Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

banner image
Human & Señor

“Servitude and freedom—this is in the last and deepest analysis the differentia by which we distinguish vegetable and animal experience. Yet only the plant is wholly and entirely what it is; in the being of the animal there is something dual. A vegetable is only a vegetable; an animal is a vegetable and something more besides. A herd that huddles together trembling in the presence of danger, a child that clings weeping to its mother, a man desperately striving to force a way into his God — all these are seeking to return out of the life of freedom into the vegetal servitude from which they were emancipated into individuality and loneliness. … The plant is something cosmic, and the animal is additionally a microcosm in relation to a macrocosm. When, and not until, the unit has been thus separated itself from the All and can define its position with respect to the All, it becomes thereby a microcosm. Even planets in their great cycle are in servitude, and it is only these tiny worlds that move freely relative to a great one which appears in their consciousness as their world-around (environment). Only through this individualism of the microcosm does that which the light offers to its eyes—our eyes—acquire meaning as ‘body,’ and even to plants we are from some inner motive reluctant to concede the property of bodiliness.” 

Taken from the second volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, first published in 1928, this quotation presents ideas relevant, at least, to this viewer’s take on a piece that lends itself to interpretation of any number of things: the exhibition, the way art is produced today in this international setting, the relation of artworks to artworks in such a context and, even, the world at this point in history. The work is Pierre Huyghe’s untitled installation in the Karlsaue Park.

The work presents a small forgotten Eden in an unkempt state that stars a brown female puppy named Señor and a white bitch with a pink painted paw named Human. Their master and the artwork’s groundskeeper, fed the dogs. Señor hungrily munched on a bloody bone on one of my visits and Human drank stagnant water from a mossy trough. The older dog, like his laconic keeper was skinny and seemed to be put together with birch tree branches. Their names, Human and Señor, indicated that these live characters were like the other set pieces, analogies or entities of the microcosmic sort Spengler describes above: distinct samples of the larger totality of which they are a part—just as the artwork is one of many in the exhibition and the viewer is just another viewer.

Sunken within a berm at the center of the yard—full of compost debris and puddles reflecting Kassel’s perpetually cloudy skies—reclined a nude on a bench cast in cement. A bulbous beehive coiffure of honeycomb cornrows engulfs the statue’s head. It is the stuff of Surrealism in which the generic and the ordinary become uncanny; the eyes of beauty have been replaced by an insectarium. The microcosm of femininity is trapped at once in the classical signature of the sculpted female and it is encased in the intractable industry of tiny, prehistoric creatures that the artist has installed on its head.

The sore of the beehive renders perfection ungraspable and hazardous. The assemblage in this sense functions like the vacant lot itself—like a cut on the face of the larger exhibition in the Karlsaue.

Pierre Huyghe’s untitled installation

The dogs ensure Huyghe’s defunct idyll does not appear utterly joyless. Yet, while the young one, Señor, looked healthy, the older dog, Human, was emaciated. If these dogs are meant to be taken as metaphors, as the names might suggest, the scenario looks more like a situation in which this is how one begins, and that is how one ends.

In Spengler’s scheme of things, the indivisible microcosm of the individual body has been overrun by the irrepressible strength of the drove where the statue sits. The honeybees covering the nude represent multitude and macrocosmic vitality in a swarm. This constellated body made of many smaller ones has no awareness of the larger whole that it has affixed itself to. The inwardness of the face, expressing the soul in aesthetic terms, is replaced here by an insignia of a mass without interiority at all. Huyghe’s odalisque adds to the Spenglerian ideal of distinction that is the providence of humanity as form consciously articulated with Nature’s unconscious profusion.

As a simplistic yet startling conflation, this covering over of the model with an impermeable veil adds what Surrealist writer Georges Bataille called the informe to the realm of the body. L’informe is a counteracting formlessness blunting order and beauty with the kind of macrocosmic energies on display in Huyghe’s piece that the discrete unit is never really free from. In Bataille’s telling of things, the body itself is above a producer of such chaos—a veritable factory of the informe’s barely appreciate shapes. It is a world-within-worlds principle of inevitability and reconfiguration that sees the macrocosm—that of the universe itself— reflected in the smallest dab of spittle hawked on a sidewalk or a formidable ant colony on the move.

Human

What Huyghe’s dogs, bees, odalisque and lone gardener reflect planted in their neglected clearing in more specific terms than this kind of Bataillean rumination on human undoing and destruction may be irrelevant. If you like, the odalisque replica is a kitsch stand-in for an art-world planet with so many bees flocking to the scene, aware of little more than their recess in the cove. It may be a more transcendent look at classical beauty and its ongoing unnerving. Perhaps it considers the future of the dysfunctional times we in the West inhabit. It may be a set for an apocalyptic film. Surely, it is a contemporary rendition of l’informe, a truly Surreal piece in the Bataille sense of that canon.

In any case, Huyghe’s untitled rubbish yard did its job by cutting through the business-as-usual atmosphere that makes exhibitions like Documenta appear to be routines in collective careerism and safe-art production. All the Documentas and all the biennials need an anomalous piece like this one to complete the event by offering a contrast from the whole, a crack in the overall surface. The work recycles the attention of the viewer willing to pause there awhile; it rejuvenates the senses. Art here was able to provide a reprieve and Huyghe’s Untitled did so in Documenta 13 with authority—as did the art collective Gelitin at the Venice Biennale last year in a different yet equally effective way.

Señor

Untitled is not the first piece to blur the conceptual lines between artwork and compost pile or to make art using people. More than a critique of something, it appears to be a meditation on the decline that is rehearsed daily in the news and played out in our political contests. Each reiteration of society crashing reframes the distinct body of the current time as elemental to the multitude, to the formless picture of the history as vast as the universe that Bataille privileged as recklessly déclassé, and that Spengler feared as human perception lost in the darkness of animal sensuality. With this artwork, Huyghe simply made it difficult to tell the forest from the trees, which had, in this corner of the Karlsaue Park, begun to overgrow.

In the end, the Huyghe piece possessed an uncommon punch not because it had a clear message or purpose, but because it held experiential truths of the sort summarized in the words of Deleuze when he wrote: “We are all little dogs, we need circuits, and we need to be taken for walks. Even those best able to disconnect, to unplug themselves, enter into connections of desiring-machines that re-form little earths.” On such a walk on such an earth, a bone to gnaw on and a yard to play in does not hurt.