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by Dorothea von Hantelmann

Thinking the Arrival: Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled and the Ontology of the Exhibition

Pierre Huyghe’s contribution to dOCUMENTA (13) required some effort in order to be discovered at all. It was not just that Huyghe had chosen a decidedly decentered exhibition site: a composting facility located in the Aue-Park. Even after one had located the site, it was anything but obvious that it was art. Visitors found themselves in a kind of overgrown vacant lot: a pile of compost, sprouting growth, through which a walkway led, at times really just a beaten path, with algae-covered puddles. The hills were overgrown with plants and weeds. Off to one side, paving slabs were stacked; nearby, a mound of black chippings. An ant colony had formed at the foot of an oak. Even on closer inspection, it was unclear what had been altered artistically and what hadn’t, where the composting facility ended and the work of art began.

There was something like a center of the work: a reclining concrete figure placed in an open space in the middle of the lot—a replica of a work by the sculptor Max Weber from the 1930s, which on its shoulders had, in lieu of a head, a beehive populated by a trembling, buzzing swarm of bees. And there was the elegant white female greyhound, Human, which, with its pink leg, became a trademark of this documenta. Other elements of the work became apparent over time: the compost hills were planted with psychotropic, medical, and aphrodisiacal plants such as deadly nightshade and angel’s trumpets. Cannabis was also there, as well as rye, which is itself a completely harmless grain but is particularly likely to harbor ergot, a fungus that can be used to synthesize LSD. At some point, visitors began to sense that the stacked sidewalk slabs were arranged in a particular way, as was the surrounding basin, in which tadpoles splashed. Huyghe had collected several artifacts—he calls them “markers”—from various times and contexts. The stacked sidewalk slabs, for example, recalled the form and materials of Minimal Art, while a felled tree alluded to Robert Smithson’s Dead Tree of 1969. A bench, tipped over and resting between the stone slabs, was part of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s installation at Documenta11 and a small, desiccated oak lying around was part of Joseph Beuys 7000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks), his contribution to documenta 7 (1982). Some of these markers were more obvious; others were, if it all, recognizable as such only with the help of a drawing by the artist published in the short guide. The latter included various physical adaptations of functional elements from literary texts. Supposedly, there was a turtle walking around the composting facility that was borrowed from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours (Against the Grain). And the young man who was nearly always present, in order to take care of the dog and the plants, personified with his constantly repeated, always identical actions a reference to the living dead in the garden of Raymond Roussel’s fantastic novel Locus Solus.

There were, however, also aspects of the work that remained and still remain open. Even today, I do not know whether Huyghe was the one who formed the hills or whether they were already there, which of the plants were already growing at the site and which he planted. The bees and the ants were just as arranged as the pool of water and the piles of stones. But what about the ecosystems located at the edge of visibility (the tadpoles, for example)? Were they part of the work? An interplay of design and the undesigned characterized this place, making it seem strangely charged—as a place where the artistic work invested in its composition became palpable, even if this composed quality was never entirely revealed.

Huyghe often speaks of “scenarios” in reference to his works, by which he means a set, a structure of rules and possibilities that the artist initiates but that then produce something of their own independently of the artist. A scenario without a script, in a sense. Many of his works are based on real situations, unscripted events and encounters. Contingency, chance, and inherent rules are thus always part of his works. What distinguishes Untilled, however, is the fact that we are dealing with a concrete physical place here whose own materials and processes are constitutive components of the work. The work is not based on a scenario, it is a scenario; a scenario that to a large extent remains contingent and must remain so, because it depends on factors over which the artist has no influence, such as the weather, the time of day or of the year, the biorhythms of a dog. The realization of this work was based on processes and events initiated by the artist that then organized themselves independently and without regard to the initial form. Part of the arrangement is that both bees and ants spread plant seeds. How that happened was, of course, beyond the scope of his plan. Visitors found themselves the middle of a process that generated itself in its contingency. The bees not only disseminated the seeds; they also reproduced, so that the head of the sculpture was constantly growing and after several months was monstrously swollen. Huyghe had created a place that had neither a beginning nor an endpoint; it remained indeterminate in its topographical form—a work that was literally rooted in its environment and continued to grow roots at every moment of its existence.

