Venice 2024: sensing the darkness with Pierre Huyghe
A vast Pierre Huyghe exhibition fills the Pinault Collection’s Punta della Dogana space with darkness, sensorial overload & uncanny explorations across species and technology. Tomoé Hill visited and found a human connection to the unknown & unknowable.

Sometime during the pandemic, the juxtaposition of environmental calm against virological chaos became apparent in Venice (such as when nature took the city back...). Literal clarity was on display: no longer perpetually agitated by mass tourism, the waters of the lagoon became clear, its flora and fauna intense and flourishing.

If we had noticed the uncanniness of a lack of human presence almost immediately, our selfish natures only saw later that our absence was a step in the temporary restoration of the world we use to excess, a transition which bypassed us in the very place we had centred ourselves in. Our effective removal, despite being at our own hands, placed us in a state between life as we knew it and the unknown. But what should have been a question of ongoing consideration fell away with the eventual reintroduction of what we term normality.


Pierre Huyghe’s Liminal, a collection of works presented in collaboration with curator Anne Stenne is showing at the Pinault Collection at Punta della Dogana until November. It weaves elements of the uncanny, destruction, memory, and mutative rebirth as it questions humanity’s presence and absence. A multimedia narrative presented through nearly all the senses, it avoids the sometimes clumsiness of artistic work as blunt morality lesson. Instead, utilising nature, technology, and artificial intelligence to distance the human from non-human, it becomes a reminder that the truth of our existence is contradictory but remains one of possibility, even when in ruin. Exhibition notes state Huyghe’s presentation of work as “speculative fictions” and the artist is quoted as saying these are “vehicles for accessing the possible or impossible – what could be or could not be.”

The viewer becomes a contradiction in the nine rooms of Liminal from the moment they step into the darkness of the first. Moving from one to the next, the idea of a complicit observer forms; how we psychologically remove ourselves from the destruction we wreak on ourselves and our habitat. Mutation and transition are themes throughout, which is apt in the consideration of contradiction – narrative in any form cannot be linear or natural if it is to reflect a truth about ourselves. On a giant screen, a faceless woman, described as a passeur, both Charon-like and an oracular figure, gesticulates and moves in a desolate, nearly-lunar landscape. Her features covered by a black oval, she is animate due to “sensors present in the physical environment” that capture and translate viewers’ minute movements.


These movements are primal and limited. Something which could be interpreted as theatrical instead gives the impression of the newborn creature. Flailing and reaching, she explores her new environment within a small radius. The hands are especially striking. Another presentation of contradiction, gestures which hold no meaning but express an attempt at communicating with the self and world. To anyone who finds themselves drawn to such expression as a form of understanding, the sensory repetitions become a haunting in which both viewer and characters, human and nonhuman, attempt to remember and express something they may have never experienced.

The rooms of Liminal constantly murmur with an unknown language created from sensory information similar to the process which results in the gestures of the aforementioned figure. Gathered from passers-by through gold masks worn by “mute human carriers”, it is “converted into particular phonemes and syntax then vocalised.” Functioning like an externalised internal voice from the depths of instinct both familiar and strange, this auditory layering has the effect of slipping into a further stage of sleep. This deliberate auditory stasis focuses the viewer’s attention more closely upon the various stages of the work while suspending them in a – whether intentional or not – liminal state. Juhani Pallasmaa remarks on this in The Eyes of the Skin: “hearing structures and articulates the experience and understanding of space.”

Human Mask, in the second room, is the most unsettling and direct work in terms of message. A small apelike being with a Japanese mask and wig of a female child on its face runs back and forth in an empty restaurant in an equally deserted Fukushima, observed from 2011 drone footage. The uncanniness of subject and location, after witnessing the passeur, is neither evolution, mutation, nor ultimate result. Huyghe simply transposes information over and over in different forms – the blurring of images of trees on sliding panels is played against the noise of a dripping tap, actual images of forest, and the sound of rain, while a muffled loop of recorded instructions emanates from loudspeakers. Noting repeated hand gestures not only by the creature but of a Japanese beckoning cat maneki-neko – echoing Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil – presence (and, indeed, a lack of presence), and memory combine, questioning the certainty and stability of our human narrative pre- and post-event.


