A Museum Encounter With a Monkey Makes Reality Seem Like Fiction

A video about an inscrutable monkey on desolation row at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is definitely worth a look.

A still from "Untitled (Human Mask)," the latest video work by French artist Pierre Huyghe.
The Israel Museum

Tucked away among the large-scale popular exhibitions currently on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is a 19-minute video work by the French artist Pierre Huyghe that should not be missed. “Untitled (Human Mask)” was shown in 2014 at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in London, and last year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Spoiler: the protagonist is a macaque monkey.

The work is based on a YouTube clip from a few years ago, titled “Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!”, which documents a monkey wearing a white Noh theater mask and a wig and dressed in a service uniform.

Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!

The animal scampers about in a restaurant in the Tokyo area after having been trained (more or less) to serve customers. It climbs onto a table and is photographed by the elated diners. The monkey, a female named Fukuchan, received a work permit from the authorities and accepts soy beans as a tip. It’s a cheap gimmick, but also a reflection of contemporary leisure culture, or at least a segment of it. What exactly it attests to needs to be deciphered.

Alone and vulnerable

It’s likely that the animal’s fur is hot and itchy beneath the mask and that its vision is restricted by the narrow eye slits, the co-editor of the London-based arts magazine Frieze, Jennifer Higgie, wrote in that journal in December 2014. She added, “Primates have a complex system of facial muscles and expressions: that hers is hidden is at best baffling, at worst cruel. She seems very alone and very vulnerable. It’s all deeply disturbing, not least because everything about this scenario sets my judgement adrift. Who am I to know what a monkey likes doing? How do I know whether she’s sad? Perhaps she’s proud of her work! Does she like her mask? And what’s with the wig?”

Huyghe replicates this bizarre situation almost completely, but in his video the monkey is let loose in a locked-down, abandoned restaurant in a ghost town of the Fukushima region, site of the tsunami-engendered nuclear reactormeltdowns five years ago. Here too, the monkey bears the image of a young, hirsute woman in an expression-erasing mask, bewigged and costumed as a waiter. The animal wanders about aimlessly in the cluttered, chaotic kitchen and drifts through the dirty back rooms, which are filled with dishes, as though it’s the last being left alive following a catastrophe in which everyone else perished.

It turns out that Fukuchan herself was cast in the role, playing her previous part as a waitress and heroine of a viral video. This lends the work a “making-of” or behind-the-scenes quality, or of an epilogue, possibly a director’s cut. At moments the monkey looks like a disturbed girl whose neurotic movements project distress, though also sensuality, but then seems to morph into an elderly woman hobbling about laboriously on crooked legs. There is also a feeling that she’s been jailed, or is waiting for Godot in some hysterical gesture of existentialism. Far from nature, far from a tribe of any kind, unemployed.

In Huyghe’s work the human element – the cooks and the customers – have been removed, along with the restaurant trappings. He has left intact the site and the creature that wanders through it – not exactly a historical subject, but nevertheless one that had an entertainment-utilitarian role in the past.

Because everything is still there, and is real, but the activity has ceased, what remains has no value, raison d’etre or point of departure for an interpretation that is not a projected fantasy. We observe the enigmatic presence of a monkey costumed as a person, one who is the lead actor in a certain theater that simulates spirits and beings. Thus even the most concrete reality is taken as a fiction, as a sad, unnecessary monster. Huyghe juxtaposes shots of the monkey scampering through a narrow corridor with doleful close-ups, whose sadness evaporates instantly in a spasm of disbelief: Every interpretation of the figure is an illusion, because we don’t know anything about it.

Repeatedly we are stunned by the divergence between the look of the monkey’s eyes – a powerful theater of human gestures – and the knowledge that we are looking at an animal. To watch the video is to leap constantly back and forth between expressive fullness and the animal emptiness that is sealed to human beings. “Her isolation, her disguise, her sadness – all are almost unbearably touching for reasons that are hard to fathom, but then incomprehension is central to ‘Human Mask,’” Higgie writes, adding, “she’s like a very real ghost.”

“Human Mask,” curated by Rita Kerstig, is on view at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, until October 29.