BY Tom Morton in Interviews | 07 JUN 06
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Issue 100

Space Explorer

On the occasion of his first UK solo show – 'Celebration Park' – at Tate Modern this summer, Tom Morton spoke to Pierre Huyghe about journeys, exhibition-making, fiction and the future

BY Tom Morton in Interviews | 07 JUN 06

Pierre Huyghe’s first UK solo exhibition, ‘Celebration Park’, opens this summer at Tate Modern, London. Since the mid-1990s, his installations, films and collaborative works have looked at the relationship between our experiences, the past, our expectations and the future. His work forms an enquiry into the ways we create our own narratives and fictions in the process of establishing social rituals and traditions. Expanding the idea of what constitutes an exhibition or event, ‘Celebration Park’ embraces a wide range of references, including puppetry, community gatherings and a journey to Antarctica in search of a mythical albino penguin.

Tom Morton: The title of your exhibition ‘Celebration Park’ at ARC / Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Tate Modern, London, evokes a future project, somewhere between an amusement park and an international expo or world fair. Can you tell me about it?

Pierre Huyghe: When you want to push the exhibition towards a more performative scale, you end up rethinking the conditions of its reception. ‘Celebration Park’ is an exhibition of exhibitions, and an exhibition about another exhibition to come. It starts with this idea of celebration – something to embrace, something that you experience on a time-based protocol. The temporal structure of the original world fair allowed experimental proposals, but when people started thinking of the idea of progress as embarrassing, this kind of place lost its meaning. In another way the amusement park failed as a pathetic illusion and vulgar master-plan. I’m looking for a permanent exhibition that grows as an organism, an arrangement between heterogeneity, a series of pavilions hosting an experience of a real situation, a system of representation that participates in the construction of an experience.

TM Almost like a homogeneous cell structure?

PH Exactly, each cell being part of a wider ensemble. I’m interested in the set of relations, the set of procedures of an organic system, which brings about a principle of uncertainty rather than a resolution.

TM The time code or time protocol of the exhibition has been a major concern in your work, since at least L’Association des Temps Libérés (The Association of Freed Time, 1995), a project you initiated and then collaborated on with Liam Gillick, Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and others. Can you tell me about the decision to begin the ARC leg of ‘Celebration Park’ with a prologue?

PH In Paris ‘Celebration Park’ took place in two parts. It began with a prologue that gave the rules of the game of the upcoming exhibition. During the prologue, which coincided with the reopening of the museum, I invited Jay Chung and Q. Takeki Maeda to stage an exhibition, while on the other side of the museum I played with the exhibition protocol, based on a few elements. It started with a book in the form of a day planner, which also functioned as a compass or guide for the exhibition. As you turned the pages of this day planner, you realized that it shifts from days to seconds, from minutes to hours, so the time it presents is not linear.

TM Rather like Zeno’s paradox, in which an arrow shot at a slow-moving tortoise never reaches its target. Time just expands and expands.

PH The time-line of this day planner is loose and expanding. Some images of previous works appear in the planner at different stages of their production. They are re-photographed, over-exposed, reframed or blurry. What you see is an image, the subjective narration of the production flow. After looking at the planner, you entered the exhibition space and faced a very large set of doors. All doors define the limits of and access to a territory, but these doors moved about the exhibition space on a set of rails, so the limits of the territory became unclear.

TM These doors were surrounded by large neon text pieces, which took the form of disavowals of ownership of copyrighted properties. What role did they play in the exhibition prologue?

PH These sentences are disclaimers, which are a juridical form that allows someone to put in circulation, or to expand, something that he does not own. Everyone expands and prolongs existing narratives, fictions and characters in life – it’s the way in which we participate in the production of symbolic materials and the way in which we inhabit the tales they generate. In my earlier work I have extended, among other things, the narrative of Snow White’s character, 4’33” (1952), by John Cage, and Jorge Luis Borges’ story 'The Garden of the Forking Paths' (1941). The exhibition prologue and subsequent exhibition at ARC featured the neon words ‘I do not own the Museum of Modern Art, nor the Death Star’, followed by ‘I do not own Snow White’ and so on, so some of my previous works reappeared in this affirmative denial form and applied to space and time as well as characters or narratives. The prologue ended with visitors encountering the artist in the form of a puppet character. This operated as a trailer for the upcoming exhibition, announcing the film This is not a Time for Dreaming (2004).

