A Journey That Wasn't
A Journey That Wasn’t is a 22-minute video piece by the French artist Pierre Huyghe. The film, made in 2005, merges two of the artist’s recent undertakings. The first of which was a month-long journey to an unknown island located somewhere in the Antarctic Circle to discover a unique creature believed to inhabit this island and this island alone. Footage from this exploratory mission is combined with a recording of the second adventure—an intricate reenactment of the Antarctic mission depicted through a concert and light show in the middle of New York’s Central Park. Once interwoven, the footage from these two events work together to create a film that is part nature documentary, part concert and part science fiction movie. As the scenes shift back and forth from the Antarctic to Central Park and back again, the audience is presented with an unbelievable reality that is truly theirs to decipher.
The film begins on the coast of an unknown Antarctic island showing an individual attempting to hold down a spherical light among other things in the midst of turbulent weather. The scene cuts to a darkly lit Central Park as a European voice begins to narrate what is unfolding in the reenactment as well as the contextual consequences of the endeavor. As the film continues the audience is presented with an intertwining of scenes of a sailboat, icebergs and whales with scenes from the Central Park performance including shots of the crowd, NYC skyline and a floating orchestra. Thus, bringing both of the narratives together and making it difficult for the audience to truly decipher what is real and what is reenacted. The orchestral audio component begins to mimic the pounding sounds recorded on the Antarctic voyage. On one of the last cuts back to Antarctica the audience is presented with the unique creature that sparked the expedition, the albino penguin.
It seems as if the voyage was all worth it as Pierre and his crew of scientists and artists were able to capture footage of the creature they were after. Interestingly enough, this is the point at which one begins to question the reality of this narrative. Consequently, as one begins to decode the reality the artist is offering and its underlying concepts there are a few intriguing components that come to mind. The most important of which revolves around a concept that is integral to Huyghe’s artistic practice, which is wonderfully interpreted by Fiona Curran as,
It is very clear that the experience is the voyage to Antarctica and the topologically equivalent event is the reenactment—which can be better interpreted as translation. This type of translation is reminiscent of another very famous story, the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. A story that one might remember as a quest for a magical object, the Golden Fleece. The similarities between the quest for the Golden Fleece and A Journey That Wasn’t lie in the retelling of the adventure itself. Are all of the parts of the story true? The harpies? The Sirens? Talos? It’s all very hard to believe, much like the discovery of the albino penguin, especially when it is retold through the performance, which actually includes a fairly realistic animatronic version of the creature. However, it seems as though Huyghe is more interested in the retelling rather than the experience itself.
The fact that the artist is more concerned with the re-inventing of reality allows one to begin to focus on that re-scripting, to truly fall into the story. The translation component of the video, the Central Park performance, contains several elements that are truly reminiscent of the actual voyage it is meant to represent and many others that may or may not have happened. Moreover, the inclusion of an orchestra acts to move the translation to an even grander scale, giving it a rather theatrical feel. Interestingly enough, the musical piece is actually based on topographical data from the island, further cementing the topological equivalency the artist is trying so hard to convey. An equivalency that Huyghe hopes will be more effective than a straight retelling of the expedition.
Since the translation is being presented as a fiction there are questions that arise around the validity of certain elements. Questions that are hard to answer or may even have no answer at all. It is in human nature to want to figure out the answer but there is something wonderful that happens when we are presented with a situation in which this is just not possible.
Did they actually find the penguin? Was it real or the animatronic? Did they even go to Antarctica? These are the questions that each viewer gets to ponder and answer for themselves.
As the piece was funded by The Public Art Fund it also seems to spark an underlying conversation around global environmental issues and that may be the reason why the artist decided to retell the story of the voyage in New York City. It is difficult to understand the reason behind this but it seems as though the dichotomy of telling the story of the voyage to the most unpopulated place in the world in one of the most populated cities in the world is an attempt to bring this conversation to light. Additionally, the reenactment is performed on a melted ice rink, which could possibly begin to address some issues of global warming and the effects that it is having on the wildlife present in these remote places.
