Now and Then and Now Again: Pierre Huyghe at LACMA

Peter Huyghe’s show at LACMA is closing.

Now and Then and Now Again: Pierre Huyghe at LACMA

Left: Installation photo of the exhibition Pierre Huyghe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (November 23, 2014 - February 22, 2015). © Pierre Huyghe.
Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA





A WRITER arrives home and finds a package at her door. She goes inside and opens it. It is a catalog for an exhibition she has been looking forward to, a retrospective for the artist PIERRE HUYGHE, whose work she first encountered in 2002 through the poetic and layered No Ghost Just a Shell. For this 1999 piece, Huyghe and Philippe Parreno purchased the rights to a manga character, who they named Annlee, and proceeded to create work based on this character, inviting other artists to do the same. They then returned the copyright to the character herself, and released her image in the form of a bright firework in the night sky. The new catalog’s cover is white with black letters that, if put together properly, could spell the artist’s name, but they are laid out nonsequentially, roughly in this order: PerhrgHueeiy.


Huyghe has come to Los Angeles for his retrospective. Previously on view at the Pompidou in Paris and Museum Ludwig in Cologne, it is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A few days after a star-studded opening, Huyghe comes down with the flu. His scheduled talk is canceled. The writer learns of the cancellation but decides to attend the exhibition that day anyway.


The writer and her husband stand in line at the museum. Arriving at the counter, they learn that the exhibition had been closed just hours before they arrived.

What happened, why is it closed?

                                       MAN AT COUNTER
Technical difficulties.

Might we see the parts that are open?

                                       MAN AT COUNTER
They’re not letting anyone in.

                                       WRITER’S HUSBAND
                   (an artist and also a technical consultant)
Let me see it; I bet I can fix it.

                                       MAN AT COUNTER
It’s not just technical.

When will it reopen?

                                       MAN AT COUNTER
                   (handing them a brochure)
We don’t know.

As they walk away from the booth, the writer reads aloud from the brochure for the Huyghe exhibition.

                    (reading aloud)
“This exhibition marks Huyghe’s first retrospective, bringing together over 50 works spanning his 25-year career, many of which are being presented in the United States for the first time … A temporal and spatial instability characterizes the works themselves, which can exist simultaneously as artworks, events, and exhibitions. … In what he refers to as ‘auto-generative systems,’ the artist constructs a set of conditions and allows events to unfold following their own course.” I can’t imagine he planned to get the flu, but I wonder if the cancellation is part of it?

huyghe_install2smallINT. THE MUSEUM – A RAINY AFTERNOON


The pair decide to wander through the sprawling campus of the museum, viewing work they might not have had the time to see otherwise: German Expressionist films and Pre-Columbian sculptures from Mexico and Latin America. The sophisticated wit and expressiveness of these ancient works is exciting. They enter a very large, slow elevator and strike up a conversation with a young couple. The group muses that the elevator is large enough to be a small apartment. The writer imagines them all living there, a fish tank in the corner, maybe a cat. How would they manage?

The Exhibition

An announcer in a white shirt and black tie stands at the entrance to the exhibition.

                    (in a clear, resounding voice)
Annie Buckley, Dane Picard, Sarah Boswick, Vincent Chang, Patrick Chang, Gillian Jacobs …

At the entrance to the reopened exhibition, a man announces the names of each visitor entering the exhibition (Name Announcer, 2011). Inside, people mill about in rooms that have been dimmed in varied ways. Just after the entrance, to the left, a small circular section of one wall has been sanded down, exposing layers of the walls from exhibitions past (Timekeeper, 1999/2014). Small furs are piled in corners and a short cape of glossy black feathers hangs from a suspended rod. There is a spider and, once in a while, a very peppy and whip-thin muscular white dog, one leg vegetable-dyed bright pink, wanders by. The dog’s name is Human.

In another space, a murky aquarium sits on the floor. The green leaves of a potted plant nearby provide a bright contrast to the greenish opacity of the tank (Nymphéas Transplant, 2014). The ceiling is made up of squares of light (Atari Light, 1999). A film projected on a wall depicts a monkey in a human mask (Untitled [Human Mask], 2014). The monkey mills about an abandoned building. There are trees on the wallpaper in one room, the faded artificial green onscreen creating subtle harmony with the tank and plant in the gallery. The monkey alternately sits and scampers. At one point, she twirls a strand of its wig in long fingers, gazing intently through a seemingly acidic haze at rain falling out the window. A cat stares at the monkey with equal intensity.

