A conversation with the artist about her diverse field of interests, critical reception, and the future of the planet
French artist Marguerite Humeau is on a mythical quest to communicate with extraterrestrial beings, resurrect prehistoric creatures, and revive extinct languages. Coalescing research and fiction in her work, the alumni of Design Academy Eindhoven and the Royal College of Art is the recipient of several international prizes, including the British Society of Sculptors Award, and has work in the collections of institutions including MoMA and the Lafayette Corporate Foundation.
Heavily research-based, each of her artistic odysseys is a product of collaborations with specialists in fields as diverse as paleontology, zoology, engineering, surgery, and radiology. We spoke to Humeau about her diverse field of interests, critical reception, and climate change.
Your work is research intensive, and explores everything from the chemical make-up of the human body, to creating elephant social dynamics in an exhibition. How important is it to contextualize your work within the cutting edge of human understanding? Do you think this is important in contemporary art generally?
I am interested in exploring the gaps in human knowledge, such as: When does our human understanding stop, and when can speculation start? I explore the great mysteries of human existence and try to give imaginative responses to these questions.
I am interested in erasing the divisions between traditional fields of knowledge and creating a new form of knowledge that would take all we know into account. I am creating unexpected bridges between disciplines. For example, I was recently invited by UCL researcher Ben Elliott to give a talk in the Department of Archaeology as one of the “leading experts in mammoth sound production.” I did not expect this at all, and I thought it was a wonderful reward—the talk gathered people from many different disciplines. This is also one of the reasons why I work with monumental sculpture. When one looks at history, the ability to gather all the necessary resources to create a monumental sculpture is generally reserved for advanced cultures in terms of social organization—it requires transporting materials that are normally heavy, gathering all necessary information, and paying full-time sculptors, architects, and planners. So the sculptures themselves crystallize a lot of information on a specific civilization—its technological advancements, structures, geopolitics, social organization, exchange systems, etc.
What is the most memorable response someone has had to your work?
On the opening night at the Palais de Tokyo last June, someone came to me crying after seeing my show FOXP2. To witness the death of an elephant matriarch in the exhibition reminded them of the last days before their mother’s death. It was overwhelming.
I am constantly trying to explore the power of myths and to understand how they can still be relevant today. Myths are “the dreams of humankind” as comparative mythology researcher Joseph Campbell explains. My work is about trying to give contemporary forms to these dreams and also about creating a physical experience of them today.
Does climate change scare you? What frightens you the most about the future?
I am going to quote Paul Bahn and John Flenley (both palaeoecologists) who wrote in Easter Island, Earth Island (1992): “…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. It’s selfishness appears to be genetically inborn. Selfishness leads to survival. Altruism leads to death. The selfish gene wins. But in a limited ecosystem, selfishness leads to increasing population imbalance, population crash, and ultimately, extinction.”
Written by Annete Weaver