Over the last decade, Marguerite Humeau has successfully carved out a place for herself in the international art scene, with her participation in the 59th Venice Biennale being one of the most recent highlights. Crossing time and space, Humeau’s practice escapes categorization. Borrowing strategies from the design world that you can see flowing through her speculative sculptures, sound pieces, drawings, and photographs, Humeau creates scenarios that leave behind rationality and embrace mystery.
This interview was conducted over Zoom by Jeanette Bisschops while Marguerite takes a break from installing her work in Venice. The artist talks about her quest for the myths of our times, and her invitation to look at the world as an entangled, holistic, and collaborative landscape to re-evaluate and perhaps reconfigure what it means to be a human.
Marguerite Humeau (b. 1986, Cholet, France; lives and works in London) is an artist whose work explores themes ranging from prehistory to imagined future worlds, spanning great distances in space and time in her pursuit of the mysteries of human existence. Humeau typically pursues intense periods of research, calling on scientists and academics but also on holders of more alternative forms of knowledge. This information fuels a speculative, imaginative process in which the artist has previously recreated the voice of Cleopatra, and imagined the birth of a religion among marine mammals. Calling herself an ‘Indiana Jones in Google Times,’ Humeau is intrigued by things that are extinct and in forms that are yet to come. Filling gaps in knowledge with speculation and imagined scenarios, her aim is to create new mythologies for our contemporary era. In Humeau’s world, humans inhabit an evolutionary timeline that encompasses the notion of the Anthropocene and the possibility of our eventual extinction. Credit: Tim Craig for Avant Arte.
Jeanette Bisschops: First of all, congratulations! I was excited to hear that you were invited to participate in the 2022 Venice Biennial. I would love to ask you more about that later, but first I’m interested to know how you found your way as an artist.
Marguerite Humeau: I studied in Paris and after my studies, I felt like I needed to keep exploring things. So I was excited to go to the Design Academy in Eindhoven at the time because there were a lot of experimental designers that were graduating from the school. I learned a lot, technically, how to make physical objects, wood, metal, ceramics, and so on. At the same time, I was realizing that design wasn't really for me because I was already interested in creating mystery.
I remember one of my tutors told me that, in design, you need to hold people's hands and be much more direct about what you are doing for them. I don’t know if I agree with what she said, but I do remember thinking, if that's what design is about, then probably it isn't for me because I'm not interested in being so direct, or literal. I was already interested in mystery, mythologies, and growing narratives. I also applied to art schools, but ironically I was never accepted to any art school.
JB: Was this after you finished the Design Academy in Eindhoven?
MH: I studied textile in Paris for three years, and then I went to Eindhoven, and after a year I realized it was not for me. So I applied to a department at the Royal College of Arts, called Design Interactions, which was dedicated to speculative design and research.
The program focused on using design as a tool, to imagine speculative scenarios, whether they happen in the future or in a parallel present. The tutors all came from product design but had made this journey from thinking about design as being functional and direct, to believing that design can be a really powerful tool to transform our society and speculate about the impact of emerging technologies on our daily lives. By using objects or scenarios that are recognizable, they believed that design had even more potential than art.
The program gathered people from very different fields. There were dancers, performers, programmers, graphic designers, and even mathematicians. The way I work - asking big questions, connecting to the mysteries of human existence, and gathering vast amounts of researchers to speculate with me on what these worlds or ecosystems could be like, or will be like, and then translating these hypotheses into physical objects that became sculptural - comes from my time at the Royal College.
I started looking at the great mysteries of human existence: looking into black holes and mythologies. This quest, which is probably spiritual as well, was about thinking about what would be the myths for our contemporary era. How do we connect with the sublime and how can I use emerging technologies to do that?
I now started thinking more and more about sculpture. With my Venice Biennale project, which I'm not allowed to talk about yet, I've been thinking about weight, lightness, and how to create beings that look like they're on the edge of falling.
Finding my way as an artist has been a long journey. But it's very exciting because I’m starting to see the links between all my projects, the body of research I've done, and how they become one whole. I feel I can almost just pull threads from each of their corners and a new project gets born.
JB: What is for you the main difference in thinking about someone, or yourself, as a designer or an artist?
MH: I don't think I've ever really called myself a designer. I studied design, and I borrowed a lot of design strategies from the design world, but it's been clear for a while that I'm an artist.
My practice is quite holistic. I read, I travel, I go to geological sites and it's always in search of the Sublime. When I started getting invitations for my first exhibitions, I connected to art history and I started to wonder: where does my work belong?
I've been able to connect my work to this history of sacred architecture and sacred sculpture, and how humans have created their icons and myths. And now, with the Venice Biennale, it's been amazing because I notice how it is connected to surrealism and, more specifically, female surrealists. I never realized I was part of this family too. It makes so much sense. I'm really amazed by Cecilia’s vision. It's been transcendental, for many artists, because she's connected the dots in such an obvious way, but, at least for me, I had never connected all of these artists together.
JB: Are there any specific artists in the Venice Biennial that you feel you connect with?
MH: Definitely Leonora Carrington. I saw a self-portrait by her, at the Met in New York, which I showed to a friend. She was like, “oh my God, she looks like you.” I thought it was interesting how she portrays herself together with these horse-like sculptures, and with this spirit animal flying in the garden.