A song by Kate Bush plays loudly from anther room in the exhibition. It is followed by a large boom and banging sounds (The Host and the Cloud, 2010) emitted by a film projection in the next space. The film follows 15 people in an abandoned archaeological museum in Paris where a series of live events took place on Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and May Day. Onscreen, a man in a black robe and another in a red ermine-lined cape, faces covered by masks in the shape of partially opened books lined with bright white lights, sit at a table while a group of people are brought in and seated before them. Others watch from outside the tables.

The writer makes her way toward the source of the sound, listening to voices from the film before it comes into sight.

                    (reading from the statement of Georges Cipriani)
I have neither the place nor the possibility to express myself here.

                    (representing a member of Action Directe)
We do not consider our actions in the room as roles to fulfill …

A magician pulls a rabbit from a hat and gives it to a witch. He then pulls out a Trix box, with a picture of a cartoon rabbit, and gives it to a young girl. The room with the tables empties and a woman with brown hair gets up from the audience area.

                    (dons the black robe and rereads the statement left
                    behind on the table)
No matter what happens here, we have the right to defend ourselves from your laws, this regime, and its conventions. Our only right is the right to revolt, to disobey, to emancipation, to speak, to take up arms, to criticize, to organize, to struggle, and fight you, everywhere, endlessly.

As she reads, someone dressed as a grim reaper walks around her. All the while, the announcer’s voice calls out names, equal parts performance and celebration, marking the entry of each new visitor in an evolving chorus.


The writer is lost in the world of the exhibition. She has forgotten that she is in a museum, forgotten that this is a show, forgotten that she is writing a story about it. Moving through a series of interconnected rooms, she forgets the frame, the structure that defines this space, her experience, herself. Standing in front of a large ice rink mottled with tar and clots of chemicals (L’Expédition scintillante, Acte 3 [Black Ice Rink], 2002), she sees a friend she has not seen in a long time accompanied by a tall blond girl, his teenage daughter. She was a young, playful girl last time the writer saw her. After some time, they wander behind the ice and make their way outside, where they encounter a stone figure with a head that is swarming with bees (Untilled [Liegender Frauenakt], 2012). Three large overhead vitrines alternately produce rain, snow, and fog, which fall to the ground beneath (L’Expédition scintillante, Acte 1 [weather score], 2002). As the friends stand in the invented weather, catching up, another visitor enters the patio. Rain bursts from above their heads, soaking a small patch of concrete.

That’s unusual.


A couple walks by those seated on a bench watching the film.

Come and look at this …

I will look at it later. Try and enjoy the …

The man wanders on to gaze into a tank and bumps into the potted plant.

Jarred back to the present, the writer marvels at the degree to which viewers engage with the exhibition. A sizable crowd has gathered for this contemporary and Conceptual art that suggests to her words like porous, interactive, surreal, and that seductive but overused favorite, liminal. While the words are apt, and the writer could see how one might weave them together with theories from Debord to Baudrillard, this seems dry and desiccating in light of the actual experience of the exhibition, the lost-in-space feeling of wandering through moments of simultaneity and surprise, some planned and others organic. Everything and everyone, the couple, the man, the friend, the rain and snow, the mottled ice, the well-trained dog and charming monkey, the mysterious tanks and engrossing films, blend and blur into a whole that resists categorization, not only with words like conceptual or liminal, but broader, simpler words, too: art or life, now or then, this or that, conceptual or experiential, natural or man-made.




The alarm goes off. The writer gets up, makes coffee, and checks her iPad. She swipes on bright lip gloss so as not to appear as sleepy as she feels. Right on time, Skype buzzes and she pushes the green phone icon to pick up. The artist appears onscreen, with salt-and-pepper hair and an easy smile. Behind him, the white room is free of detail save a cake-like decorative border near the ceiling that reminds her of Spain and backpacking and a visit to a friend in Paris years ago. It is 6:00 p.m. in Paris. They say hello and begin to talk before the writer remembers to switch on the recording.

