The scariest representations of man are marked by his absence. Nothing reveals human tragedy more accurately than the lack of its agent.
“Avant l’orage” (before the storm), title of the group exhibition that brings together a series of more or less apocalyptic works (alluding to the end of the world or to another world), at the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, in Paris, hints that disaster is yet to come.
The images of “Untitled (Human Mask)” by Pierre Huyghe, however, make us believe that the disaster has already happened and that we survive amidst the rubble, because we continue to see. It is there, in this illusion, that tragedy sets in.
Huyghe has two films on display. His work is made of hybridity, of mutant beings, of fluid identities between men and animals, culture and nature. They have to do with the spirit of the times, with the critique of anthropocentrism and the so-called Anthropocene.
“Untitled (Human Mask)”, however, is in and out of its time, like any exceptional work of art. The 2014 film is a rare event, a milestone not only of a new critical understanding of man’s place in the world, echoing the ideas of the moment, but of a radical, unsustainable and implosive understanding of that place.
Exceptional works of art are not content to echo the ideas from which they are born and in which they drink and in principle thrive. They don’t just follow the trends of their time, they don’t confirm what the world already understood (or want to understand), but they inaugurate new possibilities of thought and representation, often incomprehensible because they are contradictory and incompatible with what is shared.
“Untitled (Human Mask)” runs for 19 minutes. Reproducing the subjective point of view of a man who arrives in a devastated city, the camera approaches a post-apocalyptic scenario, with half-destroyed houses and abandoned machines in the corners. There is no one anywhere. Not even behind the camera. The city is an exclusion zone. The drone, which we do not see but allows us to see, is the sinister materialization of lack.
We are in Fukushima after the earthquake and nuclear disaster. The city was evacuated, which makes the permanence of a being that runs from one side to the other inside an empty restaurant all the more mysterious, in frantic and repetitive movements, as if continuing to carry out the tasks for which he was trained, among others. the kitchen and tables now without customers.
At first, we took this being for a girl. She is, in reality, a monkey with a woman’s mask and wig. Abandoned in the restaurant, he continues to do what he’s learned. He mimics humans. He serves empty tables as he did a full house, in an automatic and desperate movement.
From time to time, perhaps out of weariness, he interrupts the useless act. And there he remains motionless, in a position that the anthropomorphic mask helps to associate with a contemplative state of melancholy and incomprehension.
The cliché says that the eyes are the windows to the soul. The camera zooms in on the slits that form the eyes in the mask. Inside, sparkling behind the fixed and expressionless face of a woman, we recognize eyes that are too “human” and cornered, which meanwhile reveal our blindness, the dimension of the deception of our recognition, what we call empathy and which still allows us to follow doing what we do. “We recognize” because of the human mask. Recognition is a projection.
Man is what he cannot see. This is what opens the suicidal path for him. If he could see himself, he would stop. No matter how much he analyzes himself, no matter how much he folds in on himself, he is always faced with a blind spot, which is both the possibility and the limit of his self-reflection. You need to believe that he does good, you need to have hope to continue on the path of death. What we don’t see is what allows us to keep doing what we do, because it’s in our nature.
Huyghe’s film confronts us with this paradox. What makes everything so disturbing is the possibility of seeing the lack, in a mixture of recognition and estrangement, empathy and horror confused. By imitating us, the trained monkey reveals our blind helplessness reduced to a mechanical gesture.
We don’t see each other because we are the agents. Even though there is no man behind the camera, the drone is an extension and consequence of its presence, it is its shadow, the ghost of the destruction of which the monkey is a victim first and foremost. The drone is the permanence of human action after the disappearance of man. It is his mark, his lack, the sinister representation of his suicidal absence perpetuating death.
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