The Colonized Animal: Facing the Reality of Human Fiction

By Eirik Zeiner-Henriksen.

Pierre Huyghe - Untitled (Human mask) (still)

A drone shot is taking us through a disastrous landscape, down a street where the houses are teared apart and split open, leaving the interiors exposed. Naked staircases and living rooms bear witness to abandoned homes. Fractures of broken windows, shattered walls, street signs, branches and other debris are scattered across the street. Except from the material remains of a seaside community there are no indications of life. Suddenly a female voice is heard through a speaker. It’s metallic and monotonous repetition reveals that it is an automatic playback recorded in case of emergency. Although the voice is in japanese, the ruined town and the empty streets makes it clear that it is giving instructions to evacuate the area. All the residents must have fled the area hurriedly, as there seems to be no one left. We enter one of the buildings, a restaurant. In there, what looks like a small girl with long, dark hair and a human mask is sitting. Before a wallpaper decorated with trees, the character is staring into the wall, breathing rapidly. The blinking eyes behind the white, lifeless mask creates an unsettling tension with the concealing mask and serves as miserable signs of existence in this desolate environment. What is this of a creature, and why is it left alone here? As such questions are raised while encountering this strange living thing, it lifts up its tiny, hairy hand to fiddle with its hair, scratch its cheek and reveal that it is a monkey. Left alone in the restaurant, it walks around the space on two legs, with disturbingly human-like attributes. These are the premises of Pierre Huyghe´s film Untitled (Human mask) from 2014, one of the four works from the french artist that has been shown at Kunstnernes Hus as part of their new Silver Series, a platform to present international artists working with moving images.

Huyghe is at the very forefront of exploring the relations between humans, animals, plants and objects in a contemporary art world that is increasingly occupied by the non-human. He is known for creating ecosystems where living entities are unfolding themselves, often leaving the human outside as a mere spectator. By creating situations like these, the exhibition becomes an experience, dissolving boundaries between the viewer and the work, subjects and objects, and between different forms of existence. These issues are also at the center of Untitled (Human mask), which was shot nearby Fukushima in Japan after the nuclear disaster following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The monkey, seemingly left alone in the restaurant, is shifting between continuing her daily chores as a waitress, and dealing with an increasing discomfort. At one moment she is getting drinks and food for the empty tables and absent customers as if everything was as usual, in the other she is caught by the horrible reality of her situation, worryingly picking her nails and tapping her feet repeatedly against the floor. The monkey is removed from her everyday purpose, now trapped between boredom, anxiety and automatic repetition of her habits.

Pierre Huyghe - Untitled (Human mask) (still)

Although the isolated monkey is the main focus of the film, Untitled (Human mask) also displays the networks of interacting organisms repeatedly found in Huyghes works. Throughout the restaurant we see glimpses of a cat, a water bug, dying insects on a light trap and some maggots starting to feed on the decaying food in the kitchen. It is an environment without humans, but with other forms of life that are standing out. The main actress of the film, called Fuku-chan, was seen by Huyghe in a youtube clip[1] where she works at an actual Japanese restaurant, taking small orders, serving and entertaining guests [2]. Fuku-chan has been trained to behave in ways we think of as human, and is in her loneliness in Huyghes film repeating her learnt gestures to try to make sense of this new situation. Through the duration of 19 minutes, the sadness of the monkey is intensified, and so is our empathy with it. Untitled (Human mask) is finding itself in a fascinating and surreal space between fiction and reality, between human and animal. Huyghe has turned the dreadful reality of the humanoid animal into fiction to open the dichotomies up for uncertainty. The bizarre reality of the monkey-turned-waitress, of human intervention into nature and other beings, is a form of fiction, and the creepy character in the film is at the same time becoming all too real.

Fuku-chan at work, getting hot towels for the guests in the real-life restaurant.. Photo: Anna Ikeda

Huyghe points out through the film that the values of the constructed human culture should not be taken for granted. In his worlds, nothing is fully set. Things are in flux and open to change. He brings forth something new by creating an event that is intervening in the established without demanding any answers. The film is an extraordinary encounter that displays the horrors of our need to attribute human traits to other entities, and a reminder that we are incredibly similar to other living beings such as monkeys. Perhaps it is also a visual statement of what T.J. Demos and many with him has argued, that nature cannot be separated from human activities [3]. The film then works as a distressing manifestation of our irreversible intrusion into the animal world, or of, as Nicolas Bourriaud puts it, humanity as a colonial species, invading and occupying in order to reduce other beings to our slaves [4]. The film raises many questions that are not easily answered, but one thing is made clear - anthropomorphism is not an ethical way to understand, respect or coexist with the non-human. Untitled (Human mask) is venturing into the unpleasant existence of the other as dominated by the human, demanding that we face the positioning of ourselves in relation to other species, the awful reality of our fiction, encouraging us to think differently about these issues.


[1] Meet, “Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!”, YouTube.

[2] Russeth, “Pierre Huyghe: Traveler of Both Time and Space”.

[3] Demos, “Art After Nature”, 194.

[4] Bourriaud, “Coactivity”.


Bourriaud, Nicolas. “Coactivity : Notes for The Great Acceleration, Taipei Biennial 2014”.

Demos, T.J. “Art After Nature”. Artforum, Vol. 50. N.8. (2012): 191-197.

Meet, Doug. “Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!”. Youtube video, 04:01. Posted [march 2012].

Russeth, Andrew. “Pierre Huyghe: Traveler of Both Time and Space”. ARTnews. 18.11.2014.