The Mannerist Theme Park
The acclaim that greeted the recent Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno retrospectives was a case less of critical appreciation than of a kind of enchantment. The following text is an attempt to be more measured, an exercise in criticism based on examination of the work of these two artists who for a long time were joined in common projects.
At the end of 1990s a new discourse about the exhibition began to take shape. It was articulated mainly around three terms: scenario, format and narrative. Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno were associated with this trend, along with other artists ( notably Dominique GonzalezFoerster and Liam Gillick) and numerous critics who commented on their work.(1) In these discourses the term scenario referred, without distinction, to fiction, a critical function, an ideology, a mentality, a subject, a conceptual tool, etc.: a set of heterogeneous objects and an illdefined concept, then, but the latter had enormous strategic breadth. It launched and circulated a fresh- to- the market vocabulary that promised new practices, and also had a normative function. In a context where “the exhibition form of art,” to borrow Jacques Rancière’s expression,(2) had already become the new paradigm for many artists (especially those whose work was to be understood as a critique of the museum), this vocabulary could become a powerful instrument of legitimization. Let’s face it, the strategy worked.
If we cut to the practice, the term scenario is easily understood in the work of Parreno and Huyghe in that they seek to produce narratives that never go beyond being stages of a plot. The possibilities within these narratives are said to remain open, and the forms are not actualized in any particular story but rather in the amalgamation of possibles that appear in the negative and positive spaces produced by the images and their composition.
Huyghe explains: “L’Expédition scintillante gave shape to a scenario that is now being realized in A Journey That Wasn’t. At the Bregenz Kunsthaus, the three floors are identical, and each one constituted a phase in this scenario: the hypothesis of an elsewhere and a displacement, an encounter, the mise-en-scène. […] Each level corresponded to a scene from a possible opera. The first underwent the climatic changes in the Poe novel [ The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket]: snow, fog and rain were falling from the ceiling. In the center of this same room was a big boat in ice, halfway between vehicle and destination. On the second level there was a music box whose psychedelic lights and smoke machines suggested an inner journey. This was an evocative device, a language. And then, on the third floor, was a platform for a future exhibition, a skating rink with black ice and a libretto..”(3) The “scenario” that “gives form” to this exhibition combines two sets of elements. One comprises attractive, appealing and powerfully evocative objects that each constitute a starting point for a story and bring to mind childhood marvels (the ice boat, music box and skating rink). The other is made up of missing things, materialized by the separation of elements on different museum floors, implying a subtractive poetics (the narrative is withheld). Huyghe’s “scenario” replays the function of clues and traces in a combination of the spectacular and the empty. He creates the possibility of a narrative where the passage of time takes a material form, in the course of the exhi- bition, in the slow metamorphosis of the physical objects that make it up. Since Bregenz, this approach has continued to guide the different elements of his work, whatever the actual objects he is working with. Parreno states the same approach: the idea is to turn exhibitions into a privileged space for the assembly of objects that compose a narrative; to transform the exhibition experience into the reading of a picture book; and to define the artist as the intermediary for stories: “When I was a student I spent five years looking at books. What haunted me was the relationship between stories and exhibitions and that haunts me still. I have never found objects interesting. What I was interested in was not so much the making of objects but their insertion into a story, a context. Consequently, at some point, an object, an image, will belong to an exhibition, which is their exhibition, the conditions of their exhibition. I learned that from Buren.”(4)
In this set of texts the term “format,” like the word “scenario,” covers a vast range of meanings depending on the objects to which it is applied (material and economic, historical and aesthetic, contextual and strategic). Here we will note three instantiations: The first is the format as a production norm exterior to art (in this case, film). Huyghe: “To say that you can’t use a form because it has already been taken up by other formats, and to legitimize this incapacity by producing a particularism by default doesn’t interest me.
I refuse to retreat in that way. I want to go on working on a certain scale and, in this sense, I look towards other formats.”(5) The second is format as a guiding protocol: “Here, I was looking to open up the protocols of the exhibition to other formats. The exhibition should be the starting point and not the end point; a pre-production.”(6) The last is the format as a norm of representation. “When we made the video Ozone,” Parreno explains, “we said to ourselves, ‘Can we conceive an exhibition that would take the form of a projected film signed jointly by all four of us?’ We looked a lot at the work of General Idea from this perspective. There was something unique about it—the way they use ‘formats’: TV format, magazine format. To me they were the first to think not in terms of forms and objects, as before, but in terms of formats. Formats of representation, of reading the world.”(7) Taken in a negative sense, the word format denotes cultural formatting, from which, according to the norms of art criticism, the “good” format of art is necessarily distinct. The point is to de-format the format. This therefore applies to the exhibition, understood as a cultural norm. What does this mean concretely?
In their interviews, both Parreno and Huyghe exhibit a wariness of formalism that translates into promoting “formatism.” This shift does not entail a new approach towards display layout and its extended forms, which now more than ever are conceived from the point of view of the artwork as an organic totality. “Scenario” and “format” are part of a formal logic whose resources, at best, they refresh, because it is through reformatting that the transformation from object to exhibition-form is achieved, and in the totality of the narrative (as an artwork) that the exhibition is reconfigured. “Format,” in this scenario-centric dynamic, denotes an exhibition-narrative (for which cinema was the model, the screen the privileged site and the image the principal means). However, the “scenario” constructed with objects does not so much foreground their formal qualities as such as their ability to serve as signs, i. e. to function in the same mode as clues and traces. That doubtless explains the abundance of cultural references in these projects where every sign points to another sign which itself points to a given cultural origin.( 8) In short, the narrative is a tapestry of signs that the artist’s practice stages, redistributes or makes coexist in one or several spaces.
