BY Jennifer Higgie in Features | 17 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

One Take: Human Mask

In the first of a new series focusing on a single work, Jennifer Higgie considers Pierre Huyghe’s latest film, Human Mask

BY Jennifer Higgie in Features | 17 DEC 14

A few years ago, a four-minute clip was posted on YouTube titled Fuku-chan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant! The video, which is clumsily shot and tinted a sickly yellow, opens with what appears to be a small girl in a dark school tunic and crisp white shirt getting something from a cupboard; we can hear the faintly distorted sounds of Japanese people around her eating and drinking. The girl turns to glance at the camera and it suddenly becomes clear that it’s not a child but a monkey wearing a white, Noh-like mask and a glossy, brunette woman’s wig with a bow. (I have nothing against monkeys but this is the stuff of nightmares.) As she walks away on her bowed, hairy legs, her clumsy, swaying gait recalls that of an old woman but when she leaps from table to table she’s like a nimble child. People around her laugh, applaud, talk and hand her a napkin, which she then proceeds to give to another diner. The monkey is both part of the revelries and absolutely outside of them; she appears to be helping, but who knows what ‘help’ constitutes here? For the next few minutes, she sits or wanders about distributing napkins, inscrutable in her mask, which is frozen in an expression of persistent melancholy; occasionally, the flash of cameras startles her. The clip ends abruptly, with the monkey once again glancing at the camera. I imagine her fur, hot and itchy beneath this strange mask, her vision obscured by its narrow slits. Primates have a complex system of facial muscles and expressions: that hers is hidden is at best baffling, at worst cruel. She seems very alone and very vulnerable. It’s all deeply disturbing, not least because everything about this scenario sets my judgement adrift. Who am I to know what a monkey likes doing? How do I know whether she’s sad? Perhaps she’s proud of her work! Does she like her mask? And what’s with the wig?

Human Mask, 2014, video still. All images courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London, and Anna Lena Films, Paris

The restaurant is Kayabuki, north of Tokyo – a traditional sake house that ‘employs’ two monkeys, Yat-chan and Fuku-chan, as waiting staff. Fuku-chan, the animal in the YouTube video, is a macaque, a species that has intricate social structures and has been used widely in animal testing because it shares functional brain features with those of humans. Astonishingly, local authorities issued permits for Yat-chan and Fuku-chan to work; apparently they’re regularly tipped with soya beans. In a news report on New Tang Dynasty TV, from 6 October 2008, ‘Monkey Business: Monkeys as Waiters in Japan’, one customer, Takayoshi Soeno, says: ‘The monkeys are better waiters than some really bad human ones.’ The animals belong to the owner of the restaurant, Kaoru Otsuka, who explained that they started imitating him at work. One Kayabuki regular, 62-year-old Shoichi Yano, laughs: ‘These guys are really adorable. They’re like my kids … well, actually, better. My son doesn’t listen to me but Yat-chan will.’ Another customer, Miho Takikawa declares: ‘We called out for more beer and he just brought us some. It’s amazing how he seems to understand human words.’ I doubt the understanding goes both ways.

When the artist Pierre Huyghe saw Fuku-chan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!, he was fascinated by its pathos, its sheer weirdness, and by the ambiguous things it says about the ways in which animals and humans relate. The repetition and grind of our working lives, the cycles of nature and the complexity of non-human forms of intelligence and communication have long been central to the French artist’s work. His ‘event’ La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece, 1993) and film Streamside Day (2003) both featured humans in animal masks; in 2005, he travelled to Antarctica to ‘search for a unique solitary creature that was rumoured to live only on the shores of an unnamed island somewhere at the height of the Polar Antarctic Circle’ (this became part of his work A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005). In 2011, he created Recollection (Zoodram 4, after Sleeping Muse by Constantin Brâncuși), which comprises a hermit crab living in an aquarium with a reproduction of Brâncuși’s 1910 sculpture Sleeping Muse. In 2012, he made a sculpture garden for dOCUMENTA (13) that included ants, a beehive that formed the head of a sculpture, and an albino Podenco dog called Human, with a pink-dyed leg (Untilled, 2011–12); at his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou last year, I recall seeing bees, ants, crustaceans and spiders as well as Human, who wandered around the galleries like a surreal guard dog.

Human Mask, 2014, video still.

