Pierre Huyghe explores the world through text, video, puppets

    If Huyghe were not so tragically enamoured of French postmodern circuitousness, his Tate Modern show might have been actively enlightening and even exciting to wander through. It is beautifully done. And it nearly means lots of things. As it is, Huyghe’s first solo outing in Britain ends up as — to use a word he himself might use — a simulacrum of an exciting and enlightening exhibition.

    It isn’t truly exciting or fully enlightening, but it ably mimics being both.

    The chief difficulty with post-modern theory is, of course, that it never gets you anywhere, because there is no anywhere. Everywhere is an anywhere. As it cannot arrive at a proper conclusion, the kind of thinking that goes into a Pierre Huyghe artwork must always leave you suspended irritatingly between meanings. The Tate show consists of one excellent example after another of this annoying rope bridge of a condition. The first thing you see is a white neon sign announcing: “I Do Not Own Tate Modern or the Death Star”. Thus, we begin as we mean to progress: with a resounding negative.

    The show turns out to be packed with absences. Inside are more white-neon namings of things that Huyghe does not own. “I Do Not Own Snow White”; “I Do Not Own Modern Times”; “I Do Not Own 4’ 33””. He calls these elegant white signs his “disclaimers”, and they list various topics that his art has, in fact, tackled in the past.

    4’ 33” is the name of John Cage’s most celebrated composition (the ultimate absence work): the stretch of silence exactly 4’ 33” long, which Huyghe has rescored for flute. Modern Times is the hilariously radical Chaplin movie from the 1930s about man’s fight against the machine, which once prompted a Huyghe performance.

    His Snow White piece is actually in the show, a pint-sized video work in which the actress whose voice was used in the French version of the Disney classic sings for us again that some day her prince will come, while the subtitles talk us through the court case she had to mount against the Disney corporation to claim back the rights to her own voice. Apparently, when the French Snow White signed for the part, she lost possession of her own sound.

    Thus, all the “I Do Not Own” pieces are tangentially about copyright issues. It’s a very French subject. The big neon “disclaimers” announce one thing but appear to be implying the exact opposite. By declaring that he does not own Snow White, Huyghe seems, in some sneaky, postmodern fashion, to have given himself the free- dom to tackle the subject. When he tells us that he does not own Tate Modern, he is again being creatively disingenuous. For the duration of the show, until September 17, half a floor of Tate Modern is his. And the Death Star that he also insists he does not own definitely belongs to all our imaginations. Anybody who has seen Star Wars could be said to possess the Death Star, because if we hadn’t watched the film, the creepy space station would not exist.

    I know, I know. Keeping up with all this is mightily exhausting and almost entirely unproductive. I could go on for many, many paragraphs, searching circuitously for the meaning of Huyghe’s circuitousness. It’s like eating peanuts: once you start, you can’t stop. But, as your critic, sent into Huyghe’s mysterious white installation to evaluate it and make sense of it, I cannot do what the artist does and avoid all conclusions.

    Huyghe’s show is called Celebration Park. On one level — its most basic and tangible level — it’s an examination of theme parks and world fairs. Their texture. Their purpose. Their influence. That’s a very French subject, too. Think Disneyland. Think the Paris Exhibition of 1889.

    The blurring that goes on in theme parks between fiction and reality is Huyghe’s chief concern. It is a pertinent topic — not only because there are so many actual theme parks in the modern world, but because so much theme-park thinking has seeped out of those madcap enclosures and contaminated our daily life. Reality television, for example, appears to involve real people in real situations when, in fact, the opposite is true: the situation is contrived, and the contestants are playing games.

    Tate Modern itself is another example. What, actually, is this place? It calls itself a museum, but it functions like an amusement park. Toddlers toddle around it, having fun. People are sprawled about the Turbine Hall, eating sandwiches. Mysterious noises emanate from tempting recesses. Here’s a sculpture. There’s a film. The one thing that isn’t being pursued here is knowledge.

    I think Huyghe is aware of the anomalous ambition of the modern museum. I think it’s one of his topics. Like Tate Modern, his show mimics the approach and demeanour of an adventure park. You are never sure what lies around the next corner. In the room where the neon “disclaimers” are gathered on the walls, a pair of giant white doors, suspended from a crazy monorail track that winds about the room, offers the spectacle of giant white doors appearing to dance.

    White turns out to be the visual glue that holds the show together. The “disclaimers” glow irresistibly with pristine white neon. Snow White namechecks the colour. The most ambitious of Huyghe’s films tells of an expedition to the snowy Antarctic, where a gang of ethereal explorers, armed with an eerie artificial moon, search for and discover an albino penguin. The white penguin — it turns out to have been a clever piece of animatronics — reappears in a nearby sculpture of an artificial island, where it frightened the life out of me by suddenly blinking.

    On paper, Huyghe is a bewilderingly varied artist. He does sculptures, texts, videos, installations, interjections, films, puppet shows, the works. And they are all in the show. So it ought to feel horribly bitty. But it doesn’t. The all-embracing whiteness gives the event an angelic and floaty feel. We have wandered into a dream in which the ordinary rules of life do not apply. Isn’t that what theme parks do? How sinister white becomes when it hints at labs and hospitals and faceless institutions.

    Although the show refers constantly to Huyghe’s work in the past, it isn’t actually a retrospective. Being a retrospective is much too clear-cut an identity for Huyghe to favour. Instead, we have here an exploration of the past that is set in an artificial present, or, if you prefer, some new originals derived from old quotations. That, at least, is what the show would be if “new” and “old” were valid concepts in our increasingly virtual world. Sorry — I’m doing it again.