Human Animal Mask: Pierre Huyghe’s Fable between Documentas

Yesterday at the Guggenheim Bilbao I saw Pierre Huyghe’s remarkable 2014 film Untitled (Human Mask). It stars the monkey Fuku-chan (who came to fame in a YouTube video that depicts her working as a waitress north of Toyko) dressed in a mask and wig waiting impatiently in an abandoned restaurant.

Set and filmed in 2011, in Fukushima after the earthquake-triggered tsunami had caused the meltdown of three nuclear plant reactors, the 19-minute film follows the listless monkey-girl as she waits for diners that never appear, listening to the rain and hum of the silence, idly playing with her hair, tapping her feet and scampering around the deserted space. (One of the most dramatic moments is when Fuku-chan violently knocks over a bottle she’d previously placed on a table, seemingly in frustration at her isolation).

While watching this curious film, knowing that I would be leaving for Athens and documenta 14 tomorrow, my mind wandered back and forth between the present exhibition and its 2012 manifestation, which Huyghe participated in.

The masked animal immediately made me recall Stathis Gourgouris’ essay for the second issue of the documenta 14 magazine South as a State of Mind (‘Mask Silence, Silence Masks, or A Condition of Utmost Listening’).

Offering his take on the theme of the issue (masks and silence), Gourgouris distinguishes between the ‘human animal’ and ‘every other creature on the planet’ both in terms of the former’s intervention in the environment, but also its ability to wear a mask:

The human animal is distinguished by its intervention in the environment of every other creature on the planet, simultaneously caring and self-­serving, preservational and catastrophic. But the human animal is also distinguished by its proclivity to wear masks, literally and figuratively—a desire that is archaic and manifested in complex institutions over a vast range of cultural traditions. Masking is a form of deceit, plainly speaking, before we get to all the sophisticated elements that lead to discussions of impersonation, theatricality, or mythical performativity. At the basic level, it is a way to deceive others as to oneself, even while provisionally suspending the very mechanism of determining a self. One might say that masking oneself is in fact a gesture of self-deception, even while it presumes to deceive the other.

In his earlier book Does Literature Think?, Gourgouris reads Kafka’s fable of ‘The Silence of the Silence’ by showing how the encounter between the Sirens and Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey enacts this connection between masking and deception:

Just as the silence of the Sirens was the result of pretending to sing – of miming the gestures of song in order to mask their most horrifying weapon, silence – so did Odysseus mime the supposed bliss of song in order to mask both his knowledge of their silence and his own fear of being mastered.

(Here think of artist Paul Chan’s vision of Odysseus as the cunning hero set to save us from contemporary art’s obsession with (semblances) of luxuriousness.) These gestures, Gourgouris suggests later in this chapter, fall somewhere between ‘the language of fiction and its performance in the world’. I am looking forward to exploring these ideas in Athens, especially in the installation of animal masks by the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick.

But Hughye’s masked-monkey also brought me back to the previous iteration of documenta, specifically how the animal hero of this 2014 work connected with Human, the pink-legged dog of Huyghe’s project Untilled at dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012.

As I did not visit the 2012 documenta in person, the most vivid way I have to return there is less through the extensive publication projects as by the novel The Illogic of Kassel by Catalan author Enrique Vila-Matas (whom I was luck enough to see last week in the Madrid book fair and whose novel has been translated into Greek in preparation for this year’s documenta in Athens).

The author was invited to Kassel by the curators to be a ‘writer in residence’ at a Chinese restaurant at the edge of town and the novel describes his resistance to this invited role at dOCUMENTA (13) by inventing a character – Piniowsky – who could do his dirty work for him, while he enjoyed exploring the artists’ work at the exhibition.  At the end of his adventure, however, Vila-Matas looks back at his performance, concerned that it has all been a ruse:

One hour later, I was sitting on a plain chair in my room, my bag packed, totally ready to embark on that return journey despite having so many hours left to wait. My computer was in its case. And I was there in the chair as if petrified, as if in hell. The invisible impulse, the effect of the breeze, seemed to have reached its end. I looked toward the black hole that had originated inside myself, and it showed me my own face. As if with my brain I was going through this zone without a bit of good humor; it was a region with no jokes at all. I wanted to go back to the world, although it had perished some time ago and was no longer within my reach. I had been trapped inside Piniowsky since the moment he was born in me. I was a victim of my own mask. It was no longer possible to have any opinion on the world. Every axiom of my life had turned out to be false, it felt, and I didn’t see anything, there was nothing, I was nothing; everything was, from top to bottom, a false illusion. The invisible impulse had vanished entirely.

Vila-Matas then quickly snaps out of this gloom and as his taxi speeds away from Kassel, the last words of the novel revel in the fantasy that he was both a part of and that he helped to conjure up:

Art was, in effect, something that was happening to me, happening at that very moment. And the world seemed new again, moved by an invisible impulse. Everything was so relaxing and admirable, it was impossible not to look. Blessed is the morning, I thought.

Earlier, while exploring Huyghe’s project for dOCUMENTA(13) Untilled, Vila-Matas projects the same move from gloomy disinterest to ecstatic high onto the pink-legged dog, Human, that roamed around the artist’s site:

The hound seemed to get bored with our conversation and went for a walk around the territory. I was observing her closely, and at first she actually managed to surprise me with her apparently infinite eagerness for all smells. When she found something that caught her attention— always an enigma for me, because I couldn’t understand what was so alluring in what she was smelling— her snout stuck to it with absolutely amazing obstinacy, with such anxious, frenzied enthusiasm, the rest of the world seemed to have stopped existing for her. The dog was like a little Piniowsky. Obstinately interested in everything and prisoner of a great enthusiasm for whatever crossed her path, she seemed ready at any moment to ignore the whole damned world. I reached the conclusion that she was enjoying herself and that was all there was to it. She seemed to be living on a permanent high, lost in a nasal nirvana that she couldn’t detach from.

Rather than mark the distinction between the human animal’s uses of masks and fiction as discussed by Stathis Gourgouris, Vila-Matas’ projects his fictional creation onto Huyghe’s animal Human. This gesture embodies all of the features of the fable genre and there is in fact one ancient fable that explicitly explores the tension between the animal and the mask, written by 1st Century CE fabulist Phaedrus called The fox and the tragic actor’s mask. In a telling twist on the hierarchy of humans and other animals, Phaedrus’ fable also offers a timely riposte to the king of the apes who currently lords over the people of the US with his brainless twittering:

Personam tragicam forte vulpes viderat;

“O quanta species” inquit “cerebrum non habet!”

Hoc illis dictum est quibus honorem et gloriam

Fortuna tribuit, sensum communem abstulit.

[A fox by chance came cross a tragic actor’s mask

“Oh!”, he says, “what a facade, but still no brains.”

This is for those for whom fortune may have granted honor and renown,

But who are nonetheless devoid of common sense.]

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