TM Your film A Journey that Wasn’t (2005), shown as part of ‘Celebration Park’, begins with what might be described as a hypothesis or fiction: that a new island has emerged in Antarctica as a result of climate change, and that this island is inhabited by an unknown, utterly singular creature – a kind of Kantian noumenon in the form of an albino penguin. To what extent is the expedition to the island recorded in the film a verification of this hypothesis or this fiction?

PH I’m interested in constructing the condition of emergence of a fiction – we invent a hypothesis, and we give ourselves the real means to verify it. A Journey that Wasn’t begins with the postulate you described. The collective journey on a scientific sailing boat recorded in the film is an expedition towards this postulate, a search for an idea and a displacement. As my project with Philippe Parreno No Ghost Just a Shell (1999) turned around the story of a sign, this project turned around the experience of a journey. After this adventure I was trying to find a topological system that would allow to adapt this experience in the form of an opera, or maybe I undertook this adventure to find a story for this opera. TM Which we see performed in Central Park in the film?

PH On the ice rink in Central Park. This opera, this musical show, was an equivalent experience to encountering the island without being a representation of it. The shape of the island was transcribed into a musical score for a symphonic orchestra, so that the duration of the show corresponded to the time required for the Central Park audience to ‘listen’ to the island.

TM Is the creation of an equivalent of the island a way of circumventing the problems inherent in bringing back a ‘trophy’ of the trip?

PH When you bring back something, you are losing the alterity, the diversity, in the translation. You need to find a principle of equivalence; otherwise it’s a tragedy.

TM Another equivalent of the island in ‘Celebration Park’ is Terra Incognita Prototype (2006).

PH I asked François Roche and R&Sie(n) architects to think about a structure, a prototype for a pavilion that could host this project in the eventuality of my proposed ‘park’. The principle of this structure is equivalent to the emergence of the island, to its geological procedure. At ARC and Tate Modern the floor of the museum is cut out with water jets, and its surface is drawn up by a series of cables attached to counterweights fabricated from cylindrical cross-sections of ice. A topology is created, but if the ice melts the structure disappears. In the show it is physically unreachable and remains an image. Next to it stands an animatronic model of the unique creature, the albino penguin. Monsters used to appear as a result of a chain of narrators; someone used to tell the story of someone or something to someone else. In a capitalist system, which needs stories, the narrative still circulates but cannot expand; it is locked, it can be listened to but cannot be told because the narrative belongs to someone as an immaterial moving property – there’s a copyright attached to it. In the course of a narrative’s life there are different moments – Jean-François Lyotard spoke about the instance of narrative – and these moments have to be interchangeable in order to change history. Do you know that the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ belongs to AOL? Companies like George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic create monsters and narratives today, so I asked a similar kind of company to create the penguin.

TM It’s interesting that you describe the penguin as a monster. One might also describe the mutating building in the nightmare sequence in your film This is not a Time for Dreaming as a monster too.

PH This is not a Time for Dreaming tells the story of a situation in which I was involved as an artist, where I was invited to make a work in a pre-existing context: a building designed by Le Corbusier and commissioned by Harvard University. I decided to play with all the elements present – the curators, the architect, the dean of the university, the building, the university and myself – speaking through them to redefine the situation according to the present. The project takes the form of a live performance, a puppet musical entertainment for which I built a theatre in collaboration with an architect. This performance was also filmed. The scene you are talking about is a moment of dialogue between two characters, Le Corbusier and the Dean of Harvard. This is an allegory – the building embodies the subject of their dialogue. It changes according to each one’s vision of what it should be. This building lies between two desires, that of the individual who commissioned it and that of the individual who was commissioned.

