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“Is it not impossible that future humans will have built something like spirituality around these materials?” Care for the hyperobject will emerge … What do you do with the radioactive waste? You can’t just sweep it under the Yucca Mountain carpet and hope nobody notices … Hyperobjects are the true taboos, the demonic inversion of the sacred substances of religion … Isn’t it ironic that supposedly materialist, secular societies created the ultimate spiritual substances?” – The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton (p.132)
“In Zeami’s later critical works yūgen takes on a darker coloration … Yūgen in fact tends to reject conventional notions of beauty: if a display of feminine grace on the Nō stage were the highest aim, real women could now take the parts, though they were not permitted on the stage in Zeami’s day. But the thought of a woman performing the role of say, the courtesan Eguchi is repugnant to lovers of Nō who insist that a man in his sixties with a cracked bass voice and large, ugly hands has more yūgen. They are right: anyone who saw Kita Roppeita dance the role of the shite in Sagi (“the White Heron”), a man in his eighties taking the part of a bird, surely sensed the mysterious, indefinable presence of yūgen.” – Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene (p. 23)
Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), Film. (Courtesy the artist; Hauser & Wirth, London; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Anna Lena, Paris, © Pierre Huyghe)
The girl is agitated, pacing. She is waiting in a dark and empty room. The structure is some kind of house or restaurant. Fusuma doors display iconic, ancient landscapes — scenes of a “nature” typically (imagined) to be inhabited by reclusive monks who have renounced the world. A scroll of calligraphy, slightly out of focus in the background, displays a phrase typically referenced in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony “一期一会“（ichi-go ichi-e). The words literally translate as “one time one meeting.” But they also are used to express, “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” Maggots crawl through spoiled food. A faucet drips. Rain pours off the roof. She climbs into a chair. Her face, smooth and even, is that of a perfectly sculpted Nō mask. It reflects an eerie glow of blue green light. She appears consumed by the waiting, pulling at her hair. Her arms and legs are covered in fur. She has the posture of a wild animal — a monkey.
The people around me in the gallery, also watching this video, seem uncomfortable. The silence is charged. The video is on loop and I wonder what it is like for visitors who are right now walking into this unpleasant and confusing scene. What is this creature?
It’s important to note that the piece starts with the footage of the wreckage. All that was torn from the land in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake in 2011. What we see on screen, in reality, can’t be repaired because it exists within the exclusion zone. There are real places like this in Japan. Radiation is everywhere. All the people have left.
Is this video fiction, or is it reality? Perhaps they are the same in this context. Could this equation of fiction and reality be the beauty, the mysterious grace — the yūgen you might say — of this ambiguous video by Pierre Huyghe that is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
Both Huyghe’s roof commission and this video piece require patience and a reorientation to notions of time. They both require the long, geologic view, but from a human body and with a human scale — a certain kind of waiting. These works require us to leave the world as we tend to experience it in our daily, habitual lives. They require both an imaginative and a grounded sense of existing on geologically active planet Earth. In return, we get a chance to experience a little more intimately, and uncomfortably, the contemporary world we inhabit, but don’t yet seem to have the tools/capacities to actually take in.
I left Untitled (Human Mask) reeling. Cherry blossoms were blowing through the streets of New York. It was a spectacular spring day outside the Museum. The heaviness of the video was a strong counterpoint to the uplift I found outside — the sky, the light, the sense of a new season finally beginning. News of the drought in California had been making headlines all week and now the beautiful landscaping and fountains I saw on the streets suddenly appeared excessive. I was filled with a sense of all things surpassing limits. The limits of waiting — for rain, for action, for radioactive particles to undergo transmutation into lesser forms. This moment of realization felt like a resigned but calm acceptance. I could continue to walk through the day as though all was “okay” or I could take up the invitation from Huyghe and go deeper into the theatre of reality for a moment or two. To pause with what we might call, the yūgen of hyperobjects, such as the Anthropocene.
In the Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton writes: “Ecological collectivities must make space for introversion and reflection, including meditative practices … ‘radical passivities’ … must work directly on attitudes … Meditation means exposing our conceptual fixations and exploring the openness of the mesh. Politics must begin to include (difficult word!) spirituality, in the sense of radical questioning and opening … Meditation does not mean emptying the mind or suppressing the intellect. It doesn’t mean doing nothing … Meditation implies an erotics of coexistence, of not just letting things be.” (p127)
Huyghe’s video is both distant and extremely intimate. We are inside and outside of its spaces and times (the gallery, Japan, the waiting, the past, present, future) simultaneously. The piece works, if not grates, intensely on our psychologies. It’s almost absurdist theater, a Waiting for Godot of the Anthropocene, and demands a viewing audience with a certain sturdiness. You quickly discover whether or not you’re up to the task. It asks quietly, in the dark, if you are ready to meet these unknowns. And you have to answer only to yourself about how long you do in fact pause before you get up to leave.
The description posted on the Met’s website doesn’t prepare visitors for what they encounter. It reads, “Pierre Huyghe: Human Mask—on view from April 27 through August 9, 2015, in gallery 916—will present the New York premiere of Huyghe’s new nineteen-minute video, Untitled (Human Mask), which portrays a mysterious creature’s resilience in the aftermath of natural and man-made disaster.”
No mention of Japan. No mention of Fukushima. No mention of the loneliness, the agonizing wait or the forced exodus. The words imply a piece about resilience and a future.
The wall text accompanying the video is more detailed than the Met’s website. Here, steps from the piece itself, visitors learn that we are about to experience a work that, “explores the paradoxical rift between what we think we know about the world and what it can and cannot, in turn, tell us. Untitled (Human Mask) evokes many such themes: the monotony of work and the repetition of ritualistic behaviors, the possibility of a catastrophic future, and the power that living creatures hold over us as ciphers of ourselves.” We also learn that the work, “opens with a deserted streetscape near Fukushima, Japan, which was devastated by natural and man-made disaster in 2011. Amid the ruin, the camera enters an abandoned restaurant and finds what appears to be the only survivor: a monkey adorned with a mask and costume of a young girl…”
The effect is one of psychological endurance. Even if you don’t find yourself thinking about what occurred (and continues to affect the planet) on March 11-13th, 2011, there is something about the video that you likely will find to be unshakable: an unnamable sense of recognition.
In Untitled (Human Mask) Huyghe offers audiences engagements with the strange stranger of the Anthropocene — and it/s/he seemingly looks and moves uncannily like us, in a state of unravelling. Parsing out what’s fiction and what’s reality no longer computes. As David Neumann did in his deeply human, “I Understand Everything Better,” Huyghe has crafted a work that offers a brief, but sustained, aesthetic encounter with elusive sensations of mortality. Perhaps this is a themes most of us would rather not engage on a Saturday afternoon, but our culture’s inability to “hold the thought” of limits has contributed at least a bit to our arrival at the Sixth Extinction. Some have aptly suggested that the development of material and psychological capacities for being with change, or what we call “death” in the West, is becoming increasingly urgent as we head into the unknowable futures of the Anthropocene. It many ways, it amounts to a question of spiritual constitution. How might we be become better prepared, not just materially, but psychologically and philosophically, to meet what’s already here?
This summer we (FOP/smudge) will be spending an extended period of time in Japan, undergoing language immersion and exploring new trajectories for our work, such as performative/theatre practices and yūgen in particular. Also, as part of an intensive summer session at Parsons, a group of students will be producing a project entitled, “Nō Masks for Navigating the Anthropocene.” We will share more about these projects in coming weeks.
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