Anticipation ran high before the opening of Pierre Huyghe’s first London show since his acclaimed Tate Modern exhibition of 2006. Famed for art that literally has a life of its own—be that his statue with a beehive for a head in a giant, jungle-like compost heap at Documenta in 2012 or his currently gestating butterfly project, where he hopes to bring Vladimir Nabokov’s fictional butterflies to life, with the help of a scientist—anything could happen.
The French artist certainly didn’t disappoint. With its two-sided glass façade wrapped around a Savile Row corner, Hauser & Wirth normally feels more akin to a car salesroom than an exhibition space. Huyghe however has shrouded the windows transforming the gallery into a dark cavern. Spread out in the gloom, a number of the aquariums the artist is well known for, gently glow.
Crowding the surface of the water are lilies that were transplanted from Monet’s ponds in Giverny. Here however, the flowers’ knotted roots and the primordial-looking newts that lurk around sunken manmade objects encrusted with pond life, are visible in the aquarium’s murk. It’s a vision of long gestation at odds with the Impressionist’s paintings of fleeting light. A primitive tool and a moss-covered statue, reclining on the floor, add to the sense of human enterprise dotting the vast expanse of geological time.
Huyghe’s latest film proves the show’s true stunner though. His camera travels through a blasted landscape of abandoned half-built buildings, actually a town in the Fukushima nuclear disaster no-go zone. Humankind it seems is long gone.
In the poorly lit, cluttered rooms of a mysterious residence however, a lone figure roams, its face concealed by the serene white features and black wig of an Asian mask. Gradually, its hairy limbs and clawed hands are revealed. At times its actions seem so human it might be a post-nuclear mutation, or a child in a monkey suit. In fact this is a YouTube star—a macaque monkey, which a local restaurateur had trained to wait tables.
In Huyghe’s hands, the comedic creature becomes chillingly mysterious. Apparently oblivious to the roles it acts out as artwork or waiter, the monkey mirrors our own uncertainty about our place in the universe.
Pierre Huyghe: In Border Deep is on view at London's Hauser & Wirth through November 1.