It’s always interesting to see how an artist’s ideas can fall flat in one medium but resound in another. Whether due to an uneven mastery of craft or to the particular nature of his efforts of late, French artist Pierre Huyghe is having just this kind of moment with two works recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Editor’s note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of review.]
Huyghe has long investigated the ways in which nature and humanity both consort with and conspire against one another, and his latest projects — a video and a rooftop installation — are no exception. The difference is that one of these works is terrifically compelling, while the other isn’t in the slightest.
Huyghe shot his video Untitled (Human Mask) in Fukushima, Japan, in 2014, three years after a tsunami touched off the world’s largest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. The piece opens with images of the city’s gutted buildings and decimated streets, then quickly cuts to the quiet of an abandoned sake house where we observe a solitary monkey, masked, wigged, and dressed to look like a young girl. For nearly nineteen minutes, we watch the primate sitting, waiting, pacing the confined, creepy space, our eye continually redirected to the visual disruptions between animal body and human costume.
Huyghe isn’t rethinking audience pathos and the performing animal. This isn’t Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar — or even Hollywood’s Doctor Dolittle — but the work’s twisted achievement is the way in which it undermines the emotional expressiveness audiences typically project onto cine-creatures. The monkey’s expressionless white mask and prim uniform disconnect a viewer somewhat from the depressing spectacle of her domestication. Is she happy? Is she sad? Who can tell? Huyghe doesn’t seem at all interested in probing the depths of human barbarity in this case. Rather, his camera remains shortsighted, enamored only with the monkey’s uncanny presence.
If catastrophe teaches one lesson, it’s that time is never on our side. Although the moving image has always shadowboxed this inevitable blow, Huyghe unfortunately taps none of the power of video to develop his ideas and images via their duration. What Untitled (Human Mask) ultimately reveals is standard-issue art world trauma laundering — an act of apocalypse chic. He reduces the whole of the Fukushima disaster to a few short establishing shots, adrenalized by a twitchy editing style and a fashionably cacophonous soundtrack: a soupçon of atrocity tourism to whet a viewer’s palate with the illusion of gravitas.
By contrast, Huyghe’s smart, subtle installation on the Met’s rooftop garden is nothing if not alert to time as the great coconspirator. Here he plays at excavating the primal landscape of the island of Manhattan, removing certain of the Met’s heavy granite roof tiles to create miniature topographies of native stones, thin streams of water, and sprouts of indigenous plants. A sizable piece of schist sits at one end of the roof, while a chunk of lava floats in an aquarium at the other. Swimming inside the tank are a lamprey eel and a few tadpole shrimp, ancient creatures unchanged by evolution’s push forward.
The tank drips into the artist’s manmade landscapes, watering the flora that’s doomed to be pulled sooner or later from its temporary place. Artificial ecosystems always manage to serve as unsettling metaphors for “growth to nowhere,” and this may be Huyghe’s sharpest move of all.
Look up and west from the museum’s roof to gaze over the treetops of Central Park. To the east you’ll see a grand apartment building encased in scaffolding, its restoration under way. To the south, behold the gross overgrowth of the midtown skyline, now dominated by 432 Park Avenue, a Kafkaesque malignancy that promises New Yorkers “the grand experience of estate living — in the sky.” For the moment it’s the tallest building in the neighborhood, but will soon be bested by two others concurrently going up along the same corridor.
This too, you may remind yourself as you look from Huyghe’s weird and witty return to Eden, is all just future rubble.
Correction published 8/19/15: The original version of this review stated that Untitled (Human Mask) was currently on view at the Met; in fact it closed August 9. The rooftop garden installation remains on view until November 1. The above version reflects the corrected text.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through November 1