Claire Bishop develops a critical reflection on art as the site for a politics of spectatorship. For Bishop, subjectivity is fundamental: “all art presumes a subject – insofar as it is made by a subject (the artist) and is received by a subject (the viewer.)”[i] Subjectivity, as premised on “the fictitious whole subject of a harmonious community”, must be replaced with the demand for “relational antagonism” premised on a “divided subject of partial identifications open to flux.” Installation art is thus the ideal model for generating such antagonism, as it “insists on our presence to subject us to the experience of decentring.”
A decentred subject experiences feelings of division from the public as a whole and is thus able to recognise alternate means of action within society, in order to go against political norms. Pierre Huyghe’s appropriation of public space for his installation Untilled at dOCUMENTA (13) is an artwork that generates such antagonism. Huyghe offers up artistic “zones of differentiation,” making visible possibilities for change and displacement in the organisation and presentation of his artworks. I have chosen to explore a piece, in which Huyghe collaborated with non-traditional actors – the nonhuman – within the traditionally public space of a park, which he subtly subverts to explore ideas about “what could be.”[ii] He therefore challenges our understanding of not only what constitutes art in public space for the public and our means of collaboration, but also what constitutes existence within the universe.
The place is enclosed. Elements and spaces from different times in history lie next to each other with no chronological order or sign of origin… In the compost of the Karlsaue Park, artefacts, inanimate elements, and living organisms…plants, animals, humans, bacteria, are left without culture.[iii]
Huyghe’s work has been discussed alongside Object-Oriented philosophy. This mode of thought seeks to “discover the meaning which circulates among things, between what they are composed of and what they compose, in us, outside of us, with or without us.”[iv] It identifies all beings as both composite and compound within a natural cycle of relationships, rather than positing them within a hierarchy according to substance-related qualities.[v] Within a system of global equality and identical identities, where all are neutral, all that can exist between things is a state of indifference.
The set of operations that occurs between them has no script. There are antagonisms, associations, hospitality and hostility, corruption, separation and de-generation or collapse with no encounters…invisible and continuous transformations, movements and processes but no choreography.[vi]
Cary Wolfe’s post-humanism forms a basis for deconstructing the ways we have presumed to master or appropriate the finitude we share with nonhuman animals in ways presumably barred to them – these predominantly being knowledge through language.[vii] He attends to our way of being in the world by acknowledging that the human is a prosthetic creature, which has coevolved with various forms of technicity and materiality – nonhuman forms that have nonetheless made the human what it is. Human nature thus becomes a mutation, which is ongoing and immanent, a system of “processes, which can never be entirely reduced to patterns or standards, codes or information.” This hybridisation of humans and animals in cultural evolution, questions the boundaries between nature and culture. Assuming human “culture” to be an open system that has borrowed so much from nonhuman alterity and nature, the opposition between culture and nature can no longer make sense.
The head is obscured by a beehive… Her headless body lies in the mud. The man moves through the day as an automaton.
The emergence of “theriomorphism” in contemporary art practices has been seen as a suggestion of the human need for a dialogue with alterity, and simultaneously, the implicit suggestion of the acceptance of a non-self sufficient human condition.[viii] These issues concerning “the animal question” (i.e. their importance to the human condition and their rights in society) came to prominence in the 1990s, with the identification that human parameters are not the only measure of the world. Every living being is an intelligent autonomous centre that relates itself to reality in an entirely unique way. Progressive consciousness of being (within) a hybrid ecosystem, hosting bacteria and genes common to different animal species, has made man more inclined to reconsider other animal realities.[ix]
“Pierre Huyghe’s work for dOCUMENTA (13), Untilled (2012)” could “be found in the composting area of Kassel’s Karlsaue Park.” As a biotope,[x] the piece took its location within the composting area as both its literal and figurative model. An environment created for the inhabiting natural forms – its organic processes drawing nourishment from decomposing matter – it is indifferent to the histories and significations of its participatory objects. It is indifferent to the experience of its viewing subjects, and indifferent to their difference. It enacts a “destratification” of traditional human categorisation and replaces these with an alternate method of organisation.[xi]
Huyghe collaborated with nonhuman life – a dog, a swarm of bees, flowers, ants, fungi and bacteria – implicating the importance of all composites within this compound. By replacing logical identity with organic identity, Untilled seeks to understand species’ aptitudes and constructs a set of possible behavioural relationships without trying to make nonhuman forms of life play or perform. Rather than creating an artwork that decentres the viewer, so as to transcend the present moment, Huyghe instead recognises the fundamental equality, or neutralisation between all beings.