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2011–12, Alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris; Esther Schipper, Berlin

Untilled was not only based on a real situation, it kept existing as a real situation. Still plant waste continued to be transformed into fertile humus, while Huyghe simultaneously transformed the place into a site that was at once physically concrete and fictional, artistically designed and an actually preexisting milieu. Zachary Cahill has brought the metaphor of the “bleeding image” into play to describe this reshaping of a context by means of fiction.[i] An imaginary, mental image obtains a material support and, in a sense, steps into the world. The dog is, if you will, this kind of “bleeding”: a living image, a kind of real fiction. The oak is from Beuys’s 7000 Eichen, but it remains, precisely because it has neither a label nor a context, above all an oak. Because Huyghe had quite literally integrated into the creation of his work intelligent plant and animal forms that are not controlled by him, the work is subject to constant changes that occur independently of both the artist and the viewers. In the process, organic, biological, and artistic processes of creation form mesh. The site of the work is a site of becoming.

It is this ontology, which includes unstable, artistic and non-artistic, biological, and organic processes, that marks the point of departure for my reflection on this work. The fact that Untilled is more a network than a work has led me to connect it with the figure of association—a concept that has become increasingly important in the context of more recent approaches based on a critique of anthropocentrism, for instance by philosophy of science. The relationship between the figure of association and the idea of art as such or the format of the exhibition and its governmentality will be treated in the following.

The Work as Network: An Allegorical Reading of “Untilled”

The key issue of any philosophy is whether it places object-object relationships on the same ground as human-object relationships; if it does not, it is merely the old anthropocentric theory in another guise. This is an approximate summary of the point of departure for a contemporary mode of thinking that centers on the attempt to overcome anthropocentrism in a rigorous way.[ii] In this context, Donna Haraway speaks of the ethical and practical task of “reworlding” landscapes, technologies, and species without adopting the consoling premise of “human exceptionalism.”[iii] The approaches of both Haraway and Bruno Latour refer back to Alfred North Whitehead, who developed most explicitly an ontology that is not based on the perceiving subject.[iv] Whitehead was influenced not only by Einstein’s theory of relativity but also, and above all, by the evolutionary biology of Charles Darwin and his theories about the significance of chance and the interlinking of living creatures and ways of living. Whitehead’s project was to develop a metaphysics that could stand up to the theories of Einstein and Darwin. Thereby, life processes or procession in general and the overcoming of anthropocentricity moved to the center of attention. Whitehead countered modern bifurcation into nature and culture with gradual distinctions that were no longer categorical. For example, he no longer distinguished categorically between the modalities of a stone, an animal, and a human being but instead placed them on different points of a scale.[v]

From the moment at which one begins to question the opposition of subjects and things, a whole series of traditional binary pairs break down. For if one no longer takes for granted the modern subject that conceives of the world as primarily a stock of resources and that — in contrast to the inorganic materials that surround it — is in exclusive possession of the freedom and agency to transform its natural environment, distinctions between organic/inorganic, human/animal, free will/determination no longer make sense. Categorical distinctions are replaced by associations that Latour in particular makes the focus of his thinking when he conceives of reality as associations of units that are composed of both human and nonhuman elements and that are inherently processual. Latour’s terminology for this is “variable ontology.”[vi]

