Two-Headed Venus. A 25-year-old pregnant female human and herself as a 90-year-old have ingested a tortoise’s brain. Shameless Venus. A 20-year-old female human has ingested a mole’s brain. Queen with Leopards. A 150-year-old female human has ingested a manatee’s brain. Seated Lady of Çatalhöyük. A 40-year-old female human has ingested the brain of a hedgehog. Venus of Frasassi, A 10-year-old female human has ingested a rabbit’s brain. Venus of Hohle Fels, A 70-year-old female human has ingested a sloth’s brain.1
The descriptions read like headlines from the furthest shores of the tabloid imaginary, like twisted clickbait from the maelstrom of shock and misinformation gestating in the darkest corners of the internet. Eerily specific, descriptive and concrete, they form pictures in the mind that tug at one’s curiosity. Could it be true? What does that look like? They are titles that activate our morbid interests in novelty, taboo and gore; our shameless
impulse to know, whatever the topic. A desire (under the sign of the love goddess, Venus) to have
them; to consume what is other and different—to ingest more and thus be
more. They are titles for works by Marguerite Humeau. Specifically, drawings and diagrams of said goddess—relating, also, to sculptures that flesh out the stories. They are news concerning what she could be, now, assuming that we believe in her. Perhaps she is
real. For, we have been told, she
is not just just goddess but all too human.
Anywhere else, the litany might be judged fake news. But within what Humeau calls the ‘ecosystem’ of a project they are very real indeed. What philosophers call a thought experiment, or a possible universe, is a kind of filter bubble. Once one enters the speculative domain, its virtual reality may afford all manner of seductions. All that matters is the internal consistency of that world—its seeming plausibility. The more Humeau’s virtual universe ingests, digests, and reworks everything beyond it, the more powerful it becomes.
Such is the logic of the total installation, a term that is apt to describe artworks that are are spatially and conceptually all-encompassing, requiring that the audience enter into them; works which take
the visitor, in terms of body, attention, and belief; surrounding them, staging a constellation of objects, images, and propositions as a kind of planet unto itself. These ecosystems, to use Humeau’s term, are uncanny in the degree to which they overlap with the realm beyond the gallery, incorporating elements from ‘real’ life such that frisson is provoked by how much the visitor (almost unwittingly) enters into their insane order.
They are ecstasies
, to borrow the title of one of Humeau’s recent solo exhibitions (at the Kunstverein Hamburg). And just as their content often turns around the topic of intoxication, attending the consumption of some sort of mind altering substance (a brain, taken as drug, precipitating a change of consciousness or identity, in a Venus, for instance), they lean on compulsive affects that have even included bespoke scents. In the aforementioned show, this includes a smell that apparently mimics the odor of birth. Always, something is coming into being. At her 2016 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo it was a new race of elephants, enacting unlikely capacities for speech. In a more general sense, it is new historical subjects.
What is most intoxicating about her worlds, and the beings that inhabit them—what carries visitors further into fictional lacunae—is the apparent deployment of science. Humeau’s projects are peppered with footnotes from this enterprise. In developing a new concept, she works in the manner of a sci-fi author, consulting with experts from varied fields (from paleontology to biology, archaic history, and anthropology), probing the outer reaches of their competence in search of fissile material. Having gathered exotic fruits, she goes on to mix, splice, and embellish with wild abandon. Much emphasis has been placed on this ‘extensive’ research by eager critics. But the force of its result, its weaponization, obtains not so much in her competent performance of any one discipline
but the wild, mutant, and sometimes monstrous bridging she effects between many. A composite body is her object—a shocking bricolage that moves beyond anything these specializations might accept within them. As a researcher, she is less Victor Frankenstein (the scientist) and more the monster—composed of appendages harvested from various disciplinary functions, and others gathered beyond the pale. What she creates, too, are monsters.
