Marguerite Humeau: “Echoes” at Tate Britain
By Bianca Stoppani
A reverberating chant may spur you inside the space where Marguerite Humeau (b. 1986) has staged the most recent arrangement of her installation Echoes (2015). It is Cleopatra’s voice—or its possibility, synthetically built from a short description given by Plutarch in his Life of Marc Antony, where he praised the last Egyptian queen for the “sweetness” of her voice and compared her polyglot tongue to “an instrument of many strings.”1
With otherworldly seduction and skill, Humeau’s Cleopatra (all works 2015) utters a love song in the nine languages it is said she knew, including Aramaic, Egyptian, Ge’ez, Median, and Troglodyte. The artist teamed up with historians, surgeons, and translators to create a second life for the dead woman in the form of a mellifluous, female-gendered, machinic hiss with no body. Its sonic activity provokes disquieting slippages in our understandings of place and time, as well as causality. What feels weird is indeed the apprehension of such an existential echo that has irrupted into our world from an unknown beyond.2
You may be entranced by this drone-like soundscape—think, for example, of an abattoir’s humming in July. It melds attraction and repulsion, like the ickily acid yellow on the walls (Black Mamba), which was obtained from the venom of the eponymous python. Making it visible, Humeau turned the toxic into an aposematism, that visual strategy implemented by brightly colored animals such as frogs, caterpillars, or, indeed, snakes to advertise their poisonous nature and keep predators at bay. The room has been similarly concocted of transparency and secrecy: it may be a laboratory as well as a tomb (since they could equally host spectacular events); a sort of visceral, almost intestinal chamber for experiments and tricks, possibly paying homage to the Victorian era, with its parties devoted to the unwrapping of mummies, and its theaters full of fleeting apparitions.
Among these you may decide to include the white sculptures nearly vanishing in that surrounding yellow. They may be considered containers-carriers that feed into closed hydraulic circuits, while their titles tell of mythic creatures. Wadjet (King Cobra) is a polyurethane-foam version of the Egyptian patron deity of all pharaohs, a long snake whose tail is here attached to a cup storing one gram of its lethal venom. This chthonic creature is mounted on a slim, geometrical structure and placed on a low platform. Presenting analogous materials and composition, Taweret shares its name with the tutelary Egyptian goddess of childbirth and fertility, usually a combination of a hippopotamus head, crocodile tail, and woman’s body, but here reduced to horizontally elongated breasts. The latter are milked by a bundle of medical rubber tubes and connected, through additional conduits, to plastic fermentation tanks in the opposite corners of the room. Their function is to pump alligator blood (Sobek [Muhammad Ali], which is a liquid metonym of the apotropaic deity protecting the Nile River, either represented as a crocodile or as a man with a crocodile’s head) and hormones (Taweret’s Feeding Hormones) into the gurgling Taweret.
Such bodies at large—namely the sounds, props, and liquids—cue an overlap of technology and biology. Mirroring the logics of biotechnocapitalism, they network processes of extraction, accumulation, and distribution of those signaling molecules that constitute them, whether they are bits, atoms, or cells. In this sense, Cleopatra’s disembodied, cyber afterlife and the 3D-printed, plastic-derived forms tap into the promises of an infinite technological manipulation and control of humanness, matter, and time, of putting an end to our earthly limitations. This also accounts for Humeau’s attempt to engineer Taweret’s Milk, a “superdrug” composed of artificial breast milk, pinkish hippopotamus milk (known for its natural antibiotics), and alligator blood (nicknamed “Muhammad Ali” by the scientific community for its resistance to many viruses, including HIV), thus potentially able to cure any disease. The Taweret’s Milk is stored in two rows of barrels behind the goddess of the same name.
Humeau ventures into a promethean, technomaterialist fascination by doubling the present—that is, creating another, provisional version alongside the space-time in which you experience the show. Far from the desire of science-fiction genre to create a different future at a distance, she invites us to deal with the possibility of a different present in the cracked-up now. It is within this horizon that she merges scientific and fictitious facts, shuffles the resulting data, and diagrams positive feedback loops amid the manufacture of knowledge and history. To do so, the artist wraps every detail in the deceptive realm of mythology to produce a consistency between information and misinformation, ultimately distorting every possible reference to authenticity. This leads to a narrative structure whose past-present logic allows her to nest several fictions within and among the works—take, for example, Cleopatra’s song, which was already (more or less) embodied by an eponymous CGI pop star in the online music video “Cleopatra—That Goddess” (2014).
The mythical personae and sentient objects that inhabit Humeau’s complex installations channel forgotten or futuristic types of agency, and point, in so doing, to the impact of algorithm-based technologies on our mindscape. This technomancy is further investigated in RIDDLES (all works 2017), the series displayed for the first time in New York at C L E A R I N G Gallery and the High Line in January 2017, and exhibited since in different instantiations at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin; Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe, Château de Versailles, VersaillesFrance; and most recently Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich, which awarded Humeau the Zurich Art Prize 2017. Exploring the myth of the sphinx as an ambiguous figure both in its appearance, for it is part man, lion, and bird, and in its function, for it protects and (in case the riddle is not solved) destroys, Humeau envisioned a startling similarity between that mythic creature and security protocols. It means that stories, devices, and sculptures, from white, gigantic, breathing sphinxes to grimacing monkey-face masks, hypnotic security cameras, presence detectors, and metal gates disposed into a formation, compose a pack of regulatory architectures involved in operations of bordering.
For the show in Zurich, titled RIDDLES (Final Beats), the artist devises a world where humankind and sphinxes are antagonists. The latter ultimately metabolize the former, and what remains is the apotropaic, broad-winged Sphinx Otto Absorbed Humankind looming over you. Humans are present in a sound piece with as many voices as the sum of all the people (108 billion) who have ever lived on Earth (Monument of Humankind), which is aired in a Pompeian red room upstairs. Someone abandoned a defense tool there, a folding screen decorated with anti-climbing security systems and a camouflage pattern designed to hide drones from humans—a pointed redirection of the pattern used by US Army to hide humans from drones (Digital Desert).
Humeau’s inventions undermine the made-up stability of our reality and open up a space for the much-needed imagination of alternatives within it. Her strategy is homeopathic, for she extracts images of fear and anxiety from our collective imaginary with the ultimate goal of turning them against themselves. In this sense, Echoes reminds us that nature and science are pharmakos—that is, both remedy and poison—as much as RIDDLES does so in relation to surveillance, incidentally revealing the pervasiveness of the military-entertainment complex that infects public institutions, and our daily lives in general. Powerful and captivating, there is no doubt that these fictions bridge a gap into the urgent need for stories in our gloomy current times—something that has been also proven by the wide institutional interest that Humeau’s work has attracted over the last two years, including major solo shows at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and Nottingham Contemporary in 2016. At the same time, it seems to me that they leave a narrow space for the address of certain issues, such as how to shift those riddles from something to which one is passively subjected to something one actively creates, for example by recuperating the disruptive potential of hybridity and turning it into a strategy of resistance against politics of recognition that pin down genetics and create hierarchies among species. Or, in sum, how to transform our imagination from the placebo into the antidote.
1. Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1920), vol. 9, chapter 27.
2. See Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater, 2016), 15–25.