Untilled could be seen as an association in Latour’s sense: a linking of different forms of life, modes, and materials. The organic, the biological, and the mineralogical form part of this association just as much as the human and industrial products (such as sidewalk slabs). There are individual and collective organisms (like human beings, a bee swarm, and an ant colony), each with its own divisions of labour, forms of social organizing, and intelligence. All these elements are linked with one another via biological or social processes; all are integrated into different procedures with regard to reproduction, dissemination, and decay (composting). Art is also part of this association. It manifests itself in the female figure lying at the center, a sculpture typical for a park, with its motif of fertility, transformed into a kind of surreal image that sets in motion very real processes of pollination. Art is also present, in the form of references to documenta (7000 Eichen) and to various artists with whose work Huyghe is engaged in an intense dialogue (Robert Smithson) or even friendship (Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster). Yet what is decisive is that none of these “markers” are “exhibited” or appropriated in the sense of postmodern citation. They are simply there (present in low or weak intensity): the bench as a bench, the oak as an oak—components of an association and literally interwoven with the biological processes of this site. As an association, Untilled includes human (art, industry) and nonhuman forms of production and products, arranged on a plane nonhierarchically in a way that artistic and organic/biological processes dovetail in the creation of forms.

If one reads this work allegorically, it stands for an understanding of the world and of reality that, in Latour’s sense, “wants to bring things and animals back in.”[vii] It embodies a model of reality (and of art) composed of different, human and animal, plant and material actors. In accordance with such a view of reality as a network, Untilled, as an artwork, is itself realized as a network: as a work without stable form, permeated by contingency into its innermost structure. A work that literally and constantly changes and transforms itself.

The Question of Critique

In his “Steps Toward the Writing of a Compositionist Manifesto,” Bruno Latour introduces the word “composition,” to which he attributes an almost paradigmatic significance:

Even if the word […] is a bit too long and windy, what is nice is that it underlines that things have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has clear roots in art, painting, music, theater, dance and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from ‘compromise’ and ‘compromising,’ retaining a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. Speaking of flavor, it carries with it the pungent but ecologically correct smell of ‘compost,’ itself due to the active ‘de-composition’ of many invisible agents […]. Above all, a composition can fail and thus retains what is most important in the notion of constructivism […]. It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is well or badly constructed, well or badly composed.[viii]

Composition is clearly a constructivist term for Latour. It refers to the nature of the construction, to the modality and functioning of a thing. Moreover, for Latour the term functions as an alternative term to “critique.” Whereas he understands “critique” to be the driving force of modernism, the “steam engine”[ix] that tries to break open rigid ties and structures and call them into question, composition follows a contrary impulse. It aims to find paths in order to deliberately reconnect the links broken by critique: to develop a system of rules that functions well, to develop an association that can address issues of climate on a global level—to give one example cited by Latour.

The perspective that Latour proposes here is also productive for Untilled, because the theme of this work—a nonanthropocentric view of reality—is indeed played out on the ontological level of the work of art. Its orientation and its critical content are revealed in its specific, that is, network-like, processual ontology, which, as described above, implies an understanding of the world and reality that is equally network-like. What this means precisely becomes evident in a somehow illegitimate comparison of Untilled to an artwork like Walter De Maria’s installation 13, 14, 15 Meter Rows from 1985. De Maria’s work consists of forty-two highly polished stainless-steel rods. To viewers who see this work not only in terms of form and aesthetics but also in relation to social and economic contexts, what does it stand for? It demonstrates the technical perfection of highly refined industrial production: alchemical methods that are able to produce the impression of material homogeneity, forms of mass production, and a material polish that suggests the form of a product—all aspects of the industrial or mechanical age (I'm not saying that this was De Marias intention, but his intention is not my focus here). Huyghe’s work, in comparison, has a much larger range of component parts and materials, and their heterogeneity remains visible, not having been reshaped by industrial, mechanical processes. The places where the works are presented or realized are just as antithetical as their composition: the white cube is an almost Cartesian space, cleared and freed of all penetrations of reality. It is a space separated from natural processes, in which all natural processes and variations—temperature, light, acoustics—are regulated. By contrast, Huyghe’s garden exists in an overgrown, inscrutable, complex space without categorical separations of nature and culture, of animate and inanimate material. Huyghe himself even speaks of the creation of a biological form: “I don't think about the exhibition anymore but rather about a biological form of creation.”[x]

It is possible to say that, as a composition in the Latourian sense, De Maria’s installation remains linked to a “utopia of economy,” which is at the same time the utopia of the industrial age, whereas Huyghe’s work moves into the direction of a “utopia of ecology,” in which nature is no longer merely a resource but is itself perceived as an effective apparatus in terms of its complexity and refinement. As a composition, it is rooted more in the circular mode of ecology than in the demiurgic model of the economy. The artwork as an end product (which is presented as separate from the processes that led to it) is replaced by the processual continuity, an interplay between the composition and its decomposition aided by microbes, bacteria, and other invisible agents.

