Murk of the Penguin

New York

Left and right: Scenes from Pierre Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't shoot. (Photos: Public Art Fund/Tom Powel Imaging)

It goes without saying that one must suffer for one’s art, but some of us prefer to suffer for other people’s art. And so it was that on Friday night a few hundred hardy, masochistic souls, myself among them, showed up in a downpour at Central Park’s (roofless) Wollman Rink, where a sequence for Pierre Huyghe’s film A Journey That Wasn’t was being shot. The film, which will debut at the 2006 Whitney Biennial (it’s not just for Americans anymore!), centers around a trip that Huyghe and some fellow artists took to Antarctica earlier this year. Having heard stories that the changes wrought by global warming were creating new topographies and strange flora and fauna in the region, Huyghe was intent upon locating a mythical creature said to live on an unnamed island in the Antarctic Circle. The Wollman Rink event, organized by the Public Art Fund in collaboration with the Whitney, was to be a theatrical evocation of the voyage, and footage of the performance would be incorporated into the film. The audience had been informed that Huyghe’s cameras would be trained on them, too. In other words, they’d be extras as well as spectators—a taxonomic slipperiness that analogizes the project’s polyvalent status as a journey, a performance, a film, and a text narrative (published—full disclosure—in last summer’s Artforum).

Pleased as I was to have the chance to step into one of Huyghe’s halls of mirrors, I was dismayed at the prospect of seeing myself, on a screen at the Whitney, dressed in a clear plastic hooded poncho—not a good look, unless you’re going for a Hobbit-by-way-of-Helmut-Lang effect. But so inclement was the weather that I donned one of the dreaded garments, which bedraggled Public Art Fund staffers were handing out. It was an otherworldly scene: The rink (a TRUMP property, as bombastic logos everywhere proclaimed) had been transformed into a shallow lake, dotted with faux icebergs and ringed by klieg lights, with skyscrapers rising through the mist behind them. Off to one side, beneath a canopy (not a part of the original set design but necessitated, to the artist’s reported chagrin, by the rain), an orchestra was cacophonously tuning. In front of this set were bleachers, which were already stuffed with people, all huddled in their plastic ponchos like so many futuristic Frodos. There were parents with children, young couples, a deputy mayor or two, and numerous art-worlders—including Dia’s Lynne Cooke, the Fogg Art Museum’s Linda Norden, Marian Goodman Gallery director Rose Lord, and Whitney director Adam Weinberg and curators Donna DeSalvo and Chrissie Iles (who is co-organizing the 2006 Biennial with Philippe Vergne). Crew members rushed about, muttering into walkie-talkies.

Since the bleachers were full, I found shelter in an open-sided tent nearby. Tom Eccles—executive director of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies and, until recently, director of the Public Art Fund—made a short speech, welcoming the audience and telling them “not to act.” Then the lights began to pulse, cameramen waded into the water, and the orchestra struck up an atonal tune (composed by Joshua Cody and based on data derived from the topography of the Antarctic island where Huyghe and company set up camp). Fog started to billow from a machine a few feet from me. Lots of fog. At first, it eddied delicately, but soon became so thick that I wondered if the machine was malfunctioning. As the music crescendoed, my vision became totally occluded; just as I began to have trouble breathing, the orchestra quieted and somebody yelled “Cut!”

Left: Linda Norden, associate curator of contemporary art at the Fogg Art Museum, and Artforum's Scott Rothkopf, cocurators of last year's Huyghe + Corbusier: Harvard Project. Right: A scene from the shoot.

I stumbled, coughing, out of the tent. Pushing through the crowd, I overheard someone saying, “Did you get a load of the penguin?” Penguin? I thought. I spied a colleague, who asked, “Did you see the penguin?” I told him I hadn’t seen anything and moved on, eventually running into another coworker, who said, “So I heard you didn’t see the penguin.” It occurred to me—standing as I was in the rain at Donald Trump’s ice skating rink among people who could speak of nothing but penguins—that I might be in the grip of a hallucination. But it developed that indeed, a penguin—an animatronic, albino penguin, to be precise, representing the aforementioned mystery creature of the snowy wastes—had made an appearance during the take.

I was looking for Huyghe, but he proved as elusive as his avian quarry. I did find Eccles, and spoke with him about the project, his last for the Public Art Fund. For him, A Journey That Wasn’t has been a gratifying swan song, the “grandest statement yet” in the Fund’s recent series of performative projects (with Alison Smith’s The Muster being another example). “We’re right in the orchestra pit of the city here,” he said. The film’s scenic designer, artist Marc Ganzglass, took a less exalted view, commenting, “We’ve been out here eighteen hours a day, all week, in this monster rain. It’s been a battle.” Others I talked to noted that, while the rain was good for the film’s atmospherics, it was bad for the orchestra’s instruments and for morale. But the hardest part was over and, Ganzglass correctly noted, “It looks great.” He also advised me, as the crew geared up for the second take, to look for the penguin atop the tallest iceberg, which I did—keeping my distance from the fog machine. Expecting a sort of Abominable Snowman with vestigial wings, I was touched to see a cute little thing, resembling an animatronic marshmallow Peep, waddling into view. Clearly, it was more afraid of us than we were of it. And given our outfits, who could blame it?

Elizabeth Schambelan