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Features / International Women's Day

Physical improbabilities made real: the work of French artist Marguerite Humeau

“I see myself as an explorer – I like to question something and then I will try to go as deep as I can,” artist Marguerite Humeau says. “The research for me becomes a bit more of a performance in itself. Not in the live sense of the word, but it becomes part of the story I’m telling. It’s a long journey I have to take before I can actually realise or produce a physical outcome.” Marguerite feels she has a responsibility to “create an experience that tackles issues we have to think about today”. Living and working in London, France-born Marguerite, who graduated from the RCA just five years ago, is unlike many artists in that rather than create works about herself and her own journey, she dabbles with complex narratives and poses the biggest “what ifs?” imaginable. Each project we’ve come to know Marguerite for has been more complex and grand than the last and her research is just as much an artistic and creative process itself.

Her story began at the RCA, with a project called The Opera in 2012. Marguerite embarked on a proposal to resurrect prehistoric creatures. It caught everyone’s imagination as the artist tried to reconstruct the vocal tracts of creatures that once roamed the earth. The documents Marguerite provided as support to the piece saw hundreds of emails to the scientific community asking what a prehistoric creature might sound like.

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Following this That Goddess in 2014 saw Marguerite resuscitate Cleopatra as a 21st Century diva who gave her “first recital” by creating a synthetic singing voice. Her hypnotic tones were informed by speech experts, historians, vocal organ experts and surgeons. Later in 2015 at Duve Berlin was Echoes, which told the story of life and death, the creation of myth and the transition from organic to synthetic. The unexpected defining characteristic was the exhibition walls that were covered in two grams of deadly black mamba venom. Viewers were warned to “stay away from the walls and protect your shoes” when entering.

Her most recent adventure was completed last year and was her biggest yet. For FOXP2, the artist created a hyperreal “biological showroom” at the Palais de Tokyo, her first major solo show. In the project she tried to artificially reenact the origin of conscious life by exploring the 2% difference between humans and chimpanzees, while also proposing how elephants could have been the dominant species on Earth. The project was huge, not just conceptually but physically and it was then adapted to fit the confines of Nottingham Contemporary later in the year. Precisely executed, but high-concept and rigorous, her success taps into a popular fascination with the unknown. “I put everything on the same level with everyone I speak to and then I start to speculate and fill in the gaps in knowledge, so I need to have these discussions before I can make anything,” explains Marguerite.

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To realise these projects Marguerite spends an incredible amount of time researching and poring over her chosen subject matter in a myriad of ways. Stacks of Moleskine notebooks, saved articles and computer files full of ideas, books and magazines fill her east London studio that houses glimmers to past projects with sketches, timelines and fabric swatches scattered throughout the room. “I do so much research because I feel I have a duty to produce knowledge that wouldn’t be generated in another context. I’m an artist so I can easily work without any constraints and create bridges between disciplines that have never been made before. When you work as an academic researcher you have certain constraints that you have to accept and respect. I create my own constraints, but still I feel I have a duty,” she explains.

Marguerite’s projects amass these opinions, questions and notions and go on to become works that encompass all of the senses, more akin to experiences than physical objects sculptures in a gallery to be admired. It’s the construction of her works that also becomes spellbinding. If it’s not working with linguists to find out the language used by the first human, it’s travelling to Thailand for elephant tears that are then injected into her sculptures. With no limits to what or where she’ll use a material and with her “insane” contacts book, sourcing substances has become an enjoyable part of the challenge for Marguerite. “I’m trying to create things that seem impossible to create, source and achieve. I think I like that feeling of having achieved something that even I didn’t think I was able to,” she says.

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Comparing herself to “the hero of an epic quest”, the narratives within her projects inevitably grow more complex, but Marguerite is careful not to stray too far away from what drives her. “I think it’s very important that the work is always on this fine line between ‘this could actually happen’ and ‘this is grounded in facts’, it’s a story but I don’t think it would be as powerful if it was just a story.” And she’s right, the real fascination in Marguerite’s work is how based it is in fact and informed it is by cultural artefacts she’s discovered and presented.