I am curious how you think of people, the viewers. Do you see them as part of the work, props in the work, participants, actors, or …?

I am interested in the possibility of having different gears within a salon experience, not that someone needs to be always the visitor or a participant or an actor or passive or active. To a certain extent, I would say, I’m trying not to do for; the television does for; I’m trying to be indifferent to the presence and there’s nothing arrogant in what I’m saying … I’m trying as much as I can not to think for them. I’m trying to be indifferent to the fact that there is a gaze or not a gaze on the work.

It seems that people really engage with your work. It was fun to see so many people actively interested and involved on so many levels, more so than in many museum exhibitions …

There are things that hopefully bypass certain discourse, or certain frames, in order to simply encounter something. Hopefully, by cutting away that frame of knowledge and discourse, there might be a way that someone can simply encounter something in a very intuitive way. … I suppose I am looking at the exhibition as an object itself, rather than the different objects that are within that space during that moment.

So many of your works have film references that I started to lose count of them in the catalog. It’s interesting to think about that in relation to the retrospective being here in Los Angeles, across the street from the new Hollywood Museum. Did that play into your thinking at all about bringing the show here?

Yes, there is a connection with cinema and film, and also with the West Coast, a place where someone goes to become someone else. Like the song “Forever Young,” it’s the land where everybody, through different techniques — creams, stretching, Botox — is encoding themselves in the naive singularity of being a cog in the machine, and     in the cinema it’s the same. That’s why we like people who die young because they become immortal in a certain way. It has so much to do with this desire to be remembered. Stars are always there in the sky, forever. They are already dead, but they still shine. There is something there that I was interested in, not directly the cinema itself, but I think the cinema is a consequence of that desire to become someone else or encode yourself into the biologic or the machine.

I think people relate to what is archetypal in your work and have many levels of experience. I know your work is referred to as New Conceptualist …

Yes, many people say that I come from this New Conceptual background, but these are just words. That is also an easy way to frame something because if a guy is not a painter and doesn’t make sculpture, you say, “okay, those are the conceptual ones” — done, sold. When you don’t know something, or want to be reassured, you classify or categorize; you give names to things. There is a set of discourse that needs to be formulated in order to maintain that categorization and that’s exactly what I am trying to break down. So I’m trying to work with things that are more heterogeneous and iconic, things that are archetypal. I’m trying to break down the possibility that a discourse will, in a certain way, take over or separate someone from an object.



The writer arranges the pillows on her bed and settles in to watch films by the artist. Over the course of several hours, fact and fiction blur with seamless intentionality and spontaneity. Subjects are fluid. Meaning shifts. Lights surge and dim in a way that is reminiscent of the shifts in light in the exhibition.

An ice-covered sea meets a snowy landscape (A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005) just as the writer’s snow-white cat snuggles into the billowy white blanket beneath her. A deer enters an empty home in a new housing development (Streamside Day, 2003); a monkey in a human mask wanders through an empty building (Untitled, Human Mask, 2014); a dog curls up on a fur in the corner in a museum across town.

A girl in a bunny head walks down an empty road (Streamside Day) and an animated rabbit enters a miniature model home. A magician pulls a rabbit from a hat and hands it to a witch. Next, he pulls out a box of Trix cereal with a cartoon rabbit on the front and gives it to a young girl. On the screen, a woman sits at a table eating the colorful cereal and watching international news on a laptop propped in front of her. A girl tells a hypnotist of her fears of rabbits biting her as an animated rabbit picks up the English subtitled words and takes a bite (The Host and the Cloud, 2010).

Focus your attention on your breathing, it will allow you to access your unconscious. Let this hypnotic state amplify very slowly, at your own pace.


Annie Buckley is the author, most recently, of Mayday: A Novel.

LARB Contributor

Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, and editor at large for LARB. She is the founding director of the Institute for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Justice at San Diego State University, where she is a professor of visual studies and the founder and principal investigator of Prison Arts Collective, a statewide program in California since 2013, and VISTA (Valuing Incarcerated Scholars Through Academia). Buckley is the editor of Higher Education and the Carceral State: Transforming Together (Routledge, 2024) and the author and illustrator of Kids’ Yoga Deck (Chronicle Books, 2003). Her writing about contemporary art and culture is widely published, including in Artforum and The Huffington Post.


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