Not least thanks to the network-like ontology that distinguishes Untilled, Huyghe sketches an idea of art and the experience of art that is fundamentally distinct from the usual mode of a group exhibition—to which his work ultimately belongs. To put it differently, his work suggests a worldview that is entirely antithetical to the worldview staged by the cultural format of the exhibition (and, as demonstrated, the white cube as its paradigmatic place), of which Untilled nevertheless remains part. How does Huyghe’s work position itself within this area of tension?

Walter de Maria, 13, 14, 15 Meter Rows, 1985

The Exhibition

“Correlationism is the paradigm of contemporary art,” Suhail Malik claims in an issue of Spike Magazine from 2013.[xi] In the context of non-anthropocentric thinking, the neologism correlationism functions as a generic term for all the ways of thinking that ultimately belong to a Kantian tradition with its focus on the perceiving subject. Thinking is always related to the world, just as the world always appears to a thinking subject. Malik is interested in an alternative to this tradition, a mode of thinking that attempts to speculate about something beyond this relationality. He considers contemporary art to be correlationist insofar as, since the proclamation of the “death of the author,” it has been oriented ever more toward the subject of aesthetic experience. “Contemporary art assumes a beholding subject who makes semantic sense of the work, who’s the true recipient, who finds their own meanings, adds interpretive richness.”[xii] For him, the focal point of today’s art system is the viewer or, as he puts it, “interpreting subjects,” who debate the meaning of art in “this nice soft democracy of plural disagreements.”[xiii]

I do not wish to go into greater detail here about whether art since the 1960s has actually become more correlationist or, rather, whether in turning to the aesthetics of experience there are not other approaches of an alternative orientation. For even if I do not necessarily share Malik’s explanatory framework, his core insight that visual art constitutes a decidedly correlationist discourse is hard to deny. Moreover, art is not only based on a subject-centered way of thinking, rather—I would add—the ritual of the exhibition has historically helped to establish this style of thinking and continues to rehearse and reinforce it.[xiv] It is no coincidence that the format of the exhibition emerged historically around the same time as Kant’s philosophy. Exhibitions are cultural formats, apparatuses based on the juxtaposition of a thinking, perceiving subject and an object that is experienced and perceived by the former. The exhibition's paradigm is that of autonomy, not that of the association. The exposed object is ex-posed, in the sense of an object removed from its original contexts (or networks). It is approached by a singularized, isolated viewer, who, released from her physical intertwining with the world, is usually reduced to the sense of sight and hence to the sense that is primarily associated with a cognitive and rational perception of the world.

This juxtaposition of subject and object, which is fundamental for the apparatus of the exhibition, is deeply correlationist in its constitution. But—and herein lies the governmental effectiveness of this apparatus—it also implies essential socioeconomic premises of modern social orders. Thus, the aesthetically experiencing, critically judging viewer corresponds to the figure of the modern individual; it is one of the cultural achievements of the exhibition format that it receives a large number of people, who are nevertheless addressed as individuals, not as a crowd or a group. These are individuals, admittedly, who perceive and distinguish themselves in their relationship to material objects. It is no coincidence that a society whose esteem of itself relies to a large extent on what it produces should come up with a ritual that centers on the value of material artifacts, a material artifact that is structurally organized in the form of a product and whose insertion into open systems of order corresponds in turn to the constitution of a pluralistic, market-based social order. The value of the plurality (to which Malik refers in the quotation above) is not a postmodern phenomenon of contemporary art. It is constitutive of the format of the exhibition, just as it is also a constitutive component of a modern system of values. Not only are exhibitions essentially organized along axes of sight that always show the individual work in relation to others, but the idea of the collection as an assembly of different (artists’) subjectivities also already takes into account the central value of plurality and diversity that characterizes modern societies. Exhibitions perform a ritual that has individualized and liberal features, and hence it has become a central ritual of modern, equally individualized and liberal societies.[xv] Both the style of thinking and the socioeconomic premises of these societies—the individual, the object, the market, progress, pluralism—are rehearsed, cultivated, and reflected upon through this ritual.