The site itself forces the viewer to align with transitions between the various rooms. Adjustment to darkness removes the sense of ease which standard, light-filled exhibitions allow. Kept in such a state of caution is akin to triggering the evolutionary sensation of being afraid of, or at least wary of, what is to come – especially with Huyghe’s use of auditory atmosphere. Again, Pallasmaa notes this, writing “the space traced by the ear in the darkness becomes a cavity sculpted directly in the interior of the mind.” Our emergence into each new room also bestows a primordial awe, an innocence which functions as openness to what is presented. We move from dark to (semi) light in search of understanding.

This is especially true of places like aquariums in childhood – often kept in relative darkness to mimic sea or ocean floor habitats – through which we observe a world transposed to ours. Huyghe dedicates two rooms to such aquariums, meant to appear “like a body diffracted in space,” in which live creatures specifically chosen for the “recursivity of their instinctual behaviour”: hermit and arrow crabs, starfish, tetra fish, and anemones move about in their own lives, flourishing yet unaware of their part in Liminal’s story, and perfectly placed to both distance and focus us. The continuation of repetition reflects Huyghe’s eye for communicating across species, subtle evocations of both the real and the dreamlike. Hands, paws, legs, and arms of creatures humanoid, non-humanoid, and even mechanical, beckon and draw us in to possible worlds.


In Zoodram 6 a hermit crab moves slowly within its artificial territory not housed in a shell, but a copy of Constantin Brâncuși‘s Sleeping Muse, and in Abyssal Plane, a starfish waves its arms amidst the ruins of a partial torso, “evoking the possibility of an endless reconstitution.” Likewise, the works as a whole can be said to be deliberately recursive. In her book The Ruins Lesson, Susan Stewart writes, “a ruin confuses the interior with the exterior and the transparent with the opaque as it shows the interrelatedness of these aspects of perception.” Huyghe’s recreation and reimagining of habitats, gestures, and ritual form an infinite loop. As liminality and transition go further, there is also the sense there will be, can be, no definitive ending or resolution. For a species used to thinking, in its hubris, that all things can be resolved, Liminal is a reminder that like the pandemic, climate change, Fukushima, or other catastrophes artificial or natural, we only move from one to another in denial of the implications of our actions. Even so, our presence is mutable, even capable of being circumnavigated by non-humans.

Liminal treats its formidable subjects with the contrast of fine connectivity even as it evokes the threads of the Greek Fates. Each work reaches out to the next with sensory understanding of its place within an evolving narrative, and is no less true when works move towards the more technological, mechanical, and abstract. From the tranquillity of the water works emerges the film Camata, a primal-mechanical ritual of a machines delicately observing and handling a human skeleton in a desert. If there is a (like Sans Soleil, perhaps intentional) resemblance to the opening Dawn of Man scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, it is manipulated, once again by AI sensors which “continuously generate changes in its editing.” Where there is only the linear transition from pre-human ape to man in space in 2001, disruption here confuses the very nature of origin.


In the final rooms, we are presented with the past and possible futures. The film De-extinction shows a pair of mating insects held in amber, the capture of a rare fragment of time which cannot be manipulated, part of and also beyond the narrative of Liminal. At the base of a staircase, there is the sudden, disconcerting realisation the floor underfoot is gravel, similar to the landscape of the first space upon entering the Punta della Dogana. If the viewer had felt they were merely an observer, it has now gone; the feeling of being out of place is amplified by UUmwelt – Annlee, Cancer Variator, and Mind’s Eye. First, a screen is flashing changing humanoid images, another effect of human-AI interface. These evoke the nightmarish portraits of Francis Bacon much more than the early fumblings that were the popular results of image GPT generators. Vivid and emotive whilst inscrutable, they are controlled in a sense by Cancer Variator, a human cell incubator which “functions as a clock”; as with the other sensor devices, environmental changes affect the cells which in turn manipulate the images of the first piece.  

