Descartes, Dick, and the Dog: Pierre Huyghe at LACMA




But the greatest of all the prejudices we have retained from infancy is that of believing that brutes think.

— René Descartes

I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it.

— Philip K. Dick

¤

BEFORE EVER SEEING the Pierre Huyghe exhibition at LACMA, I had reservations about it; I was aware that Huyghe uses live animals in his work and given my unequivocal objection to this practice, I opposed Huyghe’s inclusion not only of a dog (with a painted foreleg), but also various sea creatures, bees, ants, and spiders. We rely on artists to imagine, invent, and interpret, not to exploit other species. Presenting us with actual animals is not an artistic act, it is a literal one, and as such, it denies the creative, interpretative, and imaginative acts that constitute art. A human, even one who calls himself an “artist,” is not entitled to entrap, alter, or display animals and call it “art.”

Treating animals as objects did not begin with Huyghe; it has a long history, articulated most notably by the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), whose influential writings became foundational in the development of modern Western thought. (He originated the phrase “I think therefore I am.”) Descartes, whose knowledge of anatomy and physiology was more medieval than modern, nevertheless postulated that only humans are capable of feeling pain and that an animal is no more than a bête-machine: a “beast machine.” He stated: “It seems reasonable since art copies nature, and men can make various automata which move without thought, that nature should produce its own automata much more splendid than the artificial ones. These natural automata are the animals.” (Given this circular reasoning, Descartes’s eminence as the father of modern philosophy must certainly be questioned, unless circular reasoning is considered modern, which, in light of so much double-talk and artspeak that manages to be taken seriously, it very well may be.) However circular and absurd his theory, Descartes held sway, and only recently has the subject of animal rights been taken seriously in intellectual communities. Why Descartes and others of his ilk have insisted that animals are mere “natural automata” is a baffling question, unless we include them in the long list of bullies, sadists, and other sociopaths who have sought to deny the Other — whether animal or human — the freedom to exist per se. The enslavement of Africans was justified in the 19th century by “scientific” theories that asserted the inferiority of sub-Saharan peoples, and other instances of relegating groups of people to “animal” status are so well known as to be unnecessary to recount here. Consigning animals to the status of machines is a corollary to this malicious trait.

One would suppose that the art world, made up of many liberal-leaning progressives who typically champion the rights of the oppressed and unrepresented, would uniformly condemn the use of hapless animals in art settings and that they would protest against the continuation of the “beast machine” syndrome. A recent incident proved otherwise this past summer when tortoises were made to carry iPads glued to their backs in an “installation” by Cai Guo-Qiang at the Aspen Art Museum. Kinder, more ethical minds eventually prevailed when, after numerous petitions and protests, the artist and the museum finally agreed to remove the iPads from the tortoises and end the “exhibition.” Yet the art world doesn’t seem particularly upset at Huyghe’s use of animals, probably because the animals don’t appear to be suffering. It is still considered acceptable to let a dog wander through a museum with a leg painted pink as long as the dog is not otherwise abused; the confining of a crab in a mask is equally tolerable. Dead bees seem to upset no one.

Yet, to my own surprise, my real objection to the Huyghe exhibition came after I saw the show, and it wasn’t the animal issue that bothered me the most, although I still maintain my “no live animals in exhibitions” position. The abysmal nexus on which the show rests is not animal abuse. I discovered that the heart of this dark, damp, and dreary exhibition is something altogether unexpected: Philip K. Dick.

Yes, strange as it may sound, Huyghe’s installation is actually a visual interpretation and science-project version of Dick’s story “The Preserving Machine.” Huyghe is nothing if not literal, and he reveals his source if you bother to notice it. The pink-legged dog (brutally named Human, Huyghe’s sense of humor is that of a bully) has several resting spots and a “handler,” as the museum refers to the person who oversees the dog’s safety and needs. I noticed the dog taking a nap on one of its furry blankets while nearby sat her “handler” who appeared to be reading a book. Somehow, I knew that this was not a random scenario, that Huyghe would control what the “handler” would be “reading.” The book was Dick’s The Preserving Machine and Other Stories, the 1972 edition, although to judge by appearances, the “handler” hadn’t made much progress — he seemed to have only read one or two pages. I inferred that this was a performance and that the “handler” might — or might not — be reading.

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In Dick’s story, set in Los Angeles, a “mad scientist,” Doc Labyrinth, fears for the future of culture and civilization and invents a bizarre machine that preserves music for future generations.

Labyrinth worried about this, because he loved music, because he hated the idea that some day there would be no more Brahms and Mozart, no more gentle chamber music that he could dreamily associate with powdered wigs and resined bows, with long, slender candles, melting away in the gloom.