The rich narratives and detailed executions Marguerite weaves into her projects is dependent on the experts and professionals she gets in touch with. “At the moment I’m quite lucky as people are quite keen to get involved. Out of 100 emails maybe half of them will reply, but I’m always curious to know what the people who don’t reply think of my work,” says Marguerite. “Sometimes there’s a bit of trouble when I write to a scientist for example – because of the nature of the project or question I’m posing, I’m essentially trying to get them to tell me what they don’t know. I guess if you’re a scientist it’s not an easy situation to tackle. I often ask questions about things no one knows about, so they have to face the limitations of their scientific knowledge.”

“An artist should be a victor of generating collaboration, new knowledge, be at the heart of what is happening and question things.”

– Marguerite Humeau

While Marguerite’s work straddles the line between art and science, it’s not something that bothers her. “Many people ask me the question about what I like about art and science but I’m not really that interested in science,” she says. “I produce art, and to produce that art I contact experts but they might be scientists, people who to conduct telepathy with plants, a psychic, or an astrologist. The scientific communities are what fascinate people I think and I do talk about it a lot. It’s about looking at different types of knowledge and perhaps I’ll do a project without any scientific input in the future.”

Though the topics of Marguerite’s projects vary, the constant in all of her major works, is the notion of high definition. “I’m interested in what it means when you apply it to physical things. I’ve been thinking a lot recently and realise that I’m basically creating worlds that exist without humans and I’m trying to remove any trace of humans in the way the pieces are fabricated as well,” explains the artist. This is evident in the pristine, almost clinical worlds she creates which are inspired by unlikely environments like retail design and Apple stores. “It’s very important to me that everything I do is in high definition and you get to a point where it becomes almost insane how precise and detailed it is. [My sculptures] are too perfect to be real and I think that’s when it becomes a bit unsettling for the viewer, because they’re looking at creatures that are artificially made and so they almost look like they could be alive.”

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The idea of creating immaterial ghosts, is enhanced by the high-quality, nigh-on impossible finish in each work. “People may not notice all the details but I think they would notice them if they were not so perfect. It’s like when you look at a magazine or book, sometimes if it’s well-designed you don’t even notice.”

Marguerite’s hyperreal aesthetic is not to be mistaken for superficiality, rather the artist is keen to communicate the opposite. “My biggest worry is that I start to create sculptures or forms that are empty or without souls. I always ask myself: ‘does the world really need this?’ At the beginning I had to think about this really carefully because I was funding myself and had to make sure it would work. Now I’m supported by galleries, but I still need to keep that rigour. It’s probably personal but I don’t believe the artist is someone who works in the studio for themselves,” explains Marguerite. “For me it’s totally old school. Today, an artist should be a victor of generating collaboration, new knowledge, be at the heart of what is happening and question things. In my shows I don’t want my work to be a comment on something, but a proposal for new and existing things. I hope I can keep that rigour, but I need time for it.”

“You need time to think as well,” Marguerite continues. “It might sound a bit strange for other people, but I need time to just also do nothing. After a show I need to take two or three months – although it’s not doing nothing really, it’s reading which is the first step in my research because I need to know what’s going on in the world and get of the bubble.”

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In April, May and June this year Marguerite will launch a new project titled Riddles which will appear in three different locations. The project will launch at New York’s High Line in a group show in April, on the 1.45-mile long park built on a disused freight rail line. It will coincide with a solo show a month later at New York’s Clearing gallery. The project will conclude at the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin in June and the artist is still in the early stages of development. “I’m trying to design seven things that could be placed on earth to repel evil and invisible spirit,” explains the artist about her New York shows. For Berlin it’s just as intriguing as Marguerite hopes to research and potentially re-enact the first human war.

As with any boundary-pushing artist, sometimes those around her question the limits of her work. “I have an email from a professor from one of my first projects that says I am ‘barking up a tree that is far too big for me’, a year later I finished the project,” says Marguerite. When asked about her aspirations, the artist is matter-of-fact in her ambition. “I know some artists who have their ‘dream’ project, but I don’t really think like that. I work really intuitively and most of the dreams I’ve had so far I’ve achieved them. I have new ones now, so I don’t have the goal of my life, I just try to go one step after another.”