A mesmerising and disturbing 19-minute film, Human Mask (2014), is Huyghe’s response to Fuku-chan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant! It was shown as part of his debut exhibition with Hauser & Wirth in London in late 2014, ‘IN. BORDER. DEEP.’, which included aquariums filled with biotopes apparently transplanted from Claude Monet’s ponds in Giverny, a figurative sculpture heated to the temperature of the human body, and a video of 30-million-year-old copulating insects preserved in amber. Human Mask was partially shot on a drone camera in Fukushima in 2011 after the earthquake-triggered tsunami had caused the meltdown of three nuclear plant reactors, the evacuation of 300,000 people from the area and at least 1,600 deaths; the sense of desolation is palpable. The film opens with a shot of a graffitied building that seems to have fallen from the leaden sky, landed in the middle of a road and collapsed. The tense soundtrack recalls a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner; it’s interrupted occasionally by tinny announcements barked over a loudspeaker.

The deserted streets feel forsaken; it is obvious something terrible has happened. After a minute or so, the scene shifts to the interior of a gloomy building. A faint light illuminates a head of shiny hair. What first appears to be a small girl sitting at a desk is gradually revealed to be a monkey wearing a wig and a smooth, white, improbably life-like mask. (Whether or not the animal is actually a female is unclear.) Against the shadowy background, the monkey’s dark uniform renders her body almost invisible; at times, her disembodied face seems to float like a soft moon. She plays with her wig; it is strangely sensual and disconcertingly human. The silence is interrupted by the distorted announcements, like warnings from some long-dead civilization.

Human Mask, 2014, video still.

The monkey is, in fact, the same ‘waitress’ from Fuku-chan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!. Huyghe filmed her in the empty restaurant where she works. Her isolation, her disguise, her sadness – all are almost unbearably touching for reasons that are hard to fathom, but then incomprehension is central to Human Mask. In one scene, the monkey sits by a window near a bunch of dead flowers; the world outside is concealed by flimsy curtains printed with images of trees. In another, Fuku-chan’s beautiful, false face is offset by a dream-like watercolour of an idealized forest. It would seem that the closest she ever gets to nature is its representation. The natural world is as out of her reach as our ability to understand her.

The mood is elegiac, the lighting chiaroscuro. The monkey touches her face and the contrast between the delicate mask and her gnarled, hairy paws is shocking. She wanders around and occasionally rests. She seems aimless, a fake person in an environment that has been ruined by very human actions. She puts a bottle on a table and stares at it. Although her mask is immobile, it is oddly expressive – yet its expressiveness has nothing to do with Fuku-chan. Made in resin, it was designed by Huyghe, who was inspired by the masks used in traditional Japanese Noh theatre, the recurring theme of which is a supernatural being transformed into a human hero. Only the main actor in Noh wears a mask, which is meant to show he character in his true light – his essential traits having been distilled into a single expression. In Huyghe’s work, conversely, the mask makes a mockery of the monkey’s innate characteristics: it’s the embodiment of anthropomorphism at its most seductive and cruel, creating a literal barrier between the monkey’s world and ours. The combination of her traditional mask and spry body makes Fuku-chan appear to be both young and ancient. She is what we are descended from – so recognizable yet so alien – but she lives in our own time: she’s like a very real ghost.

'IN. BORDER. DEEP', 2014, installation view at Hauser & Wirth, London. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London; photograph: Alex Delfanne

There are moments of extraordinary beauty in Human Mask: the aquatic light, the sudden appearance of a cat, the strangely shocking shaking of a furred leg. In human terms, the monkey’s self-containment is dignified; she seems focused but we don’t know on what. At one point, Fuku-chan appears to dance; she spins and stumbles. Her costume is pathetic: a travesty of a monkey’s inborn indifference to nakedness. The rain falls; the camera lingers on dead insects and then live cockroaches: the great survivors. The final frame is a close-up of the monkey’s eyes, shining through the narrow slits of her mask.

Animals are indifferent to cameras and, as far as we know, to art, too. You can film them as much as you like, but there will never be any artifice to their performances – they’re anti-actors. It is impossible to know who – or what – a monkey is by imposing our values on them. This is the paradox Huyghe has set up: he has choreographed a deeply artificial scenario in order to explore something profoundly real about the assumed superiority of man over nature and about the ethics of using animals to satisfy very human needs. In all of this, Huyghe obviously implicates himself as well: his own actions demonstrate how inter-species communication is still an enigma – and that art, obviously, isn’t exempt from the problems that this poses. His film is a stark and brilliant reminder that humans are the only species who regularly practice deceit – and that the only ones we are capable of deceiving are ourselves. You can put a monkey in a mask but, however hard you try, you can’t make it believe a lie. It knows it’s a monkey. If only humans were as wise.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.