyghe travelled around the Mediterranean region near Rome, documenting unfinished residential buildings that their inhabitants had constructed themselves in their free time. These skeletons of houses, some still shrouded in scaffolding, are most unlikely ever to be completed, for as Pierre Huyghe notes, “The political, economic and geographic conditions of this region are unstable,which results in a reversal of the traditional Western model of dwelling, conceived as a finished object and an ‘everything included’ purchase.1 For a number of reasons – not least that no tax is payable on unfinished houses and that many of the buildings were constructed without a permit – it is reasonable to assume that this transitory state is in fact permanent. Originally Pierre Huyghe had planned a book of these ‘unfinished architectures,’ but what ultimately emerged was an illustrated essay with an additional contribution by the French architect François Roche. The element of Pierre Huyghe’s investigation of ‘unfinished architectures’ that marks it out as agenda and manifesto is a specific concern with the incomplete. For him, “What makes these dwellings singular is the interval between what they are and what they could potentially be, the gap between what exists and its potential.”2 As a result, these constructions negate both linear temporality and the idea of permanence. They are ruins; and in accordance with Walter Benjamin’s theory of history they are to be assigned, like allegory, to the realm of the arbitrary. Both ruins and allegory have an affinity for the fragmentary and incomplete, making this, for Benjamin, the allegorical emblem par excellence. Yet here it speaks not of loss and, therefore, the importing into the present of that which is past, but rather of that which is still to come. Pierre Huyghe’s utopian manifesto of an ‘open present,’ his ‘archaeology of the incomplete’ may perhaps put us in mind of Robert Smithson’s slide projection ‘Hotel Palenque’. In 1969 the artist Robert Smithson, together with his wife Nancy Holt and the gallery owner Virginia Dwan, visited the Maya temples at Palenque in the north of Yucatan. For Smithson, the glory of the past lies choked and buried beneath the accretions of time. In the crumbling Hotel Palenque he finds the contemporary ruin, which he describes through the eyes of a geologist and traveller. He speaks of broken floors that remind him of Piranesi and of unfinished rooms, and the uncompleted swimming pool. He writes: “Now this is the escarpment.This is the…it’s very moving actually.There you see where the stairs just completely fall away and you have these uninhabited old motel sections,and once again you get a better idea of the careful way that they don’t tear everything down all in one fell swoop. It’s done slowly with a certain degree of sensitivity and grace so that there is time for the foliage to grow through the broken concrete, and there is time for the various colors on the wall to mellow under the sun.So you get this kind of really sensuous sense of something extending both in and out of time, something that doesn’t belong to the earth and really something that is rooted very much into the earth.This kind of de-architecturization pervades the entire structure.And you have to remember that it’s a-centric, no focuses, nothing to grip on to, no certainty.”3 The loose fabric of imagination, supposition, analysis and memory by means of which Smithson resurrects the ruined hotel criss-crosses myriad levels of time, allowing the ruin to grow not just into the past, but also into the future.

