Few images have disturbed me quite so much as Pierre Huyghe’s lonesome survivor in his brilliant but unsettling film ‘Untitled (Human Mask)’. Ensconced within the labyrinthine halls of the Metropolitan Museum, the New York premiere of this startling work is complimented and contrasted with a Roof Garden Commission, both conjuring more questions than answers regarding human - animal relationships, ecology, utopias, dystopias and the mechanics of labour.
‘Untitled (Human Mask)’ transports us to a desolate, post-nuclear disaster Fukushima street. A slow pan reveals an abandoned sake house and inside it a monkey, its face disguised by a porcelain-skinned human mask, body garbed in a formal dress and head topped with a long-haired wig. This ape-human hybrid has been trained to serve in the restaurant, and apparently oblivious to the disaster that has struck and the absence of owners and guests, continues about its duties.
There is an undeniable sense of the uncanny in watching the figure’s awkward gait and unsuited proportions make their way around its abandoned environment. Although it has evidently been taught some simple tasks – to carry and collect towels and the like –it also displays obvious natural body language, tapping its feet, picking at its hair and hands. It seems as though, in its solo existence, it is going about its own strange route of self-discovery. In a beautifully shot scene it curiously touches the contours of the mask and fiddles with its fake locks.
As it makes its rounds, we discover other living things. A bag of maggots, generated from rotting food, hints at a time scale (the restaurant has evidently been abandoned for some time) and also at a new ecology beginning in the ruins of the disaster. With Fukushima’s nuclear connotations, the monkey humanoid also suggests the possibility of radiation-fuelled transmutation, adding a sense of sci-fi and anti-evolution, a step backwards to our closest ecological neighbour. Without a clear narrative the film gives no resolution, instead offering a vignette, that looped, mirrors the monkey’s fate. Only time would tell whether its learned mannerisms or natural behaviours and instincts would win out in the long term.
A sense of the primordial is also apparent in Huyghe’s Roof Garden Commission. Having become somewhat known for his ‘aquarium’ installations, Huyghe presents one here, a contained, glistening oasis between the canopies of Central Park and the sky. Within the tank is a great chunk of rock, impossibly hanging down from the tank’s topside, which almost meets a mound of sediment piled up from the bottom. A closer inspection reveals a host of ancient looking creatures, tube-like worms and frilly armoured shrimp, which go about their usual business. It is easy to become fascinated with their subtle interactions, but every now and again, the tank, almost magically, becomes opaque, shielding the creatures from view and denying a few seconds of eco-drama. Just as quickly, the contents of the tank are again revealed, but the interaction that had fascinated us before has changed; the subjects have moved; a new narrative begins.
At the foot of the tank, a number of the roof garden’s weighty paving slabs have been upturned to reveal the shale beneath, while others have merely been slightly pried away from their foundation as if some tectonic movement has shifted them from their usual ordered flatness. It seems that Huyghe, not only content to create a water-based ecological framework, wants to dig down into the architecture’s core, revealing the earth beneath as if to suggest the potential for life there too.
Huyghe’s work takes viewers on a trippy and unexpected journey. From the dark unease of ‘Untitled (Human Mask)’ and a disaster site instigated by human hand, to the illuminating energy of his roof garden commission and the ancient, fossil-like organisms that populate it; the delicate balance between life and the void, constructed environments and chance is explored. As a viewer, we are positioned on the outside looking in to Huyghe’s creations, but such is their draw and detail, that it is almost impossible not to try and figure our place within it all.