I’m waiting for something that naturally happens there to happen,” Marguerite Humeau says, detailing the creative process she’s embarked on to make a work of art not only on, but from, an open field. Known for her deeply inquisitive, elegant, scientific research-based multimedia sculptures and installations, the French, London-based artist presents her largest project yet this summer—an earthwork that spans 160 acres of open land in the San Luis Valley in Hooper, Colorado.
Orisons—meaning prayers—is a natural progression for Humeau, who is known for creating mythically functioning ecosystems of her own, reviving extinct creatures and imagining new ones, living, breeding, and mutating in realms of her own design. After graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven and receiving an M.A. from the Royal College of Art in London, Humeau has had a string of institutional shows in quick succession over the last decade: Lafayette Anticipations, Palais de Tokyo, and Jeu de Paume in Paris; the New Museum in New York; the Tate Britain and Serpentine Galleries in London; and has been included in several biennials, including Venice (2022) and Istanbul (2019).
Commissioned by Black Cube, the Denver-based nomadic nonprofit that presents artworks outside the confines of the traditional art museum, Orisons spreads through\ a portion of the world’s largest alpine valley, and the site of the state’s oldest continuous water rights, currently experiencing a megadrought due to large-scale climate change. The fragile ecosystem in San Luis Valley requires the lightest touch by the artist, so the interventions into nature here are minimized over the course of this two-year-long presentation: the nonprofit and artist collaborated with Jones Farm Organics, fourth-generation farmers in the region, as well as a network of conservationists, indigenous community leaders, wildlife experts, and agronomists to bring life to the fallow field (fallow, meaning to remain inactive and unsown in order to restore fertility), while it sits out its sowing cycle, letting the soil re- store its own nutrient levels while left unplowed and unseeded during rotating growing seasons. Letting it fallow allows the land to become re-productive in time.
Kinetic and interactive sculptures resembling invasive plants are installed throughout the landscape, whispering and whistling in the wind like chimes, while tall, horizontal sculptures float above it, providing the same shadow that the sandhill crane would by flying overhead. The cranes are native to the area and take part in the installation to bring in the mythology of the Thunderbird, a Native American symbol of power, protection, and strength. They also resemble the petroglyph of a bird carved into the mountain range that borders the land, integrating the image in the air into a new dimension above the terrain. Humeau introduces these sculptures as new divination tools for navigating and channeling the spiritual presence that plays out in the field. Visitors are invited to join the energy at work in the surround-sound theater on the wings of the sculptural cranes.
The project came about when Humeau was in residence at Black Cube. The organization reached out to Humeau right before the pandemic, and the artist spent the lockdown researching weeds and crop circles in the region they had chosen for the project. “The crop circles really connect to intensive agriculture and the exploitation of resources to an extreme, especially in Colorado, specifically in the San Luis Valley, where we’re working,” says Humeau from Madrid, where she is fabricating new work for her upcoming exhibition at White Cube in London, her first with the gallery. “The aquifer has been completely depleted, so now what’s going to happen to all of these circles that were pumping the water in the aquifer now that climate change is really here, and less and less rain is falling? It’s not getting refilled. We are in a huge water crisis."
The circles also bring an intriguing artistic history of their own: used in ancient religious and societal design, the pure mathematical principles in designing crop circles have made the spare shape an elemental part of sacred geometry and spirituality. “I was just as interested in them because they connect to sacred architecture; sacred circles have been used in agriculture since the dawn of human civilization, like we see at Stonehenge, for example. The Jones family had this fallow circle of land, and we started to collaborate on the idea. The area is immense— it’s almost a kilometer [over half a mile] in diameter. My idea for the project was to bring the water back, like a mirage or an ancient memory for the future, or even the near present, when the rain isn’t falling anymore. What happens when rain is just a memory?”
The artist has based her practice on creating systems and worlds that reflect her research in biology, zoology, and paleontology, experimenting to achieve the impossible, such as Echoes (2017), which was both a laboratory and temple for producing an elixir that would deliver eternal life. Set in a radiant yellow chamber, the Egyptian gods Wadjet and Taweret looked on, while the synthesized voice of Cleopatra sang. The walls were painted with poisonous python venom. For Birth Canal (2018), she reached over 100,000 years back to revive Mitochondrial Eve figures from bronze and stone, based on prehistoric female Venus goddess statues. They lived in a brutally geometric dark cave whose air was weighed down with a manufactured scent that mimicked that from giving birth. “The new step for me is merging a mythical ecosystem with an existing one, whereas in previous projects, it’s been about mythical ecosystems that are presented by themselves,” she says. “The only way to survive on this planet is to become part of a greater collective and for us to merge within the greater whole of life. I think it’s going to be the only way for us to survive on this planet.
Orisons is dedicated to the land that hosts it. “Very early on [in planning], I felt like I needed to do something for the Jones family, and for the local community,” she explains. “At this point, the land doesn’t feel very connected to its past or its future. There are lots of plants on the land, and everyone we talked to— this was a huge research undertaking—considers these plants to be an invasive species,” she says. “I thought to myself, wait a minute—these plants may be coming from somewhere else, but they do survive on this land, which is so harsh because there is no water. In a way, maybe they are the heroes of tomorrow—they’ve already learned how to exist and survive in this place that is so extreme. We may have to learn to do the same soon. What can we learn from them? Right now, these plants exist in the present as well as the future.”
The project is also a means of animating the living history of the site. “There’s been a multitude of populations who have passed over these lands. Members of the Ute continue to live in this area; the Anasazi tribe lived here before them, and there’s been a succession of violent histories on the land since then. It’s a land of passage,” she explains. Fittingly, Humeau collaborated with geomancers, practitioners in interpreting messages of divination from rocks, sand, and soil, as well as leaders of the Ute community, in the planning of Orisons.
Like much of Humeau’s earlier work, Orisons feels like an incomplete account, whether historical or anticipatory; there is a space left open for an element that would explain the mystical, for delivering knowledge that we don’t yet know how to receive. It is expecting the unexpected. “The work is speculative, but it’s also firmly anchored in very harsh reality. It’s about connecting, and reconnecting, the land back to its own past. Maybe the role of the artist is to connect the land to its past, its present, and its future,” she says. “My role is not to make work on this land; it’s to embrace the land as the artwork and see everything that lives on it. The cranes, the birds, the weeds, the wind, the sand; the list is infinite—they’re all part of the artwork.”