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Interview with Pierre Huyghe: Where fact and fiction meet

A bank robbery and its portrayal in the film “Dog Day Afternoon” are the materials used by Huyghe to explore how fantasy shapes memory

Pierre Huyghe is from of a generation of younger French artists who seem to have finally broken the proverbial curse of Gallic provincialism and blossomed onto the international scene.

Those who recall Huyghe showing Klu Klux Klan birthday cakes in obscure French group shows a decade ago would be astonished by his current visibility. His fellow colleagues at that period included such names as Pierre Bismuth and Xavier Veilhan, both of whom have gone on to further Anglo-Saxon prominence.

Although Huyghe became best known for the work he has made in the last five years playing with film and video imagery in a genre that has by now become sui generis, Huyghe has wider ambitions. Indeed he is keen not to be thought of as a video-installation artist, rather, as an artist who uses a wide variety of different tools and media and so happens at the moment to be using film to express himself. But, part of Huyghe’s larger success may well be due to the subject matter of his current work, such films as “Dog day afternoon”, Warhol’s “Sleep” and Wenders’ “The American friend”, all of which are not only cult classics, but also happen to be in English rather than French.

Adrian Dannatt: Could you explain your work “The third memory” currently at Marian Goodman Gallery? Essentially it is a recreation, a talk-through of the actual bank robbery which later inspired the film “Dog day afternoon”.

Pierre Huyghe: Exactly, so it’s not a reconstitution of the film; people make that confusion. It’s a re-enactment of a fact. In 1972 John Wojtowicz made this bank robbery. There were many interpretations of this in newspapers, and from these reports they made a scenario, then a script, and then they made a film. During all this Wojtowicz was in gaol and there was a confusion between what he actually did, what he did according to the press, and the events as described by the film.

Naturally, it was confusing for him too. It would be confusing for anyone to see their life acted by Al Pacino. So the interesting part is how you represent this story, how he came to find himself represented in the press, television, then in a fiction film. I decided to ask him to explain how it happened, but what is interesting today is that, of course, his memory is affected by the fiction itself. He had to integrate the fiction of “Dog day afternoon” into the fact of his life. He is always shifting between these two things, the memory of the fact and his memory of the fiction. I asked him to come to Paris and I made a set which was a set of the fiction, of “Dog day afternoon”. I rebuilt the fictional version of the bank, as the police sometimes do when they make re-constructions, so it is a simplification of the bank. Now you have someone telling his own true story in the place of the fiction. He is no longer only a viewer of his own story, as he was before, but he is the actor of his own story.

AD: But you do also see Pacino in “Dog day afternoon”?

PH: Of course. I begin with the FBI warning that says you cannot copy the film, such as you get at the beginning of any video, and, of course, the FBI also stopped John Wojtowicz. But then we cut to the recent footage, not the old fiction film. Then we have a split screen with Pacino and Wojtowicz. There is also the TV footage at the time of the bank robbery, which, in fact, appeared before the newspapers because it was transmitted live.

AD: It must have been hard to find this original footage?

PH: It was complicated. Finding John living in Brooklyn was difficult. I saw the film, and at the end it said it was all based on a true story, and I thought maybe the guy is alive and has a story to tell which is different to this one. So I went to the phone book and found only five Wojtowicz in Brooklyn. I went to the addresses listed and rang all their bells. Finally he called me back. I was really open; I explained I was interested in his story. Then I discovered he was quite an extrovert—if you go to a restaurant with him, he will stop the waiter and show him some cuttings to try and explain that they made a movie on his life. He is proud that one of the important acts in his life was turned into this film. At one point in the movie, Al Pacino seems to give his friend over to the FBI, but this was just made-up. I met the guy who wrote the screenplay in LA and I told him that because of this one sentence Wojtowicz was threatened in jail, they tried to kill him for betraying his friend, but it was pure fiction.

AD: So you’ve been involved with those behind the original film?

PH: Yes, and for many months I was trying to get hold of Al Pacino and, at one point, he agreed to appear in it, but then changed his mind.

AD: How does it feel to be that involved in a film you have not made yourself?

PH: It is not about the film. That is the point. It is about the memory of this person, the re-enaction of a memory. When I do this kind of work, which I have done two or three times, it is never about referencing or deconstructing a film or the nature of Hollywood. I am speaking about the story of a man and about representation. It is about how you create an image and have that image represent you.

AD: So a viewer can come into the gallery not knowing anything about “Dog day afternoon”?

PH: Yes, but, of course, I am also interested in the memory of the viewer. John has his memory of the fact and the viewers have their memory of the fiction. I am interested in this confusion of reality and fiction.

I think “The third memory” is perhaps the most straightforward, the most didactic of all my works. The first time I saw it myself I was sure it should be shown in the Education Department of museums.

AD: It is very much an American subject matter.

PH: Yes, it goes through many different aspects of American life—even Nixon had his political convention on TV interrupted by a news flash about the robbery! It was one of the first news events relayed live on TV.

AD: But as a subject matter, this is definitely easier to show in a New York gallery than if you were reconstructing, say, “La règle du jour”.

PH: Yes, I am aware of that. But, to be honest, it is just circumstance: I happened to see this film, read the sentence at the end and start thinking about the real story behind it.

AD: It is interesting that a lot of the younger artists who have been working over the last ten years with American films, such as Douglas Gordon, Pierre Bismuth or Fiona Banner are European.

PH: Maybe it is because they are European, where education in the image and the sign is so strong. Maybe we go beyond just taking a film as a pure moment of pleasure; we are more analytic about different forms of representation. At one point the artist’s job was to make a painting of an event, such as a battle between the French and Germans, but slowly this role was taken up by other media such as newspapers, cinema and, eventually, television. Maybe recently a group of artists started to reverse this direction, but I do not want the viewer of my work just to sit back and let the images soak in, I want them to have to actually work a little with my work.

Biography

Born: Paris, 1962; 1982-85 Ecole nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs, Paris

Awards: DAAD Artist in Residence, Berlin, Germany, 2000

Currently showing: “Even more real than you” (until 10 February) at Marian Goodman, 24 West 57th Street, New York, 10019, Tel: +1 (212) 977 7160; fax +1 (212) 581 5187

Solo shows include: 2001: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum 2000: Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal, Quebec;“The third memory”, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; “L’ellipse”, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark

Group shows include: 2001: French Pavilion, Venice Biennial; “Blanche-neige” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; “Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno”, Tramway, Glasgow; “Let’s entertain”, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; “Regarding beauty: a view of the late 20th century”, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; 1999: “d’APERTutto”, Venice Biennial; Carnegie International, Pittsburgh; 6th Istanbul Biennial; “Soggettività e narrazione”, Castello di Rivoli, Turin; “Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art”; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; 1998: “Vertical times”, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York; “Narrative Urge”, Uppsala Kunstmuseum, Uppsala; Sydney Biennial; “Premises”, Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York; 1997:”Coincidences”, Fondation Cartier, Paris; “X-Square”; Wiener Secession, Virnna; Venice Biennial; Museum of Photography, Helsinki, Finland; “At one Remove”, Henry Moore Foundation, Leeds; “Africus”, Johannesburg Biennial; “City Space” Copenhagen