© Pierre Huyghe


Pierre Huyghe, when art is a journey

“Was it really a big storm?” asked the new passengers, ashen-faced, having come aboard in Ushuaia a few days earlier. Celine Ferrier answered them succinctly. “It was a storm, rather big, but we’re not talking about the unbelievable ones that are more than just storms. It was 11-12 on the Beaufort scale and 12 is the maximum. That gives you an idea.

”In the Drake Passage, winds of 60 knots ripped the sails and Tara had to spend eight hours running without them. One of the engines failed. For five days, a few artists who are anything but sailors, experienced their ‘baptism by the sea.’

Pierre Huyghe was among them. He usually divides his time between Paris and New York. The key to his work is a convergence of fiction and reality, involving a mix of different media: film, photography, sculpture, architecture and music. For a long time the artist had been thinking of traveling to Antarctica. He had even contacted the boat’s crew when it was still called Antarctica, owned by Jean-Louis Etienne.

We’re in the 21st century. The world is changing visibly everyday. These transformations spurred Pierre Huyghe’s project – to travel to Antarctica and explore “the real, to better understand the unreal.”  Global warming, or rather its consequences, inspired his artistic project. He explains: “Global warming has opened new seascapes, revealing uncharted lands and their endemic fauna. Somewhere around the Antarctic Circle, there must be an area where unnamed islands, without dimensions or position, come and go with the seasons. A rumor says that a non-identified white animal, a unique specimen, was observed on one of the islands near Marguerite Bay.

”Based on this rumor, Pierre Huyghe assembled a group of artists curious to find out. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Jay Chung, Francesca Grassi, Aleksandra Mir, Q Taketi and Xavier Veilhan come from Paris, New York, Stockholm, Germany and Japan.  All of them exhibit in the museums of capital cities.

Pierre Huyghe is terrified by the sea. Francesca Grassi is the great-granddaughter of the 2nd captain of Nimrod, the Shackleton Expedition ship to the South Pole in 1908. Neither of them had any idea what to expect.The captain and crew are somewhat baffled by the artists, their baggage containing inflatable icebergs, a sewing kit…, and the unusual questions asked by these passengers determined to reach the 69th parallel South. “Everything seemed so new to them,” recalls the captain, Celine Ferrier. “Most of them had never set foot on a boat, and we sensed that they didn’t often come in contact with nature. I knew this experience would certainly make them change.”

“At first we couldn’t fathom their objectives,” said Fantin, previously accustomed to idle clients on luxury charters. “But aboard Tara, all the passengers are here to work. Our role is to build confidence, give advice, and follow their wishes as closely as possible. They came to make a film about the albino penguin, so we had to find one. They wanted black light rather than blue sky, and this they got.

”Nevertheless, the artists realized that “only events and things not-wished-for, determine this kind of trip.” Clearly, the weather and only the weather has the last word on the choice of itinerary. Nature is not a material that you can model according to your wishes. Wind direction determined our landing point on the Pitt Islands peninsula, famous for sea leopards.

Opening their eyes, the artists discovered “this other world” – Antarctica, and they were immediately impressed. Inspired, they jumped into their polar suits to immerse themselves in this “landscape without matter and only light.”

At the 65th parallel South, Celine Ferrier decided to go for a diversion in the “brash ice” (a term describing a concentration of different-sized ice fragments). But Tara became blocked in 1.5 meters of compact ice. The artists were amazed to be able to walk on water, roped to each other.  Tara remained blocked for three days. Every day the new teammates were happier and  happier to escape into the scenario of time and space, in a barely mapped region – to blend into this unimaginable “reality.” Perhaps also to experience danger! Pierre Huyghe openly described his excitement in an article published in Artforum: “They began to ration water because the desalinator could not pump water from the frozen sea. The stove in the main cabin became the sole source of heat onboard. Nobody knew how long we would remain stuck in the ice. It was therefore prudent to save energy.” Excited by these extraordinary conditions, the artists began filming and one of them simulated a wedding on deck, with a dress sewn onboard.

Wasn’t the unnamed island the boat itself? “The atmosphere on board was crazy,” admits Celine Ferrier. The sailors too were on a great trip into the unknown, even if we remained very focused on the situation.” The wind direction changed and allowed Tara to break free. They cracked open the champagne and continued on to the 66th parallel. Although agreeing to waive Marguerite Bay, they still wanted to pass through the polar circle.The ice map, combined with a south wind blowing since yesterday, presaged great difficulties. Their enthusiasm remained unwavering since they felt safe and warm on the boat. But comfort is sometimes misleading! Celine Ferrier explained that they had to turn back, take the northern route and seriously address the planned work concerning “the white creature.”

“We spent two days with a headwind. Stupid. A lot of time and energy wasted. I feel that Pierre is bitter and already regrets the decision. This choice for me is much more reasonable,” she writes in the website log:

Our route continued through uncharted areas. The décor of the surrounding islands resembled what they were searching for. The right place was found – the  “island with no name” where perhaps the mythical albino penguin resides. There’s frantic activity loading material into the dinghy, then everyone goes ashore. Some people inflate a structure – half humpback whale, half iceberg, a transmitter is installed, while others are capturing the sounds of the magnetic field. Someone constructs a black kite. The 16mm camera is installed while we await the albino penguin. “In 2041, the treaty of protection of the continent will be revised. This adventure was a journey into the prehistory of the Antarctic civilization to come,” concludes Pierre Huyghe. This story will be told in the form of a musical show in New York’s Central Park ice-rink, and as an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.

Art has nice ways of saying the essential about our anxieties. If even the places sheltered from the world’s turmoil are transformed, what other changes does the future hold ?

Written by Françoise Franco – excerpt from the book “Tara, un voilier pour la planète” Editions Guérin, 2005