Because through the format of the exhibition, art is linked with the subject-oriented, anthropocentric, correlationist style of thought all the way down to its DNA, it is not possible to step out of this regime merely on the level of pure form or content. Daniel Buren, to give an example, is one of the few artists who have recognized this. Based on this insight, he has worked for decades on a changed ontology of the work of art, which he tied to a reconfiguration of the ritual of the exhibition.[xvi] In Buren’s in situ works, there is a place, a context, but no longer a vis-à-vis in the sense of a discrete object to be viewed as separate from the architecture. The thing-like object becomes a “visual tool” (which has connections to the concept of decor), whereas the exhibition turns into a situational intervention. The commonly ex-posed work of art, taken out of its context, is in his work a site-specific one, created in and for a specific context. In a further elaboration of Buren’s in-situ concept, one could speak of Untilled as a situated work of art: a work that is literally interwoven with its context, that establishes roots, that inserts itself into an existing association and re-composes it.

So how does Untilled relate to the format of the exhibition and its governmental agenda?[xvii] What other forms of practices does it propose? First, Huyghe steps out of the plural game that, as we have seen, is fundamentally inscribed in the exhibition format. There are no longer any other works in view when standing in the composting facility. There is no axis of sight any longer and hence no constant reminder of an imperative to move forward. Instead, Huyghe brings a certain calm—a thinking of arrival, in a sense—into the progressive apparatus of the exhibition. One has more the feeling of arriving in a place than the need of assessing an exhibit. Untilled is a place whose structure and character are not revealed exclusively visually; that one has to explore and walk through, much like an exhibition, in order to grasp its individual elements, but that in essence formulates an alternative ontology of the formation of the exhibition: a composting facility is a place for worthless things, which are thrown away and left to themselves, so that they can establish connections to other things and in this way transform into something else, something fertile. “The compost is the place where you throw things that you don’t need that are dead,” says Huyghe. “You don’t display things. You don’t make a mise-en-scène, you don’t design things, you just drop them. And when someone enters that site, things are in themselves, they don’t have a dependence on the person. They are indifferent to the public. You are in a place of indifference. Each thing, a bee, an ant, a plant, a rock, keeps growing or changing.”[xviii]

Like the exhibition, Untilled is composed of various different components, but unlike the things in an exhibition, they change, form connections, and run through processes that are conceived neither by the artist nor by the viewer and that cannot be thought of in terms of experience. Because they remain undirected, they can neither be steered nor controlled. Huyghe transforms the exhibition into a growing medium, where intensities vary and things leak into each other; they become porous, contingent, chaotic. He is speculating on the idea of art that barely needs an artist or a public and that is almost self-generating. This is where he cuts the correlation that forms the basis of modern thinking.

One aspect that particularly interested me about this work was its strange dual structure: on the one hand, situated and site-specific but, on the other hand, also a work in the sense of the modern autonomous, that is, a flexible and mobile concept of the work. In that respect, it is perhaps comparable to the pavilions of Dan Graham, which also take in an external context, connect with it, and in that sense have a situational component, even though they are still mobile and the context can vary. For it is also part of the concept for Untilled that the work is situated—but not necessarily just in this place alone. On the one hand, it is literally rooted in its surroundings, continuously spreading roots at every moment of its existence, whereas on the other hand, it remains a structural entity that could potentially also take place elsewhere. In contrast to the fundamentally site-specific and hence unrepeatable works of Buren, Huyghe’s work is both situated and mobile. In this combination of the situated and the work, in this idea of a work based on a “variable ontology” in Latour’s sense, Huyghe indeed seems to realize an original setting.

