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Park to Pompidou

8 October 2013

Pierre Huyghe claims his work is not performance art. But curators would struggle to hang it on gallery walls, or display it in an institutional space.

Untilled (2012) created for dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, is a sculpture of a reclining woman with a beehive – complete with live bees – on her head. The original was set up next to a park compost heap. Compost is a fitting metaphor for Huyghe’s working method in which the artist sets up situations, actors, animals, plants, and lets them ferment and combine in unfathomable ways. The Centre Pompidou’s location doesn’t allow for such organic decomposition and regeneration. But the extension of the exhibition space beyond the walls and out on to the surrounding pavement lends a gritty urban take to Untilled.

Inside, a maze-like scenography of strangely-placed partitions plunges us into somebody else’s imagination (the artist’s? the collective’s?) Film projections; a black ice rink; a fish tank with a hermit crab living inside Brancusi’s Muse Endormi; what looks like a disco floor suspended from the ceiling; and rain, snow and fur coats in corners all form part of the rich and bizarre tapestry. The fur coats turn out to be more functional than formal – comfortable resting places for ‘Human’, a white greyhound with one pink leg who appeared in the original Untilled and lopes around the exhibition in the flesh.

Less cuddly than the dog is an actor wandering around quietly in a mask made of LEDs. He is perhaps from Huyghe’s eerie film, The Host and the Cloud (2010). This two-hour long film is set in the building that used to house the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires on the edge of Paris.

Eschewing narrative, The Host and the Cloud remains captivating. A group of actors are put in different situations around the abandoned museum and are left to interact unscripted. At one point a makeshift law court is presided over by a room of LED-masked actors; a hypnosis session and what looks like an orgy take place in the cavernous building, with snippets of Michael Jackson and Kate Bush on the soundtrack. It is playful but also very dark, a purgatory between dream and nightmare.

The ambiance of the whole show recalls the abandoned museum in The Host and the Cloud: partitions with drilled holes are a hangover from the previous exhibition, lending the space a shabby chic feel, almost closer to a squat than a national museum. The living exhibits (ants, water spiders and fish feature as well as the bees, crab and dog) give the whole experience a chaotic, volatile air.

Pierre Huyge’s projects are certainly hard to define, let alone distil into a retrospective. But the show manages to successfully showcase Huyghe’s elusive oeuvre, without hoping to contain it. Visitors are left with the impression they are part of something more complex and vital.

‘Pierre Huyghe’ is at the Centre Pompidou until 6 January 2014.