It was great to connect with her, but there are also lots of amazing artists in the Biennale, so it's hard to choose one.
JB: I am curious to hear more about the way you're working. You travel, you do a lot of research yourself, but you also speak to a range of people and specialists. What drew you to that way of operating and how do you figure out who you want to work with?
MH: I'm committed to creating stories that are always based on real facts, that also have this extra layer of speculation of hypotheses. There's this point in every project, where I think about how can I make it believable? How do I bring people with me into this other world?
I started talking to scientists to fill the gaps in my knowledge and pushed them to speculate with me. It was not always easy for them to create these speculations. As I progressed, I would create these semi-fictional scenarios reported by evidence and I started to realize that I'm making visible beings that became extinct, and that have been marginalized in the history of humankind.
So I thought: why don't I make these same beings visible in my body of research as well? Instead of going to scientists, I started to talk to people who operate at what's been considered the edges of the official ‘discourse’ and bring them back to the core of my research. It's been fabulous, embracing the multiplicity of points of view. And so, I'm creating ecosystems that include beings who are maybe not normally included in our ecosystems, that offer a new view.
JB: In your most recent exhibition, at C L E A R I N G Gallery in New York, you explored the world of plants. It felt like a departure to me from your earlier work, which was often more focused on species.
MH: Maybe the difference is that in this project, I'm not only creating physical forms but also mental landscapes. I think it's a less literal approach than thinking about the creation or recreation of ecosystems. It's about mental extinction. In the past, I've been thinking about the world without humans. Before we existed or after we will cease to exist. I thought about worlds that could have existed if humans had not become the dominant species on Earth. So it was all about removing the human. There's been a shift that became very obvious during the pandemic: we can't think about the world without humans. There was a sense of being trapped here, realizing climate change is happening, and that the earth is on fire. There's no way out. Our own survival as a species needs to come from us. So I started thinking about a project that would reintegrate the human into a more collaborative model of the world. To position the human in a non-dominant role; as another agent in a set of relationships; all on the same level.
I’m thinking about life as a whole, and about being in the flow of things. That all life forms on Earth are contributing to the evolution of life. And whenever we do something, it has a consequence on another being that may be far away from us, that we may not even really be aware of.
I have been looking at the soil, and the “surface horizon”, the layer of the soil where the living becomes dead, dormant, and alive again, or transforms into mineral matter. For me the “surface horizon” is this sort of mythical place where the most important transformations happen. I see the surface horizon as our inner lives and how, with COVID, we had to retreat into our surface horizons to revive and create new forms, psychologically or mentally.
With this show, it was a first attempt at looking at how we collaborate with plants, looking at what we can learn from soil creatures, from the interactions that are happening in the soil between roots and bacteria and worms. I also collaborated with specialists of nearly-extinct bodies of knowledge, such as the Doctrine of Signatures. So there is a shift, but it connects to the same themes.
JB: You said you can't really speak about your work in Venice in detail yet, but maybe you can say something about what the conceptual focus of the work is?
MH: The work for Venice is a continuation, and perhaps also a closure of the previous body of work. I've been continuing this series on spiritual animals. Animals that become spiritual because of mass extinction. The experience of death is pushing them to look at the sky and the cosmos in search of answers and maybe to connect with each other.
I'm doing a new commission in the San Luis Valley in Colorado as well, in cooperation with Black Cube. We've been scouting for two years now and we found a site. It’s an 800 m-diameter circle, that was being irrigated with a pivot irrigation system, those systems are used for intensive agriculture. One of the key challenges in this valley that I have been researching is the drought. The area is basically a desert and is getting less and less rain. There is a real water issue. I started thinking about indigenous cultures and their narratives around how to make rain. Stories of birds flapping their wings to make the rain fall, and other rain-making practices. I thought, what will happen to these pivot irrigation systems when there is no more rain? Maybe they just keep spinning like dancers praying for water, but without being able to water anything.
I was moved by what the farmers were telling me. It was almost like science-fiction to hear that they think it's possible that in a couple of years they might not be able to farm anymore because there's no more rain. So I decided to create a mirage and transform the site into a water-retaining landscape or a rain-making landscape. It's a new approach to how a sculpture can be functional, and also be an agent to create new sets of relationships. It will be an invitation for the human communities, the farmers, the wind, the weeds, the soil, and the sandhill cranes to all collaborate together, as a flock to bring rain back. It will be an opera recreating rainfalls, an opera for birds, for humans, generated by the wind, and hopefully creating a hopeful landscape.
JB: This sounds so amazing, and it links to my last question: Considering that the role of art is always changing, how do you envision the role of the artist in the future?
MH: I think mythology has always been at the core of our human lives. The oldest, most ancient sculptures that were ever found are the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Venus figurines. For me, it's an answer to our question, because you can see that when humans started to make art, it was for spiritual reasons. To connect to supernatural worlds, to the sublime. And it was at the core of their lives. This is the space where I want my work to reside, and to bring this back to our contemporary era.
At the same time, what I'm interested in with the Colorado project, for instance, is to think about if this work can offer a myth, and at the same time be functional and be musical. I'm creating a structure that will allow the wind to blow in certain ways, and for the snow and the rain to drop in certain ways, to irrigate the fields. It feels like I am collaborating with the wind to create this artwork. And so, again, it’s about collaboration.