View of “Pierre Huyghe,” 2014. From left: Nymphéas Transplant (14–18), 2014; La déraison, 2014; Nymphéas Transplant (12.21.1914), 2014.

View of “Pierre Huyghe,” 2014. From left: Nymphéas Transplant (14–18), 2014; La déraison, 2014; Nymphéas Transplant (12.21.1914), 2014.

Pierre Huyghe

Hauser & Wirth London | Old Bond St

View of “Pierre Huyghe,” 2014. From left: Nymphéas Transplant (14–18), 2014; La déraison, 2014; Nymphéas Transplant (12.21.1914), 2014.

The white cube is “a curious piece of real estate,” as Brian O’Doherty once wrote; with Pierre Huyghe, this property just gets curiouser and curiouser. Ordinarily, an art gallery is a clean, bright place, the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens. In Huyghe’s exhibition “In. Border. Deep.,” it became a dark, cavernous home for strange life forms.

The space was sliced into two oddly shaped halves. The first housed some extraordinary variations on the idea of “living sculpture,” along with a wall work, about which more later. In the second, further subdivided into two irregular black boxes, two short films were screened concurrently. De-extinction (all works 2014) shows prehistoric insects trapped in thirty-million-year-old sap; close-ups of their broken corpses are accompanied by the amplified, thunderous whirs and jolts of the camera. The other film, Human Mask—the artwork that set London reeling, even during attention-exhausting Frieze week—involves a masked monkey dressed as a waitress in a black uniform, leading a lonely life in an abandoned post-Fukushima restaurant.

Welcoming us at the entrance, a statue of a headless reclining woman radiated a faint heat; it was crawling with tiny, happy spiders colonizing patches of spreading moss. Beyond her, three large, glowing cubes—semitransparent aquariums on pedestals, with lighting that switched on and off at different intervals—were filled with water plants extracted from Monet’s pond at Giverny in France. Among the lilies’ tangled roots swim various freshwater fish as well as axolotl, rare Mexican amphibians. Computer-generated light sequencing replicates weather patterns recorded at Giverny from 1914 to 1918, when the Impressionist was painting his vast Nymphéas while Europe was butchering its sons by the millions in World War I. Last year marked the centenary of those events, and this is also the fiftieth anniversary of Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube—another watery white cube whose perfect transparency, we might say, has been transformed by Huyghe into far deeper, more mysterious microclimates seething with silt, flora, and fauna. On the back wall was The Clearing: large red scratches—like a long, bloodied, indecipherable message—in which the artist had scraped through the white emulsion to reveal old layers of red paint. A prehistoric stone tool lay abandoned beneath.

In Human Mask, a real-life macaque monkey and YouTube star, trained to wait on tables as an unpaid but quick-footed restaurant worker, here wears a luminous white mask to become a strangely beautiful young Asian girl—despite hairy hands, bowlegs, an unpredictable tail, and an appetite for maggots. She seems trapped in a cluttered, claustrophobic, filthy space, as unlike the white cube as any could be. We weirdly empathize with the childlike creature, bored and melancholy in this loveless place. But, if mask and dress were removed from this forlorn on-screen figure, would the “poor, friendless” monkey still provoke such empathetic emotions in us? Are the aquariums captivating for their natural beauty—or because Monet painted them? Ultimately, Huyghe’s exhibition seemed an accusation of humankind’s—and, in particular, the art world’s—unending narcissism. We worry ceaselessly about white-cube thought experiments like this one, market vicissitudes, environmental catastrophes we engineer. Meanwhile, a universe of creatures carries on, indifferent to whatever mess we’re in now—like Monet absorbed by his vast cycle of 250 Nymphéa paintings, oblivious to the cataclysmic human affairs outside his garden wall.

Long after this unforgettable show has closed, long after humanity perishes altogether, the endangered axolotl will thrive; healthy maggots will nourish surviving primates; and mosquitoes will be preserved mid-copulation in glowing amber. All that will be left of humankind will be the stones of worthless Mayfair properties, our illegible scribbles still on the wall. Not even the spiders will miss us.

Gilda Williams