What is shocking about Humeau as mutant-researcher is that her efforts have produced something
. What is most shocking about what she has produced is that these mutant hybrids make sense. They are compelling; sympathetic at times, like the Dying Matriarch
of FOXP2, whom you almost feel sorry for. Standing before us in physical space, in sculptural forms whose smoothness and clinical stylization suppress any question of intellectual inconsistency, or doubtful plausibility, these things seem to demand assent; recognition of their being. Instead of spelling out how
they make sense, they bear down on us as riddles
(the title of Humeau’s solo exhibition at Schnikel Pavilion, Berlin). Riddles which the viewer may not even solve. Updating the ancient myth of the sphinx, Humeau staged a nexus of borders and power—pursuing the issue of what
polices a threshold. While speaking to the politics of security in social affairs, her object series addressed discipline
in general. In fact, through her own hybridizing indiscipline, playing fast and loose with various source materials but having them cohere in monumental forms, Humeau’s creatures frequently present us with an awesome unification that has crossed all thresholds—only to stake out an inscrutable boundary before us.
In this respect, Humeau’s works can be read as dramatizing the potency of the fanatical auto-didact: the one who cobbles together eclectic methods, sources and conclusions, no matter how incompatible they may be, making them one. Conspiracy theories are typified by being able to incorporate all contradictions. Now that anyone with a computer has access to ‘information’, the ability to splice, and to publish, monsters proliferate in our cultural and political life; conspiracies run rampant—one of the most widespread holding that the world is run by secret cabal of politicians and aristocrats who are, in fact, lizards. In a media-landscape of mutant-researchers and their monstrous ideas, Humeau’s poetics capture an atmosphere of folly and fascination.
Notwithstanding possible lizard takeover, Humeau’s work is attuned to the concern that many feel about the degree to which social, cultural and economic life is governed by hyper-specialized (proprietary) knowledge. Today’s systems of description shape the ‘real’ world as much as reflect it. In so doing, they both enable and circumscribe our existential possibilities. It is a simple fact, however, that it is impossible for anyone to be fluent in every discipline that orders our experience. Obscure functions, principles and vocabularies govern the everyday lives of rocket scientists and street cleaners alike. This is to say, the contemporary mechanics of techno-capitalist-science are, for most people, occult—a paradoxical condition that lies coiled at the heart of contemporary life like a worm.
Occluded operation lies at the heart of Humeau’s sphinx-like practice. She holds the key, and her sculptures appear to be totems for the ‘black box’ condition. As with iphones, viewers oscillate between attraction and alienation in the face of their slick surfaces. Knowing just enough about how they have come in being, but no more, Humeau’s objects are animated by mystery. In a way, they are totems for the science-fiction of scientism
, spuriously guaranteeing the legibility of the world we live in (a world saturated with specialized constructs) though we are long past being able read the book. In the presence of Humeau’s totems, the visitor contemplates visions of their own prostration, attending mania for proprietary truth and a fetish for the commodity’s secret.
The first rule of magic is naming, and Humeau’s titles flip between description (qua news) and the humanizing. While the former offers a narrative, the latter outlines character. In giving person-like names to some of her creations, Humeau consolidates dramatic action within the world described. Given that her sculptures and their putative lived being are entirely constructed, a contrast with the organic and human(e) is at issue. Borrowing the practice from savvy commercial marketing, the strangeness of this ‘human face’ on an impersonal system draws one in while seeming to critique the commodity. As Marguerite once reminded me, perhaps the most banal and widespread example of this technique are naming conventions for IKEA products. These were devised by the company’s founder, the allegedly dyslexic Ingvar Kamprad, who apparently found it difficult to remember the order of numbers in item codes. As a result, all of the company’s desks, chairs, and shelves are named after Swedish boy’s names—like the ubiquitous Billy bookcase, staple of many a student household. Lining up next to Billy, Fredrik the desk, and Gulliver the baby crib, is Humeau’s horrible HARRY
I, comprising motion detectors, a sprayed metal stand, artificial glass ‘lion eyes’, light, electronic components, and sound. Additionally, HARRY II (BODY)
, made of polystyrene, resin, fibreglass, white paint, acrylic parts, a sprayed metal stand, water tanks, so-called ‘raptors’—sourced on an anti-climbing security systems website—cast in artificial human skin, rubber, glass, an artificial ‘blood-sucking organ’, artificial human blood, and sound.
How did we get here? While undertaking her masters in design, Marguerite managed to gather 3D scans of extinct mammal fossils (a Wooly Mammoth; a Walking Whale; an early hominid; a Sabre-toothed Tigre), as well as others from their descendent species. By amalgamating the respective data sets for each species she was able to construct hypothetical 3D models of their sound-producing anatomies. Using a computer controlled milling device, she was able to sculpt these models out of silicone, attach them to air compressors, and resurrect the roars of creatures never before heard by humans. Staging the crossing of great distances in time and space, the transition between animal and digital, and encounters between her personal desire and natural forces, the project staked out wildly new terrain for sculpture.
