In Search of the South: Pierre Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t

By Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC on February 11, 2013

A Journey That Wasn’t (2005) is one of French artist Pierre Huyghe’s most acclaimed works. The 21-minute video features footage from two events: a 2005 sailing expedition that Huyghe and a team of six fellow artists and 10 crew took to Antarctica; and a live staged performance titled A Journey That Wasn’t, held in October 2005 on Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park.

Both the Central Park production and film recount and re-create an adventure that took place earlier in the year. Having heard that global warming and melting of the ice cap had created newly undiscovered territories in Antarctica, the artist set out from the Ushuaia, Argentina, south past the Antarctic Circle, in search of uncharted lands.

After encountering storms and being stuck in the ice for days, Huyghe’s team finally reached an uninhabited island that they subsequently named Isla Ociosidad (Idleness Island). A legal deed claiming the discovery is installed at the entrance to the video room at the Gallery. Dramatic sequences in the film show Huyghe and his colleagues stepping ashore to position audio equipment, as well as a beacon of light designed to attract the island’s wildlife.

They were after one animal in particular: an albino creature rumoured to exist in these remote lands, but never found. Amidst wind and squalls, penguins begin to walk into the frame of A Journey That Wasn’t, like pilgrims flocking to an unknown destination. Among them is a penguin with greyish-white feathers; is this the creature they sought? Evidently so, as scenes in the video shift between shots on Isla Ociosidad to Central Park, where a gigantic mechanized rendition of the rare species is revealed as the centerpiece for the theatrical forty-piece-orchestra version of the journey.

Part documentary, part science fiction movie, part musical, A Journey That Wasn’t goes in search of the soul of the Antarctic. It melds fact and fiction, conjuring the many impulses—primal, colonial, scientific—that have drawn adventurers, past and present, to remote lands. A proviso at the beginning of the video makes Huyghe’s case for his journey clear: “There is an uncharted island where [there] exists a single, unique creature—the one rule [of] the game is to resist the possibility of bringing it back.”

Share in the adventure and see what you believe in Contemporary Gallery B106 at the National Gallery of Canada until 1 April.

Update! In January 2012, an unlikely discovery was made in Antarctica by a group of tourists on a cruise. Years after the creature’s debut in Huyghe’s production, National Geographic News ran a story about a rare albino penguin spotted wandering the cold shores. See the story here.


By Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC| February 11, 2013
Categories:  Artists

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Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC

Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC

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