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Linda Norden on Pierre Huyghe’s ‘This is Not a Time for Dreaming’

Installation view of  “This Machine Creates Opacities: Robert Fulton, Renée Green, Pierre Huyghe, and Pope.L” at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Fall 2023.
Installation view of  “This Machine Creates Opacities: Robert Fulton, Renée Green, Pierre Huyghe, and Pope.L” at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Fall 2023. By Courtesy of Julia Featheringill and Courtesy of Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts
By Cindy Zhang, Contributing Writer

At the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on Oct. 26, Linda Norden, a curator and writer who has taught throughout her career, detailed the story behind Pierre Huyghe’s film “This is not a time for dreaming (2004).” Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Carpenter Center, Norden gave a curator talk on the film on reconnecting the birth of this modernist architectural canon, a pivotal moment in Harvard’s historically tenuous relationship with contemporary art and architecture.

Norden, the first female curator of contemporary art at Fogg Museum, has curated many works that have been viewed as entrepreneurial. In the museum that was largely male-dominated at the time, she said, discussing contemporary art was like “talking to your parents.” The majority of her works typically addressed political and social matters head-on. Likewise, both Huyghe’s work and the Carpenter Center itself — for which the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier was commissioned — were mired in controversy when first unveiled.

“It was a strong piece because it was sweet and funny and very cute and hilarious, but also critical,” commented Katarina Burin, who co-curated the exhibition “Brute” at the Carpenter Center in 2012-13.

Huyghe regards the narrative of Le Corbusier’s design as a chronological history that can be confirmed. Shifting back and forth in time, the narrative oscillates between the past and present, binding together real and imaginary events. The commissions of Le Corbusier and Huyghe at Harvard in 1962 and 2014 made explicit the parity between the invitation for a commission and the emotion it elicited — the anxiety of dealing with a university patron given to bureaucratic excesses.

Using humor as a critique, Huyghe’s work engaged the audience, eliciting moments of shared laughter reminiscent of a live puppet show. According to Huyghe, by doing this, it gives viewers perspective.

Matt Saunders ’97, a Havard Professor of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, was at the talk for the piece and shared that the sophomore tutorial course that he teaches began with this film. In his opinion, “This is Not a Time for Dreaming” was pivotal for the 21st century and the commission itself was an important moment in Huyghe’s career as well.

As the curator, Linda Norden’s sensitivity to artworks and her attention to individual artists, rather than generalizing them as a school or trend, provided a more specific perspective on Huyghe’s work.

Huyghe’s fascination with the modernist architect Le Corbusier’s commission to design the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts was a significant factor that drove him to undertake the commission to create an artwork to celebrate the building’s 40th anniversary. He harbored a strong desire to imbue the building with his creative vision. When he met Eduard F. Sekler, the first director of the Carpenter Center and chronicler of the building, he heard an intriguing anecdote about Le Corbusier that inspired the puppet allegory: Le Corbusier had been denied the opportunity to build in the yard, so he, in an act of revenge, brought the essence of the yard into the building. Nevertheless, the Carpenter Center, intended as a synthèse des arts, presented a utopian challenge for Le Corbusier. In his conversation with Huyghe, Sekler highlighted the disparities between the building’s original plan and its eventual execution, shedding light on what had gone awry.

Yuanlu Peng, a GSD ’23 student studying Design Studies with a passion for puppetry, was particularly taken aback by the talk.

“I’m really fascinated by how these awesome artists come together and do puppetry and make puppetry narratives,” she said.

In a subsequent interview, Norden delved into the intricate behind-the-scenes stories of the production and shared her vivid memories of working closely with Huyghe during their collaboration at the City University of New York’s James Gallery between 2008 and 2010. This same dedicated spirit permeated their work on the puppet show. Huyghe’s creative process often involved extended periods of absence, during which he'd immerse himself in ideation, only to resurface with the fully realized concept of a scene. While this approach required patience, Norden embraced her role with enthusiasm.

For the puppetry aspect, Huyghe aimed for lifelike puppets that closely resembled real characters. To achieve this, Norden reached out to Julie Taymor, renowned for her work on “The Lion King,” to seek recommendations for puppet makers. After making 33 inquiries, she settled on Puppet Heap. Despite the relatively smaller scale of this project compared to Huyghe’s other ventures, he engaged the talents of 98 individuals to ensure meticulous attention to every detail, aligning with his grand artistic vision.

When Norden first embarked on her involvement with the Carpenter Center in 2002, her superior’s advice was succinct: “Go see artists in Boston.”

This directive allowed her to develop a profound sense of connection to the vibrant art scene in Boston, a connection that would have been far less tangible had she remained confined to Harvard’s campus. The ongoing exhibition of Huyghe’s work at the Carpenter Center serves as a powerful bridge between the past and the present within the realm of the arts, inviting individuals to contemplate Harvard’s historical legacy, which encompasses both well-established and often overlooked facets of its rich history.

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