A dog named Human has been living at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the past few weeks. Multiple times a day during open hours, she wanders through French artist Pierre Huyghe's retrospective in the museum's Resnick Pavilion, and groups of visitors often follow her and her handler. Caravanning after her is OK, as is taking non-flash photos, but the museum staff asks that visitors refrain from petting her.
The day Huyghe's exhibition officially opened, LACMA published a blog post to answer inevitable questions. Yes, Human is considered an artwork. Her leg has indeed been dyed pink, but safely. Yes, there is a permit for her inclusion in the show. She has worked with Huyghe since he found her in a shelter three years ago. She has a room to the right of the Resnick for "respite," and a local veterinarian has examined her. She is healthy. All Ibizan hounds have such thin coats and prominent rib cages.
LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory described Huyghe's exhibition as a chance to "experience the world he has created" during the preview for the retrospective of the 52-year-old artist, who recently moved back to Paris after years in New York. "I'm sure it will live on in our minds."
Gregory organized the L.A. leg of a retrospective that began at the Pompidou Center in Paris, then traveled to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany.
Huyghe, known for projects that are ambitious and immersive — such as the "biotope" he developed in Kassel, Germany, or the boat trip he took to Antarctica in search of a rare penguin — wanted his show to be a kind of living ecosystem. It spans 25 years, but the work is not labeled or installed chronologically. In Gregory's words, it is "a network that, while populated by Huyghe's objects and ideas, lives beyond his supervision."
Human the hound is not the only walking, breathing being involved in keeping the network going. There are actual humans, too: the hound's handler, the marine biologists enlisted by LACMA's conservation team to tend to Huyghe's aquariums, beekeepers to tend the beehive that covers the head of a sculpted woman out back, and the people standing at the entrance who announce each visitor's name (more on that later).
As it turns out, it's difficult to wander through an ecosystem, or a "created world," such as this without wondering how it's being sustained and who's calling the shots, regardless of how mesmerizing it feels at times.
The Huyghe retrospective is the first major exhibition of a midcareer international artist hosted by a Los Angeles museum since spring 2013, when New York–based, Swiss artist Urs Fischer's survey opened at MOCA. That show also made an effort to be more of an environment than a conventional exhibition. It did include wall labels — at LACMA, visitors who want to know which work of Huyghe's is which must pick up a map before entering the galleries — but it also incorporated contributions from 1,000 volunteers who agreed to work alongside Fischer to turn MOCA's Geffen Contemporary into a gray jungle of handmade, unfired clay forms and figures. The clay would fall apart, or get stepped on over the course of the show, so Fischer's effort to make an ever-changing ecosystem was both more populist and more chaotic than Huyghe's. At that exhibition, the agency of the "volunteers" was a real question. Should volunteers have been paid? Did they receive sufficient credit?
Questions of agency and recognition come up immediately in Huyghe's retrospective, too. As visitors enter, a man in a tuxedo greets them, asks them for their first and last names, then shouts both names loudly. This work, called Name Announcer, originated in 2011 for a show Huyghe did at Esther Schipper Gallery in Berlin. The work was then purchased by the Ishikawa Collection, a museum in Okayama, Japan, which means anyone wanting to re-create Name Announcer needs to ask permission of that museum. For the LACMA show, Huyghe hired a number of L.A.-based announcers, all of them male and all required to wear the tux. One announcer is present whenever the show is open, and he is paid for his time. His name is never given; he is always referred to by the work's generic title.
Because Huyghe chose to use angled partitions to separate different clusters of his ecosystem, navigating the show is like moving through a maze. Visitors might pass ants crawling up a wall, at least one live marine ecosystem where a hermit crab wears a female mask modeled after a Brancusi sculpture, and a long, haunting film in which a woman wears half-removed Ronald McDonald make-up before coming across one of Huyghe's best-known projects: Annlee.
Around 1999, Huyghe and fellow French artist Philippe Parreno purchased a generic Japanese manga character for $428. The company Kworks, which develops such characters for film and video games, had designed her to play bit parts, hence her affordability. Huyghe and Parreno wanted to turn the character, Annlee, into a star, making films in which she was featured and inviting other artist friends of theirs to use her in their work. In one short video Huyghe made, on view at LACMA, Annlee wanders across the surface of the moon; the soundtrack includes recordings of astronaut Neil Armstrong's voice during the Apollo 11 mission.
Then, in 2002, Parreno and Huyghe decided to transfer all Annlee's copyrights to herself — the contractual agreement they drew up to do this hangs at LACMA, too. She would be her own legal entity, but, of course, once she became free of handlers, it would be nearly impossible for a fictional character like her to continue having any kind of career.
On the wall opposite Annlee's contract, a more recent film by Huyghe also explores the limits of freedom. It's melancholic, cool and slow and stars a monkey wearing the mask of a conventionally pretty woman. The monkey, trained to work as a waitress in Tokyo, plays a monkey that had worked at a restaurant in Fukushima. The restaurant closed in the wake of nuclear disaster, and in Huyghe's version, filmed on-site, the creature is still there, moving through a defunct routine. Called Untitled (Human Mask), the film plays against that far wall only sometimes. Other times, a grid of lights, which hangs from the ceiling and is controlled by visitors with joysticks, flickers on.
This unpredictability was key to Huyghe's vision but hard to get right. The day of the press preview, technicians were still working, and problems with A/V equipment, as well as a complication with Human's permit, kept the show closed to the general public two days longer than planned.
Mentioning these glitches is not meant as a cut on Huygyhe's project. Manufacturing a sense of unpredictability is logistically difficult, and the way this show reveals that difficulty, sometimes in spite of itself, makes it more interesting.
The most precarious installation in Huyghe's retrospective probably is 2012's Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), a concrete cast of a woman's reclining body with a beehive covering her face. The bees are real, and a beekeeper contracted from T&A Farms in Cypress Park installed and supervises the hive. The cost of this was worked into the exhibition's budget.
Untilled sits outside, in a narrow corridor, next to a snow, rain and fog machines installed by Huyghe. So the buzzing, smell of wax and effects of the strange weather machine surround anyone who chooses to go out the back door and get close to the bees. But they won't be able to get as close as they could during the preview, before the museum installed a cable across the courtyard. Once again, logistical limitations will rein them in.
LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; through Feb. 22. (323) 857-6000, lacma.org.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Catherine Wagley on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: