Although Pierre Huyghe's body of work is incredibly diverse, it nonetheless demonstrates the Paris-born artist's obsession with creating layered narratives—only to expose the entangled network of relationships that compose them. For Huyghe, whose video "This Is Not a Time for Dreaming" marks the Jubitz Center's fourth contemporary art exhibition since it opened last fall, there is pleasure to be taken in peeling back levels of signification.
For example, Huyghe has installed billboards of a small café above a café that is pictured, creating a bizarre tension between the real and the represented, fact and fiction. But other projects have taken on more sprawling and convoluted proportions, such as his "Annlee" project with frequent collaborator Philippe Parreno. In 1999, Huyghe and Parreno purchased the rights to a rather nondescript Japanese manga character. Christening her "Annlee," the two invited 15 artists to create works using Annlee's likeness, thereby vesting her with a backstory and, consequently, a life of her own. But rather than let Annlee's newfound identity grow to an iconic extent, Huyghe and Parreno famously "killed" her in a fireworks display in 2002. As her face flashed across the sky on the opening night of Miami's Art Basel Fair, it marked the last time her image would be used.
Teasing out the tiers of meanings in the "Annlee" project required considerable knowledge of everything Huyghe and Parreno were up to behind the scenes. In other words, the work itself seemed secondary to the artist's extravagant puppetry. And Dreaming is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth with its overt commentary on the role Huyghe often takes in these works. It is, after all, a puppet show.
Dreaming originated when Huyghe was commissioned to create a work to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Harvard University's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building designed by the architect Le Corbusier in the United States. The result was this 24-minute video in the form of a live puppet show, in which Le Corbusier's frustration in working with administrators to realize his vision is paralleled with Huyghe's own stifled attempts to complete his commemorative commission.
Standing in for the whole of Harvard's administrative bureaucracy, like some malevolent spirit of compromise, is a character called the Dean of Deans. Faceless, black, and towering, the Dean of Deans seems to feed, vampire-like, on the creativity of others. On the one hand, the video presents a realistically unromantic depiction of the give and take inherent in creating a commissioned artwork. But Huyghe's portrayal of the university's administrators as some form of incarnate evil lacks much complexity. Moreover, Huyghe's casting of artists as victims is incredibly cloying, and it's a move that ultimately devalues the creative act. Rather than using the video as an opportunity to transcend the constraints placed upon him, Huyghe seems more content to revel in failure.
Still, there is a moment at the end of the video when Huyghe asserts himself as the architect of the narrative structure. A puppet depiction of Huyghe controls two smaller puppets—one of Le Corbusier and one of Huyghe—before the camera pans up to the real puppeteers above the tiny stage. It's at once a moment of Huyghe's characteristic play between narrative layers and, in spite of the heavy-handed puppetry metaphor, an insistence on the presence of the artist. If the artist lacks autonomy in the real world, he pulls the strings in the theater of his creativity.
This sentiment is echoed in the video's most captivating passage, in which Le Corbusier falls asleep under a leafless tree and dreams the Carpenter Center into reality. As the architect nods off, pieces of the future building twirl and undulate above him and a mess of black lines on the ground magically erupt, forming the center's framework. When he awakes, he stiffly tap dances, seemingly swept away by his vision of the building.
That Huyghe can acknowledge the power of art and still dedicate the video to a storyline as pedestrian and inactive as his frustration over artistic compromise is, in itself, frustrating. Scenes of the artist heroically researching Le Corbusier hardly make for compelling drama. In the end, making a work of art about an unrealized work of art is a kind of echoing conversation between the artist and himself, no better than writing a story about writer's block. In Dreaming, the camera may pull back to reveal an audience watching Huyghe's puppet show, but it doesn't necessarily mean the action is for anyone other than the artist himself.