Activating Pierre Huyghe’s Singing in the Rain, 1996

On the day of Gene Kelly’s death, a dancer will sing in the rain

by , January 2023

Rain. It’s always on our minds in California; most of the time, we’re waiting impatiently for it. We might not, however, expect to see it on an artist’s list of materials — or within the walls of a museum.

Enter Pierre Huyghe, whose 1996 artwork Singing in the Rain is currently on view in Afterimages: Echoes of the 1960s from the Fisher and SFMOMA Collections. Most of the time, the work is shown as a pair of gold dance shoes on a scuffed pedestal. But its artwork label points to something more. “Rain is included in the medium line, and so is a dancer,” says Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Marin Sarvé-Tarr. “Even though they’re not present and visible in front of us, they’re still part of the piece.”

“It opens up questions like: ‘Whose shoes were those?’ ‘What happened here?’” adds Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture Jenny Gheith. “It’s full of anticipation, and the possibility of what’s to come.”

Once a year, on February 2, the work celebrates the anniversary of Gene Kelly’s death by activating the pedestal with rain and a performer who re-enacts the legendary actor’s titular song and tap-dance scene from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). “The museum has an incredible opportunity to realize the full extent of this work because it’s currently on view and February 2, the date that marks the anniversary of Kelly’s passing, will be an occasion for us to carry out Huyghe’s work,” says Gheith.

This year, Katie Baritell, a Bay Area dancer, will recreate the iconic scene on SFMOMA’s Floor 5 Sculpture Garden. The performance, at just over five minutes, will be captivating but also short-lived, bringing up questions about memory, commemoration, and collective experience.

Throughout his career, Huyghe has recreated cinematic scenes that question how media shapes and distorts memory. It’s a timeless theme that also has special resonance today, in an era where events that unfold onscreen can hold more weight than tangible experiences. In Singing in the Rain, fiction and reality, along with past and present and future, blur.

After the dancer leaves, the gold shoes and freshly scuffed pedestal will remain, pointing to past and future performances and new interpretations. “It’s not just a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain,” says Gheith. “There’s an openness and a poetic potential encapsulated in it — the potential for the film, the actor, the song, and this artwork to take on a completely new life.”

Pierre Huyghe, Singing in the Rain (1996) is currently on view in Afterimages: Echoes of the 1960s from the Fisher and SFMOMA Collections on Floor 5. The re-enactment will take place at 5:30 p.m. on February 2, 2023, on the Jean and James Douglas Family Sculpture Garden, Floor 5.

Alexxa Gotthardt

Alexxa Gotthardt

Alexxa Gotthardt is the former Assistant Managing Editor at SFMOMA. She loves helping creative, unconventional people tell their stories and writing about the forces that inspire and sustain artists. Outside of work, she likes to spend time in the water, take photos, and grow plants. She studied Art History at Middlebury College and is originally from Ohio.
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