Pierre Huyghe’s second manifesto, which I referred to earlier, was the foundation of the ‘Association des temps libérés’ (Association of Freed Time). During a group show in 1995, the artist announced its registration in the Journal Officiel, the official gazette of the French Republic. His primary aim was to find a way of establishing a new temporality that questioned normative concepts of time. In this model of freed time, work and leisure are no longer in opposition. Rather, he calls for a model in which a glacial, a historical and a micro-narrative overlap and are liberated inasmuch as they all meet in the present. It is clear that the foundation of the Association of Freed Time is based on Huyghe’s aesthetic of the incomplete as initially formulated through the unfinished houses. Beyond that, however, the second manifesto is an explicit manifesto of temporality: a temporality that locates its open present in duration. That does not in any sense mean that Pierre Huyghe is here striving for a de-historicization; on the contrary, in a complex way he demonstrates how historicity can be situated precisely in the flow of time. His video installations – I should like to mention two in particular here: ‘L’Ellipse’, 1998 and ‘The Third Memory,’ 1999 – are a good example of this. In ‘L’Ellipse’ the artist literally infiltrates himself into Wim Wenders’ film ‘The American Friend.’ When the actor Bruno Ganz, seen in the right-hand section of a three-part video projection, is asked by a caller to meet him in a few minutes’ time in a building that can be seen in the left-hand projection, an easy-to-follow mini-narrative is established that posits a relationship between cause and effect. At the centre of the projection, Huyghe has installed a hypothetical story that might have taken place in the cut between one scene and the next. He asked Bruno Ganz, aged by twenty years, to go to his meeting on the other side of the bridge. In ‘L’Ellipse’ the artist occupies the silent, invisible cut between two scenes, receives the figure on the threshold of fiction, and accompanies it on its journey through reality. The twenty years that are compressed into eight minutes at the centre of the three-part projection, and in which we watch Ganz cross the bridge, seem to drag by interminably and convey the reality of passing time. The coalescing of fiction and reality, of filmic time and real time, and the spatio-temporal expansion of both the scene – as the actor crosses the bridge – and the projection, with the central projection holding the film together like a seam, paradigmatically deconstruct the nature of filmic narrative but also create a hybrid time crystal whose vectors point in all directions.
The Third Memory’, from 1999, is perhaps Pierre Huyghe’s most complex film installation and has its origins more or less directly in ‘L’Ellipse.’ In 1972 John Wojtowicz held up a Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn and attained cult status through the media coverage and, a short time later, via Sidney Lumet’s ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975) starring Al Pacino in the lead role. The film poster summarizes the plot: “The robbery should have taken 10 minutes. 4 hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. 8 hours later, it was the hottest thing on live TV. 12 hours later, it was history.” When Wojtowicz robbed the bank, took some of its employees hostage and, after hours of negotiation, fled with them in a bus to John F. Kennedy Airport where he was finally arrested, the whole event was played out before the cameras right through to the bitter end. Twenty-eight years later, Pierre Huyghe had the now grey-haired bank robber recount the story once again and presented it as a split-screen projection. The merging of multiple narrative perspectives and perceptions causes the events to appear at once kaleidoscopic and factographic. If the ‘First Memory’ is the retelling of how events were experienced by those involved and by TV viewers, the ‘Second Memory’ represents Al Pacino’s gangster movie. In the ‘Third Memory’ the actual bank robber reconstructs his crime and, in so doing, mutates into an actor of and commentator upon himself. The perpetrator, who is in the process of reappropriating his own image – an image circulated by the film – sees his own history vanish as reality and fiction converge into the indistinguishable. Nevertheless, the montage of images achieves a depiction of the events that is perhaps more precise than the events themselves, and which a critic once described as a situationist denunciation of the spectacle.
In both ‘L’Ellipse’ and ‘The Third Memory’ the artist embeds himself in pre-existing film material and uses it as a media ‘ruin’ for a reflection on temporal and causal complexities. It is as if Pierre Huyghe’s artistic strategy focuses on the interspaces of media and individual memory and meticulously explores them. 

One characteristic feature of the extraordinary diversity of Pierre Huyghe’s work is that after six full pages of encomium I have covered no more than his first decade as an artist. There is much that could be added, and far more that could be mentioned: his expedition to the Antarctic in 2005, for example. Together with six other artists, he set off to sail to the South Pole in search of a rare albino penguin. The nostalgically romantic aura of the journey recalls the quest for the blue flower; a quest involving a specific, collective experience that every participating artist ultimately carries with them. The journey to Elsewhere, to the end of the world, harbours a utopian promise; and it is immaterial whether or not that promise is ever kept.
But let me conclude by adding a few words on Pierre Huyghe’s most recent work ‘Untilled’, which he created last summer for Documenta 13 in the Karlsaue in Kassel and which no doubt many of you will have seen. Downstream, as it were, from the Baroque garden of the Orangerie, piles of asphalt and sand rose next to the compost heaps, while a reclining figure with a head of bees and a white greyhound inhabited the surreal, artificial landscape. The title ‘Untilled’ of course means uncultivated; but the word looks very much like ‘Untitled’ and, as such, is merely a slip of the tongue away from the undefined. In fact, the garden was filled with selected toxic and mind-expanding plants such as the foxglove and cannabis, and a type of rye containing a fungus that can be used to obtain LSD. In its self-containedness, the psychedelic garden brought forth another world, watched over daily by the white greyhound with the pink leg and thus enraptured, as if in a dream. The dystopian, sci-fi landscape that Huyghe orchestrated here recalls J.G. Ballard‘s Crystal World and simultaneously allows the substances inherent in the artificial garden to transform our consciousness and our perception of the world.

Pierre Huyghe’s capacity for narrative, coupled with his conceptual and analytical approach that investigates things with the methodical precision of an archaeologist, has already produced important works of great poetry and acute perception. The consistency with which Huyghe meanders through his own work, repeatedly picking it up and moving it forwards, is, I believe, unique and extremely remarkable in an artist of his generation. I should therefore like to offer him my warmest congratulations on the award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize.

1 Pierre Huyghe: Some Notes, in: Exhib. Cat. Pierre Huyghe. The Trial, Kunstverein München, Kunsthalle Zürich Munich 1999, p. 23.
2 ibid, p. 23.
3 Robert Smithson: Hotel Palenque, 1969-72, in: Parkett, no. 43, 1995, p. 126.