Eventually, it becomes important for the audience to understand that it is up to them to interpret the narrative, to decide for themselves whether or not they believe the story to be real. In the end, one always has the opportunity to believe in the reality of something that may contain more magic than is possible. Furthermore, reality is what you make it, and Huyghe does a wonderful job of allowing his audience to do just that.
Streamside Day Follies is another piece by Pierre Huyghe and is very similar in that it features a combination of elements to create a reality that may or may not be fictional. Additionally, this piece also incorporates the merging of film and performance to construct an even bigger narrative—a narrative that centers on a fictional celebration, a construct that is completely made up around an experience of wilderness. Furthermore, it becomes interesting when one begins to look at wilderness as an underlying theme in all of Pierre’s work. He has an uncanny ability to address much more complex issues through the simple thread of nature and its inherent elements, elements that the majority of the population is able to relate to.
Liquidity Inc. is a video piece by the artist Hito Steyerl in which she, much like Huyghe, uses multiple narratives to synergistically create a larger narrative. However, the reality of what she has created is much more identifiable than that of A Journey That Wasn’t. While both are based in reality, the underlying storyline featured in Liquidity Inc. seems to
resonate more deeply with events that have actually occurred, events that many of the viewers have personally experienced. Additionally, both pieces are somewhat confusing to the viewer at first. However, once one has the opportunity to sit with the work, watch it a few times, and break it down, the true meanings begin to present themselves.
The Journey That Wasn’t is being (has been) shown at the following places:
- A Journey That Wasn’t – The Broad, Los Angeles – 6.30.18 – 2.19
- Pierre Huyghe: A Journey That Wasn’t – The Rooms – 10.2.15 – 1.3.16
- Pierre Huyghe: A Journey That Wasn’t – Wollman Ice Rink (Whitney Museum of American Art) - 10.14.15 – 10.15.15
- Installment 1: Inaugural Exhibition – Foundation Louis Vuitton – 10.24.14 – 11.26.14
- Pierre Huyghe: A Journey That Wasn’t – National Gallery of Canada – 2.1.13 – 4.1.13
- A Journey That Wasn’t – Banff Center for Arts and Creativity – 4.16.11 – 6.19.11
Additional Research Links
- Wikipeida, (4.22.18), Pierre Huyghe
- Pierre Huyghe A Journey That Wasn’t, Artsy
- Kennedy, Randy, (10.13.2005), An Antarctica Sighting in Central Park
- Kennedy, Randy, (9.3.2014), Conceptual Anarchy
- Lavigne, Emma, (7.10.2014), Pierre Huyghe
- Pierre Huyghe A Journey That Wasn’t, Anna Sanders Films
- A Journey That Wasn’t, Banff Centre
- Dorment, Richard, (7.18.2006), When a Lie Snowballs Into Truth
- Cascone, Sarah, (5.2.18), Pierre Huyghe’s Smoky, Psychedelic Light Show Mesmerizes at Frieze
- A Journey That Wasn’t, Puppet Heap
- Van der Meulen, Sjoukje, Pierre Huyghe A Journey That Wasn’t
- Pierre Huyghe, Fondation Louis Vuitton
- Pierre Huyghe, A Journey That Wasn’t
- Monograph on Pierre Huyghe in Australia, Institut Francais
- Pezalla-Granlund, Margaret, (9.25.2008), PENGUIN HUNT!!! I mean, A Journey That Wasn’t (2005) by Pierre Huyghe
- Nelson, Robert, (9.8.2015), Exquisite technique trumps timely themes in Pierre Huyghe’s TarraWarra show
- Wikipedia, (4.19.2018), Jason
- Wikipedia, (5.3.2018), Argonauts
- Rightland, Jess, (12.16.2010), Pierre Huyghe Wins American Art’s Contemporary Artist Award
- Searle, Adrian, (7.11.2006), Enigma Variations
- Curran, Fiona, (2017), A Geography Without an Author: Unreliable Facts, Fantastical Fiction
- Botha, Nadine, (5.24.2017), Pierre Huyghe at Louis Vuitton
- Art21.org, “Streamside Day” Pierre Huyghe
- Wyma, Chloe, (3.23.2015), Hito Steyerl hatters Reality, Pieces it Back Together