Traditionally a communal leisure space, Karlsaue Park has been appropriated by the artist and nature, creating a place of separation, free from traditional attractions. This is no longer a place for us.[xii] The dug up ground forms craters and hills that are contaminated by industrial residues, and vegetation is smothered with fragments of asphalt and concrete slabs. Huyghe presents us with a world destroyed by both natural and human actions. The appearance of familiar objects – a white hound (with a magenta leg), an oak tree, (uprooted and exposed to rot and decay,) a bench (overturned so we can’t get comfortable,) and a sculpture (we must stand warily away from to avoid the sting of it’s beehive-head,) creates a simultaneously destroyed and destroying spectacle. This challenges our expectations and provokes contemplation about the destruction man is capable of causing, not only upon the natural world, but even those spaces he cultivates for himself. The neo-classical bronze nude woman reclining is now cast in concrete, with a swarming beehive installed on her head. The disfigured statue creates a human/animal hybrid.[xiii] Her indeterminate presence is used to unsettle, not affirm, human subjectivity. We see the powers of nature overcoming those of mankind.
The colony pollinates aphrodisiac and psychotropic plants…A fluorescent dog in the shade of concrete slabs weans a puppy. A Beuys oak has been uprooted.
In contrast to the indeterminate human presence of the sculpture, we see the concrete task of pollination performed by the bees. They have a crucial function within this space. In addition, as typical symbols of wisdom, Huyghe seems to question whether the bees’ swarm mentality, collective thinking, and decentralised coordination are possible alternatives to human individualist thought.[xiv] The dogs’ simple olfactory interactions remain incomprehensible. However, Huyghe creates a space for speculation through his inclusion of conditional elements. The bright pink leg of the dog and the hybrid human form, make the impossible possible, allowing the imagination of the viewer to run wild in this untameable system of “what could be.”
Myrmecochory occurs, ants disperse their seeds. The blind crush them. There is no colour, no odour… It is endless, incessant.
What Huyghe presents us with in Untilled is the endless growth of uncontrollable elements. This is an on-going process, involving all things within this biotope, which happens whether the viewer chooses to view or participate in it, or not. The inherent indifference of Huyghe’s work challenges Claire Bishop’s claims to a participatory regime of art by actively producing a non-subject dependent reality. The experiencing of this work never implicates the viewer, who instead watches over the process with no control over it. “The public enter this space by chance, nothing there is addressed to them, and what happens there is indifferent to their presence.”[xv] Huyghe relinquishes his artistic control to his non-human collaborators, and in this act, we are invited to do the same.[xvi] Just like the compost he uses as his model, this biotope nourishes contemplations on animal perception and relationships, the differences between life and art, and man’s position within such systems. He creates an enclosed space of alterity, yet open to the public, where they can go to witness an alternate means of societal organisation, yet remain indifferent to its processes.
Huyghe’s indifference thus sets to work within and against the regime of participatory practice. He presents an environment within a public space, from which the public can come and go, just like our non-human collaborators. This is a space where one can fully detach themselves from all their duties and responsibilities, their relationships, their beliefs and just exist in the present and its intensity.
They are faced with the elements from lost orders coming together. Nothing is written and there is nothing to interpret. Each person sees their own world, like so many separate but juxtaposed Umwelts.[xvii]
This radical decentring of the subject – as an indifferent collaborator, autonomous in existence yet as composite within a compound or ecological space – generates humility, self-reflection and the contemplation of new systems that can be practised when we navigate back to public space, as we know it.
