I didn’t witness the hermit crab's demise, just heard the gruesome rumors. Apparently one of the arrow crabs had been seen snacking on an eyeball, and not long afterward, that soft-bodied little guy went missing.
Pitted against each other by artist Pierre Huyghe, these cute crustaceans aren’t normally arch nemeses, but within the confines of one of his aquariums, also called underworldscapes, the hermit crab and the arrow crab have been set up for tense interrelations. These critters have temporarily taken up residence at The Nasher Sculpture Center, cast as characters in one of artist Pierre Huyghe’s watery dramas. Based on experience, Pierre knew what could happen when pairing a docile, dependent hermit crab with a trio of aggressive, opportunistic carnivores within the frame of his tank. Aesthetically, these creatures are gorgeous to look at, but it’s their nature that seems to be the point. How will they behave within this contrived context? How well will they play with others? These questions reveal the juicier, metaphorically charged content that Huyghe presents to viewers for consideration.
At first glance, the arrow crab’s slight and spindly form is deceiving. How could this lightweight, frail-limbed bottom dweller mess with a crab at least twice its size and quadruple in weight? Their tiny, arrow-shaped bodies sprout almost imperceptible, indigo-hued scissor hands — pastel claws capable of dealing deadly blows. The arrow crabs seem to just gently bob and sway in the artificial current, minding their own business. But perhaps their calculated movements are a stealthy warm up for more sinister affairs.
Meanwhile, the newly cast hermit crab frantically claws at large chunks of loose gravel on the other side of the tank. These seem to be feverish attempts to consume or construct. Perhaps he’s building a shelter to protect his vulnerable, curlicued tail. Maybe he’s sick of his steady diet of brown pellets. Maybe he’s trying to create a space to hide. In fact, some hermit crabs dig holes in sandy spaces to rest and recover, introverting themselves underground after stressful moves or tense living arrangements. Surely this hermit crab has experienced a bit of both. Unfortunately for him, there’ll be no burrowing in Huyghe’s tank. This unnatural ecosystem proves less hospitable, forcing him to hang out, semi-protected by a heavy-looking silver shell. But it’s not an actual shell, it’s more of a blingy prop — nice to look at, but not so great for the hermit's survival. Its hollow form does provide a necessary cover for the hermit's vulnerable body, but it is a heavy shell which inhibits optimal movement, growth and protection from mean neighbors. Instead, the prop serves Huyghe’s relational aesthetics — a drama about power plays and survival, about self-protection and being seen, about unassuming appearances and deadly potentials, about fashionable covers that serve little purpose.
Huyghe has been making his underworldscapes for years. This particular work is set within a larger ecosystem, the Chalet Dallas, a project by LA-based artist Piero Golia. This is the second iteration of Golia’s Chalet — a collaboration between Golia and architect Edwin Chan, made with the intention to cultivate community — which was first staged in Los Angeles in 2014. The Chalet is a space for friendship and celebration, constructed with white pine beams and Venetian plaster, cork flooring and artworks by famous friends. It’s a luxurious yet warm atmosphere which has successfully hosted gatherings in Dallas — both intricately planned and impromptu alike. When I lead tour groups at the Nasher, the visitors get all glittery-eyed in Golia’s space, wowed by rich materials like copper-painted pillows and glowing lamps, ultramarine walls and Lincoln Log-like pine beams that jut out at awkward angles, creating a canopy for all sorts of activity. And in the middle of the space is Huyghe’s tank. It’s an ecosystem within an ecosystem.
Golia’s social space inhabits a room situated at the front of the museum. It has a wall of windows that fronts Flora Street, making it its own kind of fish bowl. On any given day during this exhibition, passersby may have peered into the Chalet, witnessing the dynamics between collectors and artists, both emerging and established, between aggressive attention seekers and thoughtful, soft-bellied introverts, between young, dark-skinned mariachi players and their largely white audiences, between inner-city middle school students and private school kids, between those with special needs and their teachers, between lead teachers and their aids, between visitors and guards, between Maneesh, the listener, and his counselees. And maybe, if onlookers looked closely enough, they noticed the trio of arrow crabs and that solitary hermit.
Recently, during an all-night event at the Chalet, I met Piero. Our encounter was brief and I was apprehensive. You know, local artist meets international artist, hierarchical BS kind of stuff. And although my hard head knows that we are the same, meaning, we have blood pumping through our veins for the time being and are living in the same fragile suits of skin that contain passion and ambition and memory and pride and fear and hurts and desire, my more vulnerable self wants to hide in a hard shell and claw at rocks thinking that I might have been cast as the hermit and Piero, the arrow. I didn’t wear my shiny armor that day and unfortunately my pinchers were dull. I felt the very real possibility of getting my eye eaten out.
Chalet Dallas closes at the Nasher Sculpture Center February 7. Admission is $10.