Image from ‘UUmwelt’ at the Serpentine Gallery
Image from ‘UUmwelt’ at the Serpentine Gallery

French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, titled UUmwelt, at first seems a spartan effort. Gone are the characters, the films, the drawings; the collaborative manga flim-flam of No Ghost Just a Shell (1999); the nested, we’re-not-in-Kansas-any-more fictions, meta-fictions and crypto-documentaries of Streamside Day Follies (2003). In place of Huyghe’s usual stage blarney come five large LED screens.

Each screen displays a picture that, as we watch, shivers through countless mutations that teeter between snapshot clarity and monumental abstraction. One display is meaty; another, vaguely nautical. A third occupies a discomforting interzone between elephant and milk bottle.

Huyghe has not abandoned all his old habits. There are smells (suggesting animal and machine worlds), sounds (derived from brain-scan data, but which sound oddly domestic: was that not a knife-drawer being tidied?) and a great many flies. Their random movements cause the five monumental screens to pause and stutter. This is a canny move, because without that arbitrary grammar, Huyghe’s barrage of visual transformations would overwhelm us, rather than excite us.

There is, in short, more going on here than meets the eye. That, of course, is true of everywhere: the show’s title nods to the notion of “Umwelt” coined by the zoologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909, when he proposed that the significant world of an animal was the sum of things to which it responds, the rest going by virtually unnoticed. Huyghe’s speculations about machine intelligence are bringing this story up to date.

That UUmwelt turns out to be a show of great beauty; that the gallery-goer emerges from this most abstruse of high-tech shows with a re-invigorated appetite for the arch-traditional business of putting paint on canvas: that the gallery-goer does all the work, yet leaves feeling exhilarated, not exploited — all this is going to require some explanation.

To begin at the beginning, then: the informatics researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani, who works at Kyoto University in Japan, made headlines in 2012 when he fed the data from MRI brain scans of sleeping subjects into neural networks. These computer systems captured shadowy images of his volunteers’ dreams. Since then, his lab has been teaching computers to see inside people’s heads. At least, that is the idea. And there are interesting blossoms to be plucked along the way.

UUmwelt is one of these blossoms. Volunteers in Japan were shown a series of pictures while having their brains scanned using an MRI machine. These pictures, paired with their matching MRI data, were then shown to a neural network. Once this “training” was complete, the network was handed a fresh MRI record, and asked to construct a new picture. Essentially, it was asked to recreate whatever picture the volunteer was shown inside the scanner.

Huyghe has turned the ensuing struggles of the Kamitani Lab’s neural network into an exhibition quite as dramatic as anything he has ever made. This time, however, the theatrics are taking place almost entirely in the visitor’s head. What are we looking at here? A bottle. No, an elephant, no, a Francis Bacon screaming pig, goose, skyscraper, mixer tap, steam train mole dog bat’s wing . . .

The closer we look, the more engaged we become, the less we are able to describe what we are seeing. (This is literally true, in fact, since visual recognition works just that little bit faster than linguistic processing.) So, as we try to make sense of these digital canvases, we are drawn into fascinated, dreamlike, timeless lucidity: a state of concentration without conscious effort that sports psychologists call “flow”.

UUmwelt, far from being a show about how machines will make artists redundant, turns out to be a machine for teaching us how to read and truly appreciate the things artists make. It exercises that bit of us that looks beyond the representational content of images and tries to make sense of them through the study of volume, colour, light, line and texture. Students of Mondrian, Dufy and Bacon, in particular, will lap it up.

Remember those science-fictional devices and medicines that provide hits of concentrated education? Quantum physics in one injection! Civics in a pill! I think Huyghe may have come closer than anyone to making this silly dream a solid and compelling reality. His machines are teaching us how to read pictures, and they’re doing a good job of it, too.

To February 10 2019,

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