View of performers wearing lit LED masks during the opening of the exhibition
Photo © Ola Rindal
Programmed masks, LED, brass, strap, dice, amber, insects
A man and a woman play a game of dice, each wearing an LED mask which obscures their face. The dice are made of amber, in each an insect is embedded. The players’ respective masks light up in a rhythm that is not immediately discernable to onlookers, creating the impression of witnessing a conversation without being able to follow its significance. This sequence of illumination is in fact based on the mating behavior of fireflies. Live flies can be seen on ceiling, walls and floor.
Photo © Ola Rindal
In 2015 Pierre Huyghe was awarded the prestigious Kurt-Schwitters-Prize by the Lower Saxony Sparkassen Foundation. The prize is bestowed biennially to internationally renowned artists whose oeuvre shows clear affinities to the famous Dada artist’s work. Former recipients have been Sigmar Polke, Nam June Paik, Rodney Graham, Tacita Dean, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Elaine Sturtevant. In conjunction with the Kurt-Schwitters-Prize, the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany hosts a major solo exhibition for the recipient.
The title of Huyghe’s Sprengel Museum exhibition, Orphan Patterns (January 30 – April 24, 2016), refers to a concept used in mathematics, biology and game theory. The concept involves complex, self-generating patterns created by algorithms, or “cellular automata”—rule-based systems discovered in mathematics in the 1960s and 1970s, which were critical to the development of computer code and chaos theory. “Cellular” in this context refers to a pattern in which the development of each cell is determined by rules concerning its neighbors. Such patterns have also been found in nature, for example, in flower petal growth or the markings of animals.
Orphan Patterns continues themes central to the Huyghe’s practice, among them the staging of exhibitions as time-based experiences, the integration of chance and arbitrary elements, and the inclusion of performers, both human and animal. Especially works created since 2010—such as the artist’s noted series of aquariums or Untilled, his now famous contribution to dOCUMENTA 13—blur the boundaries between art object and nature, between human beings and animals, between scripted action and open scenario.
The exhibition Orphan Patterns follows a path through a succession of 10 rooms in the Sprengel Museum’s newly built wing. Visitors pass through a sequence of darkened and brightly lit spaces on a path of discovery.
The first room visitors enter is a bright, vacant space. A thin layer of finely grained pastel-colored dust covers the floor. This dust is a byproduct of the production process of the work Shore (2013), which was created during the artist’s major 2013-2014 solo exhibition, which toured to the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Museum Ludwig, Cologne and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. To create Shore, Huyghe peeled layers of colored paint from the walls of each exhibition space, in abstract patterns. The powdery residue of the wall paint became part of the installation, and was gathered at the end of each exhibition. Now distributed on the floor of the Sprengel Museum, the once distinct color palette of the dust blends as it travels through the exhibition on the soles of visitors’ shoes.
Dust treads become most evident in the three subsequent rooms, which Huyghe has darkened and fitted with black carpeting. Only the slight shimmer of the white dust marks and a distant light from a room ahead imparts a sense of direction. In the third darkened room an LED mask rests in the corner: Players (2010), worn by a performer on the opening night.
Drawn by a light in the distance, visitors traverse through another darkened space, empty save the rather startling presence of live houseflies. Following the movement of the buzzing insects towards the light, visitors emerge into a brightly lit white room. Here, the flies are innumerable, dead underfoot, massing against ceiling light fixtures and clustering in corners. Above eye-level and barely visible are two small square ledges, installed in opposite corners of the room, which hold food and shelter for the flies.
Situated amongst the insects is the work Mating, which exists in two forms; active – performers with objects, and inactive – objects without performers. In its activated mode, two actors sit on the floor in the far corner of the room, engaged in a private game or conversation. Upon traversing the room, the interaction can be observed in detail: a man and a woman play a game of dice, each wearing an LED mask which obscures their face. The dice are made of amber, in each an insect is embedded. The players’ respective masks light up in a rhythm that is not immediately discernable to onlookers, creating the impression of witnessing a conversation without being able to follow its significance. This sequence of illumination is in fact based on the mating behavior of fireflies.
Entering the next room, visitors are again plunged into darkness, where the work Orphan Mask (2016) is situated. Unlike the illumination of the masks in Mating, Orphan Mask’s LEDs are programmed to illuminate in fluctuating, ever-evolving patterns. A cellular automaton, an algorithm that produces complex, seemingly random patterns from simple, well-defined rules, was used to determine this pattern.
Continuing through darkened space, the visitor soon encounters Huyghe’s 2014 film De-extinction, screened on a HD monitor suspended diagonally in the room. The film was shot using both an advanced microscope and a camera with a macroscopic lens. De-extinction follows the journey of a camera through an enigmatic orange environment, populated with floating bodies of insects. This orange material is eventually recognizable as amber; the encased creatures are microscopically enlarged, making details of their bodies, extremities and antennae visible in great detail.
The final room of the exhibition is also dark. During opening night, approximately 40 performers wearing lit LED masks moved throughout this room. The performers were in constant movement but did not interact with visitors or with each other. In effect, their behavior was reminiscent of a flock of animals or a swarm of fish. Huyghe later conceived of his event as a peformance work, Swarm, 2016. On the back wall of the room hangs a framed lithograph by Kurt Schwitters, which Huyghe selected from the Sprengel Museum’s collection. Apart from being a gesture of homage, for Huyghe the lithograph envisaged the conceptual floor plan of his exhibition.
From here visitors exited into the room containing the dust-covered floor, returning in a circuitous motion to the beginning of the exhibition.