It is Mind’s Eye which closes the loop begun by images of the first room. The physical (synthetic, biological material aggregate) evolving result of UUmwelt – Annlee, the particular state at the time of viewing coincidentally developed appendages, resembling a creature on its legs, and similar to the humanoid figure at one point on all fours, frozen in a crawling position. Recursion, regression, rebirth, or transcendence, Mind’s Eye could be said to have anticipated its own ideal future in this iteration, a witnessing which literally solidifies the uncanny atmosphere of the exhibition.

Pierre Huyghe (born in 1962, Paris) lives and works in Santiago, Chile. His work is internationally known and presented in various exhibitions around the world. Pierre Huyghe studied at the École nationale supérieure des Arts décoratifs in Paris. He initially focused on film and video, continually questioning the relationship between reality and fiction. From Streamside Days (2003), in which the artist staged a fictional festival in a real town, to The Host and the Cloud (2009-2010), where he took over an abandoned Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires for several months, allowing a series of events to develop, Pierre Huyghe has been moving towards setting up live situations. Untilled (2012), where contingent reality constitutes the very nature of the work, marked a turning point in his oeuvre that led to an increasingly programming dimension, notably with After ALife Ahead (2017) and, more recently, variants (2022), where simulation makes it possible to escape prediction and opens up infinite possibilities.
By questioning the relationship between human and non-human, the artist sees his works as speculative fictions from which other ways modalities of the world emerge, inhabited by a multitude of biological or artificial subjectivities that learn, change and evolve. For Pierre Huyghe, the ritual of the exhibition is an encounter with a sensitive environment in which time and space are constitutive of its essence.
Recent exhibitions include Chimera, EMMA, Espoo (2023); Variants, Kistefos Museum, Jevnaker (2022); After UUmwelt, Luma Foundation, Arles (2021); UUmwelt, Serpentine Gallery, London (2018); After ALife Ahead, Skulptur Projekte Münster (2017); The Roof Garden, Metropolitan Museum, New York (2015). In 2012, his work Untilled was one of the most critically acclaimed contributions to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel.
In 2013, a retrospective of Pierre Huyghe's work at Centre Pompidou curated by Emma Lavigne, General Curator and General Director of the Pinault Collection, travelled to the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany and LACMA, Los Angeles, USA. In 2019, he has been appointed Artistic Director of Okayama Art Summit: If the Snake.
The artist's works are included in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Paris; The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Kunstmuseum Basel; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; SFMOMA, San Francisco; Tate Modern, London, among others.
Marian Goodman
Hauser & Wirth

Tomoé Hill is a writer with work in or forthcoming in places such as The Spectator, Asymptote, Vestoj, The Quietus, MAP Magazine, and The London Magazine. She is the author of Songs for Olympia, a response to The Ribbon at Olympia's Throat by Michel Leiris. i.


Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition Liminal is presented at the Pinault Collection’s Punta della Dogana until 24 November, a collateral event of the 2024 Venice Biennale of Art. Further details are available at:


fig.i Pierre Huyghe, (from back to front) Liminal, 2024, Portal, 2024, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Marian Goodman Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Esther Schipper and TARO NASU; Idiom, 2024, Courtesy Leeum Museum of Art. Installation view, “Pierre Huyghe. Liminal”, 2024, Punta della Dogana, Venezia. Ph. Ola Rindal © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection
fig.ii,iii,v Photograph © Tomoé Hill.
fig.iv Pierre Huyghe, (from left to right) Abyssal Plane, 2015, Collezione La Gaia, Busca—Italia, Circadian Dilemma (el Dia del Ojo), 2017, Private Collection, Germany. Installation view, “Pierre Huyghe. Liminal”, 2024, Punta della Dogana, Venezia. Ph. Ola Rindal © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection Pierre Huyghe, Pierre Huyghe, Mind’s Eyes, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Marian Goodman Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Esther Schipper and TARO NASU
fig.vii Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Human Mask), 2014, Pinault Collection, Courtesy of the artist; Hauser & Wirth, London; Anna Lena Films, Paris, © Pierre Huyghe, by SIAE 2023

publication date
27 June 2024

AI, Atmosphere, Constantin Brâncuși, Catastrophe, Crab, Covid, Darkness, FukushimaTomoé Hill, Stanley Kubrick, Chris Marker, Juhani Pallasmaa, Pierre Huyghe, Pinault Collection, Senses, Technology, Venice Biennale