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Issue 208

Pierre Huyghe’s Okayama Art Summit and the Non-Future of Humanity

‘IF THE SNAKE’ shows a world caught in limbo – or hell  

BY Harry Thorne in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 11 OCT 19

Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson, Delay Lines (detail), 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Ishikawa Foundation, Okayama; photograph: Ola Rindal 

What do the immortals sacrifice in the pursuit of foreverness? Dominion over time surely brings power and wealth, but it must also numb those most tender of moments that we define as ‘human’ – or expunge them altogether. A soft touch, for instance, or the memory of a friend lost. It is, after all, the very finality of life that imbues it with meaning. And, stripped of meaning, what would our world resemble? 

For Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni, it would resemble hell. As part of the second Okayama Art Summit, titled ‘IF THE SNAKE’ and curated by Pierre Huyghe, Giraud and Siboni have plunged the orderly classrooms of the former Uchisange Elementary School into darkness and disarray. Sacrificial birds hang from chandeliers of LED tubing; a neonatal incubator drips its innards to the cold floor; a lone monitor loops footage of Richard Nixon, his jowly proclamations dubbed into a high-pitched Japanese. It could be said that we are drawn to ruined architecture because it allows us to escape from the order of our built world. But if this is escape, I dread to think what we are running from.

John Gerrard, X. laevis (Spacelab), 2017. Courtesy: the artist, Thomas Dane Gallert and Simon Preston Gallery. Pamela Rosenkranz, Skin Pool (Oromom), 2019. Courtesy: the artist, Karma International, Miguel Abreu Gallery and Sprüth Magers; Ola Rindal 

Titled The Form of Not (Infantia), The Unmanned, Season 3 (2019), the installation doubled as the backdrop for a 24-hour performance undertaken ahead of the opening. Set in the year 4936, the resulting video follows the ‘last mortals’, who, faced with the Earth’s impending destruction, take hostage a group of ‘immortals’ intent on fleeing the moribund planet. 

In the school’s grounds, speculative futures are, if no less dystopic, assuredly less frenzied. For Skin Pool (Omorom) (2019), Pamela Rosenkranz has filled a swimming pool with a gelatinous pink liquid, the unnatural colour of which derives from a similarly unnatural concoction: a standardized version of the cosmetic industry’s ‘Northern European’ skin-tones. Reflected in the pink is John Gerrard’s X. Laevis (Spacelab) (2017), in which a simulated frog hangs airborne, its leg spasming at intermittent intervals. Gerrard’s work conflates two historical events: the 18th-century experiments of Luigi Galvani, who fleetingly re-animated dead frogs with electrical currents, and research undertaken on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 to prove that vertebrates could reproduce in zero gravity. Just as Gerrard’s frog is suspended mid-leap, so too does it occupy a perpetual state of ontological in-betweenness: held somewhere between life, death and life 2.0.  

Mika Tajima, New Humans, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and TARO NASU; photograph: Ola Rindal 

‘IF THE SNAKE’ fixates on the paradox of second life. Repeatedly, it scrambles to visualize that which might herald our demise, survive the annihilation or crawl from the wreckage. For Huyghe, humanity (or its likeness) will shelter within the ‘lifeless’ technologies that we have created. On an LED screen, a new untitled work flickers through a sequence of murky, near-representational renderings of human thought, each of which has been captured by an fMRI scanner and visualized by a neural network. For Tino Sehgal, it is human tenderness that will persist. Roaming the excavated grounds of the elementary school in pairs, his performers pause, lower themselves to the earth and embrace. From there, they hum in what could be improvisation, each responding to, existing for, the other. 

One of the central existential difficulties facing humanity is our cognitive inability to comprehend forces much larger than ourselves. Global warming, black holes, plutonium decay: these are what Timothy Morton terms ‘hyperobjects’, pervasive entities of such extreme temporal and spatial dimensions that we are incapable of interacting with them on a rational level. As if to circumvent this mental blockage, ‘IF THE SNAKE’ concerns itself with effect and not cause. It considers where we are going and not how we will get there. And what does our brave new world resemble, characterized as it is by disarray, disorder and chance encounters? It resembles our own. And from that, we should take heart. Or, indeed, heed warning.

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.