Pierre Huyghe, Umwelt (Environment) (detail), 2011, ants, spiders, dimensions variable.

Pierre Huyghe, Umwelt (Environment) (detail), 2011, ants, spiders, dimensions variable.

Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe, Umwelt (Environment) (detail), 2011, ants, spiders, dimensions variable.

A few surprises awaited visitors to Pierre Huyghe’s show “Influants” even before they entered the gallery. The evening of the opening, for example, there was a little crowd assembled at the entrance: People were being allowed to enter only one at a time. A young man standing guard asked each visitor his or her name. And as soon as the visitor discreetly answered, he opened the door to admit the guest, announcing his or her name in a loud voice. It was certainly a bit embarrassing to be presented as one of the attractions—at least until it was the turn of the next guest to suffer the same fate. And in fact, as became clear only later, we had just experienced the first work of the show: Name Announcer (all works 2011). Aside from the other viewers, the gallery appeared completely empty and was illuminated to a bright gleam, a freshly renovated white cube. Entering this space defined a field of interaction—from this point on, each visitor knew a steadily increasing number of strangers by name, whereas the new arrivals at first might have known no one at all. The latecomers inevitably fell into the role of “objects” on display, but this burden was constantly shifting onto others.

Thanks to this awkward confrontation with fellow visitors, it took a while to notice that the gallery wasn’t as completely empty as it had first appeared: Wasn’t that a spider creeping up the bare wall? It might have been a coincidence—this was, after all, an evening in late summer. But once your attention had been drawn to this, you suddenly began to notice ever more of them. In fact, several varieties of arachnids were on the move here; there were also ants traveling both separately and in formation across the walls and floor. One began to step more cautiously. These were, in fact, two artworks: Umwelt (Environment) and C.C. Spider.

Umwelt consisted of fifty spiders of various native species as well as ten thousand ants, each of the species Polyrhachis dives. Huyghe had concealed the ant nest behind the gallery’s walls. Two holes drilled into the wall at a distance from each other allowed the ants to move freely between nest and gallery. That Huyghe positioned these holes at “ideal hanging height”—defined here as 157 centimeters, or five feet two inches—was one of his few explicit references to the art context. Overall, “Influants” was conceived less as a picture than as a space of encounters—even if there was something graphic about the creatures’ shapes and the paths they traced on their wanderings. What Huyghe put on display here was a concept-based artificial environment for species reacting to each other—and he explicitly included the gallery’s visitors in this equation.

C.C. Spider also consisted of spiders, but in this case, Huyghe had persuaded the creatures to make their homes in the corners of the ceiling. The title contains an abbreviation of “ceiling corner” but also suggests the CCTV security cameras that lurk in the corners of rooms. Oh, and there was a fourth work on exhibit, perhaps the least immediately perceptible of all: Influenced consisted of a single person, present throughout the show, who carried the influenza virus. Most visitors learned this—if at all—only by reading the list of works. By the time they were aware of it, however, the fantasy (of contagion) and virulent reality could no longer be distinguished from each other. And so Huyghe showed how the invisible can still inspire the most powerful effects.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.