Pierre Huyghe’s Animals and a Better Understanding of the Anthropocene

By Fiepke van Niel.

An albino penguin, a swarm of bees, a greyhound dog with a pink leg and a monkey – these are all animals that contemporary artist Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962) uses throughout his oeuvre. His art appears in a broad range of different forms; film, photography, installations and even fully operating ecosystems. These different types of artworks mainly operate along themes such as utopia and the thin line between fiction and reality. This expresses itself sometimes through the use of a self-generating system of which the outcome is unknown. These self-generating systems form the core of some of Huyghe’s artworks and also involve the aforementioned animals that play a role in a big part of his oeuvre.

Huyghe has been active as an artist since the 1990s. With a growing amount of solo exhibitions on his name and the receiving of the Nasher Prize for contemporary sculpture in 2017, his success can easily be illustrated [1]. Although Huyghe is still extremely active as an artist, the artworks he created in the past remain relevant up until today. Therefore Kunstnernes Hus Kino in Oslo hosts different screenings of four of Huyghe’s films from the 31st of August 2018 until the 16th of September. These screenings are a part of Kunstnernes Hus Kino’s Silver Series from which each event shows artworks of different kind of artists which are expressed through the medium of film and video [2]. Although the medium of the chosen artworks by Pierre Huyghe has been the motive for the juxtaposition of the screening, two of the four films together can also provide the viewer with an interesting narrative. They both feature animals and one of them explores the idea of a self-generating system. It made me wonder what the artworks of an influential artist like Pierre Huyghe can tell us about the present-day relationship between animals and humans in a world where almost our complete environment is manipulated by the human species. This current state of the earth has been labelled the ‘Anthropocene’ by scientists in the early 2000s refers to a geological epoch where the consequences of human actions can be experienced directly in the environment [3]. The artworks of the French artist may not always be intended to make references towards the responsibility of the human species for entirely changing the operating systems of nature and the environment, but the themes and narratives that are to be found throughout his oeuvre can provide us with a better understanding of the Anthropocene.

The four films that were being screened during the Silver Series in Kunstnernes Hus Kino are A journey that wasn’t (2005), The host and the cloud (2010), A way in Untilled (2012) and Untitled (Human Mask) (2014). The latter two will be discussed in this text.

The first film, A way in Untilled (2012), documents Huyghe’s contribution to dOCUMENTA (13). The artwork consists out of a self-nurturing biotope. The artist has only played an active role in providing the materials for the biotope to do its job and to let it develop as an environment that functions without any human intervention [4]. Watching the film feels like crawling through a forest; it feels like the viewer is watching from the perspective of an animal that is living in this biotope. The environment consists out of small insects crawling on the ground and in the water. At a certain moment, a greyhound dog with a pink leg appears. But, it soon becomes clear he is not the centre of this system. A swarm of bees located on the head of a statue of a reclining woman makes sure the flowers in the environment are able to blossom. The fact that the bees locate themselves on the head of a human-like figure creates a sense of irony; it provides us with the idea that the bees occupy a form of human intelligence. They could be seen as the hub of the ongoing existence of this natural environment. Alhtough Huyghe provided the tools for this self-generating system, A way in Untilled explores the idea of what would happen to the environment when humans would take a step back. Watching the film can provide a critical instance towards the amount of human intervention that is needed in the environment; animals can operate this system just as well.

The second film, Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), is of a slightly different nature. The film revolves around a character that resembles a little girl, but a little later on in the film one will realise that they are looking at a monkey wearing a human mask and a wig. This narrative was inspired by a video of a monkey working in a Japanese restaurant wearing a wig and a girl’s dress; the same monkey is being featured in Untitled (Human Mask). The monkey moves around aimlessly in what seems like a destroyed restaurant. She seems like she has no purpose and like she does not know where to go. The sight of the monkey trapped between two worlds provides the viewer with a feeling that can best be described as uncanny. Untitled (Human Mask) also puts a thought process in working that makes us question the relationship between humans and animals nowadays. The film evokes realisation and even guilt about the awkward and sometimes cruel situations that us humans put animals into.

The two films together can provide food for thought about what the role of the human species is in nowadays environment. A way in Untilled explores the idea of a certain human intelligence that is also to be found in animals. Animals are capable of sustain the environment they live in; the biotope at dOCUMENTA (13) did not need human intervention in order to function. The sight of this self-generating system provide doubts about the superiority of humans. This feeling of doubt is even more strong when watching Human Mask; it makes us ask ourselves why humans do not take a step back from intervening in the environment. Thus, the two films together makes us question the Anthropocene. What would happen if us humans would take a step back from our constant intervening in nature?


[1] Website Marian Goodman Gallery, ‘Pierre Huyghe’.

[2] Website Kunstnernes Hus, ‘Silver Series 01’.

[3] Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 11-12.

[4] Drucks, Website Deutsche Bank, ‘Loss of Artistic Control: Pierre Huyghe’s Biotope at documenta.’


Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. New York: Verso, 2016.

Drucks, Achim. ‘Lost of artistic control: Pierre Huyghe’s biotope at documenta.’ ArtMag by Deutsche Bank. <https://db-artmag.com/en/71/feature/loss-of-artistic-control-pierre-huyghes-biotope-at-documenta/> (consulted September 5, 2018).

‘Pierre Huyghe’. Marian Goodman Gallery. <https://www.mariangoodman.com/artists/pierre-huyghe/biography> (consulted September 5, 2018).

‘Silver Series 01: Pierre Huyghe.’ Kunstnernes Hus Kino. <http://www.kunstnerneshus.no/huyghe/> (consulted September 5, 2018).