TM So the building is a representation of a thought-cloud?

PH Yes, it’s a representation of a cloud of thoughts. All of the films shown as part of ‘Celebration Park’ at Tate Modern started as large-scale live performances – an opera, a puppet show or, in the case of Streamside Day (2003), a community celebration. Each of these is a time-based exhibition in a broader sense.

TM What kind of creature is the museum show?

PH The museum show is a collection of exhibitions, or collective exhibitions based on a time protocol, that already took place elsewhere.

TM A Russian doll?

PH No, an organism.

TM To employ an organic metaphor like that evokes the notion of death …

PH Entropy is present in any organism. When I organized the celebration in Streamside Day, I was thinking about The Poetics of Dostoïevski (1929), by Mikhail Bakhtin, for whom death and the idea of renewal are central to the carnival. During the Day of the Fool the rules of society were turned upside down in a form that combined comedy, death and rebirth. We are very far from that! When celebrations are permanent, it’s a homeopathic carnival. TM Many of the jumping-off points in ‘Celebration Park’ – the Jules Verne adventuring, the idea of a Great Exhibition-like World Fair, the huge Alice in Wonderland-like doors – are from the 19th century, a time immediately prior to Modernity, or perhaps more accurately a time before Modernity had a recognizably Modern visual aesthetic. Why is this?

PH The moment that precedes the idea of Modernity interests me; the regime of historicity is still blurry, and the future has yet to take its central position. We obviously do not experience the present the same way. The relation between our experiences, the past and our expectations, the future, is so dilated that we fall into a continuous and exponential present.

TM Some commentators have – I feel inaccurately – read your work as being concerned with the gap between reality and fiction. Might it be better to think of it as an exploration of the fiction that is inherent in all things?

PH I’m interested in the set of relations between the elements within a given situation. I’m trying to intensify the co-efficient of fiction that is contained within a reality of a given situation.

TM By ‘co-efficient’, you mean the word in its mathematical sense?

PH Yes, that which is allowed to increase. There is nothing between reality and fiction. What we call fiction is what we identify as narrative constructions, but reality is something shaped by scripts. The word ‘fiction’ is not an appropriate term to oppose ‘reality’. It’s not a binary system. Maybe we should speak about the quality of the scripts which configure the given. This is not paranoia – it’s just that we are narrative- and metaphor-makers. It’s the phantasm of eco-tourism to believe that reality is the ultimate attraction. It is a naive search for the unscripted, when the movement towards this attraction is a brand new desire. The nature around the American town Streamside Knolls, featured in Streamside Day, is a scripted wilderness.

TM Tell me more about the Streamside Day project.

PH I fell on the brand new town of Streamside Knolls by accident and decided to invent a new holiday, a new celebration for that place. I was interested in altering its reality by re-writing the scenario of its cultural narrative. I was trying to understand what could be the lowest common denominator shared by the members of this upcoming community and to find a rule of a game, to increase its latent imaginary potential. These common elements turned out to be the ideas of migration and wilderness, from which I produced an exhibition in the form of a ritual for the town, a celebration. I was interested to find the pagan side of this liberal and generic context, to give a form to the present, in an inconsistent and unresolved way.

TM And this celebration may be repeated in the town, without your participation?

PH Exactly. By its nature this project exists within the loop of the year. So it is a temporary event that comes back and has a potentially long-term existence. It could change or be renegotiated according to the ability of the people who have the desire to participate in the celebration.

TM Will you return to Streamside Knolls to witness future celebrations?

PH I would like to; I should just go and see. It could be an example of an exhibition that will start to re-exist without the author.

TM As we’ve discussed, for you an exhibition may exist in the form of anything from a journey to a musical performance to a film to a museum show. What ultimately lies behind your interest in the expanded notion of the exhibition?

PH I’m trying to understand and to explore the exhibition of images. The where and the when of the image – its placement. The relation a society has with the image is a symptom of its unconscious. It’s a question of address. 

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.