Meet the artist who's resurrected sphinxes, mammoths and Cleopatra
Marguerite Humeau has made it her mission to resuscitate extinct life forms in artworks that are, to use one of her favourite words, “speculative”, even supernatural. She once brought together a “choir” of extinct animals by studying ancient mammoths’ skulls to construct models of their vocal tracts, through which she pumped compressed air. She has also used AI to summon the voice of Cleopatra from the depths of time. If the former project might sound more suited to the Natural History Museum than an art gallery, the voice boxes that produced the guttural, groaning sounds looked – how shall I put it? – hallucinatory, rather than remotely realistic.
Humeau isn’t an artist to be daunted by distances of a few thousand years. Entering her studio in a former Victorian grain store just below Tower Bridge, I feel I’ve stepped into the London lair of some modern-day alchemist, where the conversation moves within minutes between cutting-edge 3D scanning, ancient bronze casting and the use of spiritual mediums in scientific research. At 36, Humeau exudes a sense of boundless energy. “I’m interested in all forms of life, visible or invisible,” she tells me with a smile. “Lives from other spaces and other times can help us reflect on who we are, where we come from and where we are going.”
Humeau was one of the standout contributors to The Milk of Dreams, the madly confusing but undeniably compelling official exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale. It revealed a new generation of artists, the vast majority of them women, who take the use of advanced digital technology as a given, while ranging freely through universal symbolism and global mythology, with the threat of climate catastrophe constantly in view.
Her spookily ethereal installation in Venice was based on another typically eccentric proposition: what if underwater creatures became “spiritual” in response to climate change and the prospect of their extinction? The sculptures, unearthly wafting forms in synthetic resin and polymers, evoked textures I hadn’t come across before: organic yet patently digital in origin. I felt as though I’d entered the landscape of a videogame.
“Digital tools have given me a way to create beings, presences that feel like they exist in different times, spaces and ecosystems, almost like spirits,” says Humeau. “I’m not interested in objects for their physical appearance, but for their power to transform the way we think about the world.”
Humeau has been based in London since she began studies at the Royal College of Art in 2009, but is only now having a full exhibition with a London gallery – opening at the uber-prestigious White Cube next week. While I imagined she’d have a touch of that slightly disdainful intellectualism we occasionally encounter in our Gallic cousins, Humeau in person is disarmingly open and friendly. She retains, though, a strong French accent, the kind that makes it easy to discuss overweeningly enormous ideas, such as creating new life forms and mythologies, as though that is simply what one does.
Humeau’s studio is dotted with pockets of activity testifying to a bewildering diversity of ideas. Here is a pile of abstract pastel drawings in rich reds and purples that she designed to be used by clairvoyants as aids in predicting the future. Over there is a heap of percussion instruments – gourd shakers, Japanese temple blocks and piles of bones – that will be used to create the sounds of an oncoming storm for a forthcoming work in the Colorado Desert. On a low table beside us, in a position where you might expect to find, say, a fruit bowl, a sculpted face in cast bronze about a metre in diameter, half animal-half human baby, looks back at us with an anguished expression. It’s part of an attempt to imagine what a sphinx might actually look like.
Humeau looks on such projects not as fantasies, but as “speculative scenarios”. She draws on whole teams of scientific experts – zoologists, psychologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists – in realising her ideas. Yet she surely doesn’t expect some of her wackier proposals to be taken entirely seriously, such as those involving “spiritual” underwater mammals, and the question of how things might have turned out if elephants rather than humans had developed consciousness.
“I work on the boundary of fiction and research,” she says. “Some of my ideas are more fantastical than others, but there’s always an element of the real. And when things can’t be achieved through conventional science, I push my experts to the limits of their knowledge, so that we can dream together.”
Humeau, significantly, didn’t intend to become an artist. Raised in the countryside near Cholet in western France, by a painter mother and an entrepreneur father, she studied textile design in Paris, before taking a degree in industrial design in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. There she underwent a crisis that seems to have defined the direction of her career since. “I hated it,” she tells me. “I learnt a lot of practical skills, but I found the focus on industrial production very restrictive.”
At the same time, and more dramatically, she suddenly went deaf in one ear. “I lost my inner balance, and I was told I had a brain tumour. So for a month it felt like the world was spinning, and I believed I would be dead in six months.” While the doctors’ diagnosis proved wrong, the experience was “a trigger”, Humeau says, “to quit everything in Holland and go to what really mattered to me – in London”. She enrolled on an experimental course, Design Interactions, focused on the application of new technologies in everyday life, at the RCA, where her fellow students included dancers and performers as well as career designers. Suddenly everything seemed possible.
“I always had a strong gut feeling that my future was in London. I find France – Paris in particular – a very hard place to live. It’s very judgmental. People look at how you dress and how you speak. Whereas in London I can be what I want to be.”
She remains deaf in one ear, and suffers from tinnitus. But even that she sees as a strange blessing. “People describe tinnitus as a ‘fridge sound’. But for me it’s the sound of the void. It was quite mystical when it happened, to feel the mystery of our existence embodied within a sound in my head.”
These experiences tally with a desire for what Humeau calls “grand narratives” that she has felt since she shrugged off her familial Catholic faith in adolescence. “I felt that the stories in the Bible were not really speaking to my generation,” she says, “so I’ve always been thinking about how I can create new myths that will embody our experience now.”
In preparation for her White Cube show, she is using the advanced AI entity GPT-3 to suggest connections between elements as diverse as: the collective architecture created by white ants, which she encountered while travelling through the remote Australian outback with her partner (a quantum physicist working in AI startups); the history of brewing in the Bermondsey area where she lives, which she links back to death rituals from 12,000 years ago; and a Grade II listed ceramic mural depicting the history of London, created by an obscure Polish artist on the side of a condemned 1960s office building on the Old Kent Road.
On the matter of how these disparate elements will come together to illuminate the show’s ostensible theme of “connectivity and the collective in response to the impending, self-inflicted extinction of the human species”, Humeau seems remarkably relaxed. “Rather than having set ideas about an exhibition, I come with ideas of how to generate the work, and we make it as we go.”
The works will range from the ultra hi-tech to the defiantly hand-made. On the one hand, Humeau is “collaborating” with DALL-E (an AI system that creates visual forms triggered by verbal prompts) to imagine “termite rituals”, creating images that have a scientific aspect “like highly detailed electron microscope images,” as Humeau puts it – but become progressively “surreal”. On the other, there will be a work inspired by the Old Kent Road mural using tiles made by a local community ceramics studio.
Mindful of AI’s perceived threat to human creativity, is Humeau reluctant to put all her eggs in the basket of advanced technology? “These AI forms have been trained on the collective human consciousness. So to collaborate with that has been exciting, with some uncanny experiences that have definitely made me question our future relevance as humans. There is some darkness to this, but also an exciting potential for us to reinvent ourselves.”
There have been any number of artists in recent decades who have brought together quirky strains of scientific research and unlikely materials, from Robert Rauschenberg to Cornelia Parker. What marks Humeau out as an artist of our time is her feeling for the spiritual and the mystical amid technologies that threaten to leave the merely human far behind. Is that a tendency she recognises among other artists of her generation?
“I think so. In 2011 when I wrote my graduation thesis on the subject of the sublime, it still felt a bit ‘hippy’. But today I feel that the mystical is where we’re going,” she says. “As humans we’re starting to understand that we have to merge with the greater goal of life, we have to flow together with other life forms, or we’re not going to make it on Earth.”
‘Marguerite Humeau’ is at White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1 (whitecube.com), from Weds-May 14