Ann Lee, Snow White, Lucie, Zidane, Le Corbusier, Marilyn Monroe, Petrushka, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, a modernist sculpture and a classical one, little worlds enclosed in aquariums, a dog with a pink paw, books under glass, masked characters—all are signs. What these signs have in common, other than that they all pertain to cultural references, is their consistency: they are symbols, they are props for anecdotes, sometimes bordering on the insipid.(9) This also explains why Huyghe’s retrospective at the Pompidou Center offered fragments of exhibitions (his own) in the remains of an exhibition (by Mike Kelley). And why all the signs inhabiting this space were in turn snatched up by this overwhelming reference (the exhibition as remains). As for Parreno and his exhibition Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World at the Palais de Tokyo, subtractive poetics gave way to a dialectic of presence and absence systematized into a theater of appearance and disappearance that is resolved in the invocation of “ghosts” for the great majority of his proposals, especially spectacular ones. But that’s not all, because the interlinking of these signs no longer produces a narrative: speaking of his latest show, or instead of one, Huyghe proclaims the idea of an indifferent nature,(10) while Parreno is flirting with the Gesamtkunstwerk. Thus, the danger for “formatism” is not so much formalism as a mannerism whose coordinates are three kinds of data: signs that lose their meaning due to their coexistence (the juxtaposition of Halloween and the remake of a trial of French anarchists in a Huyghe film, The Host and the Cloud); objects whose presence (this is the distinguishing sign of this exhibition) is supposed to signify an absence (perhaps to themselves); and the theme of vestiges and ghosts (replacing subtractive poetics). So what’s left? Emotions? Really just attractions and an ambiance: a screamer, a man with a donkey head, an ice skater, a dog with pink paws; a song by Kate Bush, music by Brian Eno, a moving display wall, lights synchronized to the rhythm of player pianos, a rotating bookcase, a little girl who asks you questions… What kind of enchantment is this, what kind of fairground or paradox? Having set themselves on doing away with one cultural norm, they have ended up with another one: the funfair and its attractions and artifices. In a new attempt to impose a vocabulary, Huyghe no longer wants to talk about scenarios but rather “indetermination,” not about the exhibition but “a living situation” and not about visitors but “witnesses.”(11). Even at the Pompidou Center? one might be tempted to ask. Obviously the specter of Debord continues to haunt the consciousness of this generation of artists. But that’s when the paradox suddenly clears up: Huyghe’s terminology would be equally appropriate for describing the experience of visiting natural parks, which long ago became attraction parks.
Translation, L-S Torgoff
(1) For this article I reviewed a set of texts and interviews published in artpress over the last dozen years, from no. 264 (January 2001) through no. 405 (November 2013). (2) In “Possible Spaces,” a conversation between Jacques Rancière and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, artpress no. 327 (October 2006). ( 3) “A Sentimental Journey,” Pierre Huyghe interviewed by Richard Leydier, artpress no. 322 (April 2006). (4) Philippe Parreno, “Representation in Question,” interview by Philippe Vergne, artpress no. 264 (January 2001). (5) Pierre Huyghe, “A Sentimental Journey,” loc. cit. (6) Pierre Huyghe, speaking about the Association des temps libérés, op. cit. (7) Philippe Parreno, “Representation in Question,” loc. cit. (8) A perfect example of this is what Philippe Parreno said to Anaël Pigeat in a recent interview in artpress no. 405 (November 2013, “A ghost is a forgotten book that we reinvent”). Through the course of a series of questions, the artist draws up a long list of references and proper nouns. (9) These anecdotes are recounted in the pamphlets handed over to visitors when they enter the Pierre Huyghe exhibition. Each of the artworks is basically a prop for one or another of these stories. Parreno has wall signs to tell his stories, in addition to the booklet given out at the door. (10) See the interview with Pierre Huyghe by Robert Storr, “Singular Writings,” artpress 404, October 2013. The cultural clothing has been changed. Whereas yesterday it was borrowed from Jacques Rancière and Bruno Latour, now it’s from Quentin Meillassoux. And Huyghe’s homage to Robert Smithson seems unfounded, because the latter’s work aspired to a dehumanization and was untouched by the slightest romanticism. (11) Ibid. In this context it should go without saying that these binaries don’t hold up: all indeterminacy is a construction, something produced by specific conditions; all exhibitions offer a situation or an experience; every eyewitness is also a viewer.
Christophe Kihm is a professor at the HEAD in Geneva. He is the author of L’Épreuve de l’image. Techniques et compétences des corps (Bayard, 2013), and, with Valérie Mavridorakis, edited the forthcoming Transmettre l’art (Les Presses du Réel, 2014).
Page de gauche / page left: Philippe Parreno. Vue de l'exposition « Anywhere, Anywhere, Out of The World », Palais de Tokyo, 2013. « How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance? ». 2012. (Court. Esther Schipper Gallery ; Ph. A. Mole) Ci-contre / opposite: Pierre Huyghe. « L’expédition scintillante ». 2002. Patinoire. Vue de l’exposition au Centre Pompidou. 2013. (Ph. P. Migeat)