Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Weather Score), 2002, mixed media. Installation view, 2013. © Pierre Huyghe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Weather Score), 2002, mixed media. Installation view, 2013. © Pierre Huyghe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Weather Score), 2002, mixed media. Installation view, 2013. © Pierre Huyghe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

BY SOME STRANGE TWIST OF FATE, major museum retrospectives of Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno—two figures engaged in one of the art world’s most intense dialogues of the past twenty years—were on view concurrently in Paris this winter. But however coincidental the timing was, and however much talk their pairing has generated, these one-man shows are wholly incomparable, even incommensurate. On the one hand, Parreno occupied the totality of the Palais de Tokyo, his work synchronically animating an immense space like the mad computer in 2001 piloting the spacecraft. On the other, Huyghe played the retrospective game within the far narrower framework of the Centre Pompidou’s Galerie Sud. But his exhibition brilliantly rearticulates and revises the elements of his oeuvre. However close he remains to Parreno and other peers at this stage in his career, Huyghe is also, it seems, moving toward a different dimension.

If Huyghe gave in to the retrospective exercise proposed to him, it was in order to entirely reconfigure the codes of the genre. Rejecting chronological organization as well as the hagiographic temptation of the “best of,” the artist has constructed a labyrinthine scenography, at the heart of which appears a litany of pieces that have been segmented, recut, or recomposed. Huyghe uses his previous works like markers indicating a path forward—an unsurprising move for an artist who never ceases to contradict our linear vision of time. This is a circular retrospective, connecting each exhibited piece to another in order to form new circuits of citation and cross-reference. Huyghe seems to have brought his long-standing interest in the structure of the cycle to its logical conclusion: From his early filmed reenactments of scenes from famous films or historical events (Les Incivils, 1995, and The Third Memory, 1999, among others) to the haunting scenes punctuating the three “holidays” (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, May Day) in The Host and the Cloud, 2010, the artist has developed a veritable dramaturgy of repetition. For every celebration, he insists, is also an alienation: a kind of Lacanian working-through, an experience of ritual that is simultaneously an experience of trauma—and a reflection on that trauma, a recognition of the impossibility of ever reliving the same moment again.

This repetition is not only temporal but spatial. Huyghe uses the Centre Pompidou exactly as he used Karlsaue Park in Kassel during Documenta 13: as an artificial landscape, a compost, a pile of decaying elements destined to fertilize a plot of land and then decay again. The exhibition space is made over into an ecosystem and organized into microclimates. Rain and fog emanate from the ceiling (following the changing weather narrated in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, in what the artist calls a “weather score”), condense and freeze into ice; then the cycle begins again. And such zones also facilitate the work of bees, a hive of which occupies the museum’s interstitial outdoor courtyard.

Huyghe has, in fact, compared the garden to the factory—each a form of diurnal and ever-shifting reproduction. The bees always do the same thing, but they pollinate their environment, and therein lies the task that Huyghe assigns to art. The exhibition proceeds through a cross-breeding of art by nature, of the human by the animal, of the image by the biological and geologic. It is a space of literal coexistence and interspecies relationships. Perhaps this is why Huyghe is so devoted to the aquarium, an artificial crucible of the living and nonliving. In his tanks (two are displayed within the show) are immersed fish, crustaceans, a hermit crab nestled in a Brancusi sculpture, fragments of rock, and the like. “I explore the equivalence that can exist between what unfolds within the aquarium and an emotion or a situation experienced by the one on the outside,” Huyghe explains.

A museum is a structure that separates the living from the frozen, culture from nature. But here, the rising vapor, drips of water, and crawling insects all precipitate an uncontrollable realm that defies the museal order. The visitor becomes a “wild witness,” in Huyghe’s words: In contrast to the spectacular orchestration of the amusement park, the exhibition can be traversed only randomly, so that no visitor can be certain of perceiving every element of the show, and none will experience it in the same way twice. The scrivener noting his impressions during the opening (the writer Thomas Clerc); the bailiff stating the identity of each visitor’s arrival (Name Announcer, 2011); the dog with the pink leg and the performer wearing the glowing LED mask previously worn by the characters in The Host and the Cloud; the ice skater reenacting the ice skater seen in A journey that wasn’t, 2005; the ants; the bees—all are ways of populating an exhibition, of creating a phantasmatic field in which every state of material (liquid, solid, gas; animal, vegetable, mineral) is redistributed and in which our ideas of sculpture and of time are blown apart.

Huyghe has also kept discreet traces of the space’s previous exhibition—a Mike Kelley retrospective—via remnants of its temporary walls and therefore its layout. This Asher-esque palimpsest echoes, in turn, Huyghe’s Timekeeper, 1999, in which the artist sands away layers of his host institution’s wall to reveal successive layers of previous paint jobs, a tectonic excavation that here takes the form of a diminutive set of nested rings. From the heady dirge by Kate Bush (on the sound track of The Host and the Cloud) to the sculpture from the artist’s junior-high school, removed wholesale and placed at the entrance of the show; from the childhood sounds of Streamside Day Follies, 2003, wafting through the space to the array of vacation pictures (part of Extended Holidays, 1996), Huyghe introduces memory as a growing, living material. The exhibition proves a turning point in his practice, reminding us of the one taken by Kelley in 1995 with his Educational Complex and eventually leading him, in 2010, to build a mobile replica of his parents’ home outside Detroit. Like Kelley, Huyghe reprises his previous works as an extended biosphere, a metabolic environment of reference and presence, a mnemonic system that goes far beyond that of his previous projects. If Huyghe became famous for engaging social and economic relations in the here and now, an impossible perpetual present, he has become even more ambitious—building worlds that are not only living but profoundly historical, too.

“Pierre Huyghe,” curated by Emma Lavigne, is on view through Jan. 6; travels to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Apr. 11–July 13; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 23, 2014–Mar. 8, 2015.

Nicolas Bourriaud is Director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.