Pierre Huyghe’s most recent film, The Host and the Cloud (2010), was shot over the course of three days in the building that used to house the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. Combining staged and improvised action, and running to just over two hours, the film – which had its US debut as the centrepiece of this show – might be Huyghe’s most elaborate, intriguing and, quite possibly, weirdest offering to date. The Musée National functions as a stage set for a series of scenes in which the artist continues to mine many of the issues that his work has explored over the past decade: re-enactment and reconstruction; the fluid nature of contemporary subjectivity; and the frequently blurred line between fiction and reality.
The museum was known, from when it opened in 1937 until it closed ten years ago, for its large collection of vernacular French artefacts. As James Clifford has noted in The Predicament of Culture (1988), his classic study of 20th-century ethnography, 1930s France saw the ethnographic exhibition shifting from the jumbled, arty surrealism that characterized its early development to a much more scientific and taxonomic mode of display. What was lost in this transition, Clifford suggests, was ‘disruptive and creative play [...] an activity that does not simply display and comprehend the diversity of cultural orders but openly expects, allows, indeed desires its own disorientation’. In The Host and the Cloud, Huyghe uses the empty staircases, object-packed basements and abandoned rooms of the museum as a backdrop for exploring exactly such productive bewilderment.
The deserted museum’s textured strangeness translates into the film’s flow and structure. Loosely made up of a group of filmed activities whose link to each other is somewhat obscure, at least at first glance (and, quite frankly, probably at second too), The Host and the Cloud often seems to be pushing against itself. Some scenes are repeated, or repeated with a difference (first one woman, then another, dresses up as Ronald McDonald; two different men are inexplicably declared king, via the same script, in separate theatrical scenes – one enacted in the museum’s auditorium, the other in its lobby). Other events are spliced together in a jolting way: a shadow-puppet play (backed by Sergei Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf, 1936) is replaced by a ‘black Mass’ ritual, in which LED-masked characters encircle a kneeling naked woman; a re-enactment of the trial of real-life French radical group Action Directe is followed by an hypnosis session, then fuzzy black and white rabbits frolicking, sometimes next to a cereal box or a virtual avatar of a bunny; this is interspersed with takes of two men doing choreographed dance moves to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (1983). Coupled with the film’s challenging length, it all adds up to an experiment in excessive visual confusion.
In some ways, Huyghe seems to be responding to, even mimicking, a specific type of quasi-avant-garde cinema from the late 1960s and early ’70s – that when the alternative ideology of one decade seeped just deeply enough into the next to allow for some popular, full-length explorations of surreal, socio-psychedelic states. Movies such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) or Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969) were all preoccupied with the shattering of traditional narrative via the physical, psychological and visual agency of drugs, sex and cinema itself. But while The Host and the Cloud is structurally and materially beholden to these movies (it even closes with a red light-tinged orgy, performed to the rousing strains of Kate Bush’s 1978 song ‘Wuthering Heights’), it ultimately takes its potential for a revolution of the senses with a grain of salt.
This is not to suggest that Huyghe is cynical or derisive towards the materials he draws upon. It would be more accurate to say that he’s more interested in the intersection between heady material energies and a context whose temperament is, for the most part, detached and considered (a tension he also explores in the few objects on show in the gallery space – most notably three large aquariums displaying exotic marine ecosystems that are, somehow, both physical and yet hologrammatic and image-like). In this sense, we can perhaps align Huyghe’s film more closely with those of Jean-Luc Godard’s in the 1960s, a cinema of often comical contradictions in which stunning 21-year-old brunettes in mini-skirts quote passages from Marx; where a fascination with American genres, popular culture and plush, colour-saturated visuals and materials is accompanied by a hyper-cerebral explanatory discourse.
The Godard association may clarify The Host and the Cloud’s status as one in a long line of works that tarry with the cerebral while also poking and shoving at tactile matter and its properties. In the film’s opening scene, a group of women in white lab coats is shown carving irregular facial features out of pumpkins with the focused gravity of surgeons. In a way, this brief vignette anticipates the rest of the film. Consisting of an exploration of by-now-familiar Postmodern brain-twisters (can an artificial thing, produced in mass, come to represent a person? And, if so, what might become of authentic, deep subjectivity?), Huyghe’s film is at the same time significantly invested in the often idiosyncratic, unexpected results of material creation. But The Host and the Cloud is a film in which the crooked, mushy sculpting of a pumpkin is, in the end, no less meaningful than that same action’s overarching intellectual implications.