Combining prehistory, occult biology and science fiction, Marguerite’s graduation works resuscitated the past, conflated subterranean and subcutaneous, while updating the quest genre for the information age. All this, before the term deep-fake was ever coined. Given the epic sweep of her idea, it is little wonder she called it an Opera for Prehistoric Creatures
. The title perfectly captures the sense of performance and grandiosity obtaining in her endeavor. Before the creation of any physical stage she created performers, out of material closer to the non-existent than being, in the popular imaginary. Arriving concurrently with neo-materialist philosophical interest in Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘arche-fossil’ concept, the project was perfectly timely—precisely, through its engagement with an out-of-time. Notwithstanding melancholy, it was the birth of her art.
Having fixed upon a need to construct characters, or performers, Humeau moved on to the question of props in The Things? A Trip to Europa—a
series of objects exploring the possibility of communication between worlds and the means by which knowledge is generated through the impossibility of reaching the object of investigation—it being extinct, unknown or physically inaccessible. Imagined as an earth-analog expedition to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, run as a real expedition in Antarctica, the narrative was concerned with the strange new lifeforms extant around subsea volcanic fumaroles; each sculpture proposing an apparent way to contact them. With her milestone exhibition at the Palais du Tokyo, however, Humeau left behind things that have lived for those which have yet to be.
It was at the Palais that she turned her attention to what a stage might be for her performers. Moreover, it was here that she really leant into opera, in the sense of gesamtkunstwerk
. FOXP2 took as its starting premise a world in which, following evolutionary mutations affecting anatomy, elephants possess the capacity for complex spoken language. One entered this world through a corridor suffused by a choral soundtrack of supposedly 108 billion voices—one for every human who has ever lived—performing the birth of language. After sputtering, eventually, word-like sounds came together in groups. In fact, this was a speculative ur-language generated by algorithmic analysis. Humeau and a collaborator had one of the earliest existing texts of Genesis translated into every language available on Google Translate, then used a custom program to search for shared linguistic forms. As random as evolution itself, the reverse-engineered meta-language that identified was just one of many possible results. If the program had been fed slightly different data it might have delivered something different. This work seemed to suggest that searching for origins is an inherently creative process, and not a straight uncovering of facts.
In fact, a consumer’s ‘choose your own’ logic was brought bear on the topic of life in this exhibition. The installation, as a whole, was put forward as a showroom in which modes of biological consciousness were available as an industrial product line. Astringent and creepy, the boutique featured various prototypes of elephant being. A sculpture of a pachyderm matriarch, dying in agony, was the centerpiece of the show. Her slow passage towards death was the trigger for the performed ‘birth of sentience’ in a surrounding herd. Creaking into animation, the various objects came to ‘life’, by crying, by watching, by getting drunk, by acting out aggressions, moaning their despair, and–so as not to induce inconsolable depression in the audience–falling in love. It was a death wake of sorts, replete with a carpet whose dyed colour was, apparently, comprised of chemicals that make up the human body. Following Bruno Latour’s comments on the theatrical character of laboratory work, Humeau realized a pageant of the technical and disciplinary staging of life under the reign of bio-capitalism.
Having crossed the wire between her quixotic persona and stylistic tropes from science-fiction, before developing an iconography of control (in Riddles
), Humeau’s recent series of cosmological drawings and Venus sculptures register a more hopeful outlook. Expansive and visionary, the works on invoke the optics of visionary and outsider art. In their conceptual scope and speculative range they appear to not just will the birth of other worlds, but lay out the universal laws governing them. Her sculptures, borrowing forms associated with preshistoric Venus statuary, equally partake of strange similarities with animal brains. Inspired by an observation by the archaeologist Bette Hagen, concerning this morphological overlap, Humeau took a strange idea and dreamed
with it, imagining new brains, new women, new fetuses—new life
. When one meditates upon her modestly size sculptures, which in no way look down
on the viewer, their inscrutability appears less an imposition than an enticement to gestation—of an idea, within, that might only be ours. An idea of the good. Of love.
1 Birth Canal Drawings (Marguerite Humeau, Works on Paper, Clearing NYC) September 12, 2018 - October 27, 2018