Labyrinth’s solution is a machine that turns music into animals, so that “music could be transformed into living creatures, animals with claws and teeth […]” Musical scores had to become living forms in order to survive, eerily reminiscent of Descartes’s bête-machines. Although absolutely no information is given as to how such a machine could work or how animals would transform into music, Labyrinth begins by dropping Mozart’s G Minor Quintet into the machine — and out comes a bird resembling a peacock. Next comes a Beethoven beetle, then a sheep-like animal from a Schubert score, and finally, an entire menagerie of peculiar creatures created from Bach, Wagner, and Stravinsky. The animals are set free into the surrounding woods, and they begin to frighten their creator. “Everything was wild and chaotic, overgrown and matted, an unkempt, unattended sea of green.” Finally, Labyrinth, realizing his invention has failed because nature cannot be controlled, that living creatures evolve in unknown ways, decides to put his Bach-bug back into the machine. Out comes a piece of sheet music. But while attempting to play it on his piano, Labyrinth is horrified to hear that the music is “distorted, diabolical, without sense or meaning, except, perhaps, an alien, disconcerting meaning that should never have been there.” The story ends.

Forearmed (and forewarned) with this information, the visitor can make minimal sense of what is otherwise a baffling, rebus-like exhibition. Melting away into the gloom (the lighting is very dim) are aquaria that appear unkempt, nearly lifeless, filled with dark, stagnant water as if their keepers had vanished, reminiscent of Labyrinth’s “unattended sea of green.” Mirrors and optical illusions create a sense of otherworldliness to these watery realms, and in one, a crab is trapped in a mask based on a Brancusi sculpture, a reference, no doubt, to Labyrinth’s doomed effort to keep culture alive. Huyghe seems to be saying that in some future world, after humans have vanished along with their cultural productions, all that will remain is the detritus of humanity plus creatures such as crabs, who have no aesthetic needs, much like Descartes’s “brutes.” What we now call a “Brancusi” might become nothing more than a habitat for a crustacean, the great fear of Doc Labyrinth. This theme has ricocheted throughout Western culture for centuries, and Huyghe’s lame depictions of Dick-inspired images are weak additions to the subject.

Some other examples:

Upon entering the exhibition, a formally dressed man asks for your name, then announces it in a very loud voice, as if you are attending a royal ball. Your name echoes throughout the dank space, signifying nothing. In Huyghe’s Dicksian world, you don’t count.

A decrepit ice rink soiled with tar evokes a post-apocalyptic mess. Of course the tar is from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits. When will European artists and architects get over this tiresome allusion? The installation falls flat, a bad joke in search of a punchline.

Does a wall containing an ant colony suggest some sort of post-human survival of the insects? As in Dick’s story, animals and insects carry on despite human attempts to intervene in their existences. But Huyghe’s example is so obvious, so rudimentary, that it has no impact.

And of course, the pink-legged dog elicits human sympathy and interaction while remaining off limits as part of an “installation.” A dog, a creature one would normally want to pet, becomes a “do not touch” art object in a literal application of the adage Life Imitates Art. It hardly takes a genius to figure this out, and the joke wears so thin as to be starved. (In fact, the dog looks starved with her protruding ribcage and distinctive skeletal structure.) Furthermore, the dog’s leg, painted pink, is reminiscent of the Nazis, who forced homosexuals to wear pink triangles and Jews to wear yellow stars; it also evokes the branding of slaves in the Americas. To what end has Huyghe made this dog the recipient of such irreverent, horrifying disfigurement? It is both egregious and pointless, disrespectful and without context.

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Water, steam, and ice emanate from overhead contraptions in what can only be called a seventh-grade science project illustrating weather — rain, fog, and snow. That water can take three forms is hardly a revelation, and the ungainliness of the presentation overpowers any potential contemplation of the subject.

A hive of bees is installed over the head of a sculpture of a female nude. (A bee-heading?) The Museum of Jurassic Technology once presented a sublime exhibition, Tell the Bees, a poetic and fanciful creation that puts Huyghe’s clumsy attempt to conjure apian reveries to shame. (And no bees were harmed.) In fact, the MJT has tackled most of Huyghe’s concerns, but with cleverness, intrigue, skill, ingenuity, deftness, and wizardry. Memory, sensation, natural phenomenon, the nature of belief systems, institutional authority, not to mention dogs, insects, and flora, are all subjects that have been presented at MJT. Although LACMA states “Huyghe creates films, installations, and events that blur fact and fiction,” his creations are so blurry as to be illegible. The MJT tackles much the same territory, but with wit, discretion, technical artistry, and cohesiveness.

Huyghe’s trite, simple-minded installations do not inspire, they do not resonate, they do not evoke much beyond a yawn. A 17th-century cabinet of curiosities would elicit more wonder and fascination than this tepid take on the natural world. If you have gotten over your teenage fascination with all things post-apocalyptic (keep in mind that Dick wrote the story that became Blade Runner); if you are able to make distinctions between art and nature, and if those distinctions do not frighten you; if you calmly accept Darwin and Dawkins; if you reject Descartes and his mechanistic view of animals; or if art has ever meant more to you than just a hollow experience of vaguely unpleasant sensations, then this show is not for you. It is a Debbie Downer of an installation, an adolescent mishmash of science fiction, chaos theory, and nihilism — a farrago of banality. Huyghe, who claims to endorse “random outcomes,” will certainly not object when someone with a leash walks away with the dog.

¤

Victoria Dailey is a writer, curator, and antiquarian bookseller. She lives in Los Angeles.

All photographs by Victoria Dailey.


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