Elizabeth Atkinson (Solihull, 1989), is an art theorist and writer based in London. She is a PhD candidate for the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths University, specialising in nonhuman functions and thought processes. She is also regularly involved in events at Camden Arts Centre.
[i] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (London: Verso, 2012), p. 12.
[ii] Katia Baudin, ‘Director’s Foreword’ in Pierre Huyghe, (Exhibition Catalogue for Huyghe’s Retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in 2014), v.
[iii] Pierre Huyghe, ‘Untilled’ in Documenta (13): The Guidebook, (Exhibition Catalogue, Hatje Cantz, 2012), p. 262.
[iv] Tristan Garcia, ‘What is Being Intense?’ in Pierre Huyghe, (Exhibition Catalogue for Museum Ludwig Retrospective in 2014,) pp. 205 – 213, p. 208.
[v] In his ‘Response to Critics,’ (2011) Graham Harman contrasts Object-Oriented philosophy to Marxism, in which the exchange-value of entities is caught up in movements of congealed and alienated labour, grounding their use-value in their material properties. ‘Materialism and Speculative Realism: A Response to Critics,’ in Modern Painters, (March 2014), pp. 50 – 51, p. 50.
[vi] Pierre Huyghe, ‘Untilled’ in Documenta (13): The Guidebook, p. 262.
[vii] Cary Wolfe, What is Post-Humanism? (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2010,) xxi. Wolfe seeks to remove meaning from consciousness, reason and reflection and re-contextualises human experience in terms of the entire sensorium of living beings.
[viii] Theriomorphism being the ascription of animal characteristics to humans (anthropomorphism) (OED). , p.14.
[ix] Karin Anderson and Luca Bochicchio, ‘The Presence of Animals in Contemporary Art as a Sign of Cultural Change,’ in Revista D’Humanitats, Vol. 6, (December 2012) pp. 12-23p. 18.
[x] An area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living space for the specific assemblage of plants and animals. (OED)
[xi] Andy Weir, ‘Myrmecochory Occurs: Exhibiting Indifference to the Participating Subject in Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled (2012) at Documenta 13,’ in Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics, 10, (2013), pp. 29-40, p. 33.
[xii] For Robert Smithson, the park can no longer be seen as a “thing-in-itself” but as a process of ongoing relationships existing in a physical region – the park becoming a “thing-for-us.” Robert Smithson, ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,’ in Artforum, (Feb. 1973), pp. 62 – 68, p. 65.
[xiii] This hybridity was extended when Untilled was displayed in a gallery environment. Now, the statue was heated, so as to eerily reach human body temperature. The statue itself has also been exhibited alone, being re-named Untilled (Nude woman reclining). Huyghe emphasises how he draws upon art historical traditions and then subverts them.
[xiv] Since the time of Plato, bees have been identified with the Muses, as symbols of wisdom, in their production of honey and wax – one nourishing, the other enlightening the mind. They present an alternative to the dominant notion of man as thinker and producer.
[xv] Huyghe in Robert Storr, ‘Pierre Huyghe: Singular Writings’ in Artpress 404, (2013), pp. 41 – 44, p. 43.
[xvi] Similar to this experience of estrangement the viewer feels from Huyghe’s work, the artist describes how Untilled developed independently of him. He claimed that he came across its location by chance, and that “Untilled wasn’t done for dOCUMENTA…but the frame of dOCUMENTA allowed it to occur.” Pierre Huyghe in Sky Goodden, ‘Pierre Huyghe Explains His Buzzy Documenta 13 Installation and Why His Work Is Not Performance Art’ in BlouinArtInfo, (August 30 2012.)
[xvii] An “umwelt” being an environment world consisting of the set of precepts and determinations that form the specific worlds of all living species and which can remain radically indifferent to one another. Huyghe in Storr, p. 43.
Untilled (detail), 2011 – 2012,
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Colección CIAC AC, Mexico; Fondation Louis Vuitton pour la création, Paris; Ishikawa Collection, Okayama, Japan.
(c) Pierre Huyghe Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Pierre Huyghe