Summary

Les Grands Ensembles is an installation the principle component of which is a computer generated film depicting model replicas of two modernist high rise buildings in a barren nocturnal landscape. The film is shown in a darkened room with grey walls and grey carpet and is accompanied by a pulsating electronic soundtrack by Finnish techno duo Pan Sonic and French sound artist Cédric Pigot. During its eight minute duration the weather conditions in the film change. The buildings become increasingly shrouded in dense fog and rain, and snow begins to fall. As this happens, lights appear in the windows of the buildings. At first these illuminations look sporadic, mimicking the naturalistic effects of lights being switched on in a housing estate as night falls. As the film progresses they become more dramatic. Whole floors light up and darken in increasingly rapid succession. Ultimately lights flash from every window in time with the music.

The buildings in the film are typical of the nondescript housing projects erected in the Paris suburbs in the late 1970s. These government-subsidised residential blocks or grands ensembles were part of an ongoing programme to provide affordable housing in the post-war period. Built quickly and cheaply, the tower blocks represent a crass simplification of the aesthetic and social ideals of modernist architects like Le Corbusier (1887-1965). Huyghe has written, ‘The end of the 1970s was a time of intensifying government programs for urbanisation and territorial landscaping in France. However, these subsidized Public Housing Projects ended up being an architectural and social failure’ (unpublished artist’s statement).

If the bleak weather conditions in the film emphasise the alienating effect of the housing estate, the orchestrated illuminations provide a utopian vision of community. As Huyghe has pointed out, the lights suggest a form of communication. He has said, ‘Without any beginning or ending, two low income towers continuously dialogue’ (unpublished artist’s statement). The film is projected on a large screen and the music is played at high volume, making the viewer’s experience of the work similar to being in a nightclub. The synchronicity of the lights and the music also suggests the communal experience of a rave.

The political and social implications of the film are reinforced by an economic recession graph which is displayed as a transparency in a lightbox on the wall outside the projection space. The graph, which has no numbers, functions as a silent label for the work, charting the economic conditions that accompanied the construction of the housing projects.

Les Grands Ensembles has a nostalgic quality. The artist has spoken about the work as an attempt to represent a period that has remained marginalised and overlooked. The soundtrack is intentionally reminiscent of early experiments in electronic music and the pattern of flashing lights recalls primitive video games. The buildings and the bare trees in the foreground of the film look like models from a kit. They recall the meticulously constructed paper sets used in the photographs of Thomas Demand (born 1964; see Zeichensaal (Drafting Room), 1996, Tate P11481).

Huyghe’s work addresses the ways in which fictional constructions are subsumed into personal and collective memory. He has used Hollywood films, an animated character from Japanese manga cartoons and an early Atari video game as materials for other works. He has described Les Grands Ensembles in terms which reflect his view that memory hovers somewhere between fiction and reality, saying ‘The image is not real. It is not a recreation, and it is definitely not a fictional moment. Instead it is a collective memory that constitutes an imaginary object’ (unpublished artist’s statement).

Les Grands Ensembles was produced in an edition of five plus two artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is number five in the series.

Further reading:
Susan Cross, Nico Israel, James Rondeau, Yuko Hasegawa, Maria-Christina Villaseñor, Francesco Bonami and Jörg Heisser, The Hugo Boss Prize 2002, exhibition catalogue, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2002, reproduced in colour p.76.
Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Control, by Design’, Artforum, vol.40, no.1, September 2001, pp.162-3, reproduced in colour p.162.
Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick and Pierre Huyghe, Pierre Huyghe, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein München and Kunsthalle Zürich, 2000.

Rachel Taylor
February 2004