I write “seems” because Huyghe produced a film in Untilled that is now circulating—in lieu of the project in Kassel itself—in exhibitions and collections. And the very existence of this film alters the status of the original work. The latter is now, once again, an in-situ work, a particular place, like De Maria's Lightning Field for example: a legendary performance that lasted a hundred days, the relics of which can still be visited today. What remains, however—the work of art proper—is the film and hence a self-contained, ex-posable entity—not an algorithm that is performed anew again and again, not a living, constantly developing association.

*This is a slightly abridged English version of "Denken der Ankunft. Pierre Huyghes Untilled," in Kunst und Wirklichkeit heute. Affirmation - Kritik - Transformation, Lotte Everts, Johannes Lang, Michael Lüthy, Bernhard Schieder, eds., Transcript, Bielefeld, 2015, pp. 223-239.

Dorothea von Hantelmann is Professor of Art and Society at Bard College Berlin. She previously was documenta Professor at the University of Kassel where she lectured on the history and meaning of documenta. Her main fields of research are contemporary art and theory (she has written on artists like Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, but also on Jeff Koons, Daniel Buren and James Coleman) as well as the history and theory of exhibitions. She is currently working on a book that explores art exhibitions as ritual spaces in which fundamental values and categories of modern, liberal and market based societies historically have been, and continue to be practised and reflected. She is author of How to Do Things with Art (2010), a book on performativity within contemporary art and co-editor of Die Ausstellung. Politik eines Rituals (2010).

[i] Zachary Cahill, "The Image is Bleeding. Pierre Huyghe as Landscape Artist," Mousse No. 11, 2012, pp. 140-141 (p.140).

[ii] See Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics. Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Open Court, Peru/IL, 2005.

[iii] See Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008; Nicholas Gane, "When We Have Never Been Human, What Is To Be Done?," Interview with Donna Haraway, Theory, Culture & Society No. 23, 2006, pp. 138-158.

[iv] See Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology [1929], David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, eds., Free Press, New York, 1978; Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature [1920], Cambridge/MA, 2004.

[v] Whitehead, ibid. , p. 166.

[vi] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press, Cambridge/MA, 1993, p. 85.

[vii] Andreas Ziemann, "Latours Neubegründung des Sozialen?" in Die Wiederkehr der Dinge, Friedrich Balke, Maria Muhle, Antonia von Schöning, eds., Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin, 2011, pp. 103-114 (p. 104).

[viii] Bruno Latour, "Steps toward the Writing of a Compositionist Manifesto," New Literary History No. 41, 2010, pp. 473-474.

[ix] Bruno Latour, Das Elend der Kritik, Diaphanes, Berlin/Zurich, 2007.

[x] "Je ne pense plus l'exposition mais une forme biologique de la création." Pierre Huyghe quoted in Stéphanie Moisdon, "3 Questions à Pierre Huyghe," Beaux Arts No. 7, 2012, p. 79, translated by DvH.

[xi] Suhail Malik, "Beyond the Contemporary/Jenseits des Zeitgenössischen," roundtable about speculative thinking and its meaning for contemporary art, moderated by Armen Avanessian, Spike Magazine No. 36, 2013, pp. 90-104 (p. 100).

[xii] Malik ibid.

[xiii] Malik ibid.

[xiv] See Dorothea von Hantelmann, "On the Socio-Economic Role of the Art Exhibition," in Cornerstones, Juan A. Gaitán, Nicolaus Schafhausen, Monika Szewczyk, eds., Sternberg Press, Rotterdam/New York, 2011, pp. 266-277.

[xv] von Hantelmann, ibid.

[xvi] Dorothea von Hantelmann, "Reconfigurer le rituel," in Le Musée qui n'existait pas. Daniel Buren, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2010, pp. 285-309. Exhibition catalogue.

[xvii] Traditionally, documenta is opened by the president of the German Federal Republic.

[xviii] Quoted from "Christopher Mooney on Pierre Huyghe," Art Review No. 10, 2013, pp. 92-99 (p. 97).

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Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

by Vesna Madžoski

by Ayşe Güleç