Some might consider Marguerite Humeau’s artistic trajectory unconventional. Coming to art via design, she first studied textile design in France, where she is from, and in 2011 earned an MA in design interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. What marked her break with design was her understanding, while still in school, that she was drawn to create mystery through storytelling rather than trying to find solutions through functionality.
In some ways Humeau’s visual language feels like an homage to design, and she still makes use of its strategies for material experimentation in her interdisciplinary approach to art-making. Today, her sculptures and installations often escape categorization. A master narrative seems to be evolving throughout entire cycles of work, each dealing with topics such as loss, birth, kin, mourning, transcendence, and other ethereal ideas that often coax a suspension of disbelief on behalf of the viewer. Speculative in nature, the works unfold a conjured mythology that the artist co-creates, often with the help of new technology such as AI and algorithms, and also with specialists from a broad range of fields: from engineers and computer scientists to clairvoyants, healers, and psychics. Her practice seems to be on a ceaseless quest for innovation, both in terms of materiality, following an experimental alchemical path, but also subject matter, gathering and exploring different perspectives through interdisciplinary collaborations.
Creating strange figures that belong neither to the past nor the future — that seem to reside somewhere in the invisible layers of our present — Humeau’s magical-realist approach became more evident than ever in the context of the 59th Venice Biennale. The artist discovered with surprise what seemed to be an unlikely art-historical affiliation: in an interview, she described how, when invited to be part of “The Milk of Dreams,” she immediately felt that she “belonged to the family of female Surrealists.”
Like the Surrealist artists before her, many of which are also present in the Biennale (Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varos, to name a few), Humeau understands the importance of a playful, speculative approach to making art. It fosters a breaking open of societal molds and fossilized ideas around time, space, and our planetary cohabitants, in order to connect to colossal metaphysical questions about interrelatedness, consciousness, the universe, and spirituality — most of which remain unanswered. Humeau’s gift is her ability to be a good listener and — through storytelling — to convince others to listen as well. This is why her practice reflects such a deep connection to the state of the world.
Highlighting the complementarities between science and the speculative, the work she creates is inspired by the mysteries of the natural world. A crucial part of the work is Humeau’s choice of materials for her sculptures and installations, which have become more specific and more refined over the years. Her work shifted from large, white, smooth sculptures, created with milling machines from 3-D models, and painted in such a way that they became ghostly apparitions, to more corporeal sculptures made of wax, pigments, clay, and other combinations of natural and artificial elements. This change in materiality gradually shifted the artist’s storytelling through more alchemical creation processes. In a recent two-person exhibition, “Surface Horizon,” created together with artist Jean-Marie Appriou and presented at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris (2021), Humeau imagined an extensive and experimental site-specific installation that included multiple works featuring live plants, drawings, a greenhouse, an architectural pavilion, and multiple sculptures, as well as a performative act that included a clairvoyant. This exhibition, which represented a shift in her overall practice, further cemented her interest in marginalized species and peripheral narratives, and her fascination with creating mythologies for the contemporary world. And, like any good myth, an event marked by loss or mourning is often at the center of Humeau’s work.
Illustrating this is her most recent show at CLEARING gallery in New York, which opened before the Venice Biennale, in January 2022. For “Energy Flows,” as a continuation of the aforementioned body of work in “Surface Horizon,” she created, alongside drawings, eight botanical-looking specimens to commemorate emotions that humans no longer perceive or know how to name. These delicate and dainty objects, each on its own custom-made pedestal, appear to be maquettes for larger-than-life monuments. Humeau spent time researching a theory called the “doctrine of signatures” (DOS), based on an ancient concept that suggests that some of the physical characteristics of plants hold clues on how they can be used as medicine. For the drawings, she studied the depths of soil with the help of an AI specialized in intelligent dynamic network models to transform the received numerical data set, marking interactions between organic and non-organic elements in the soil, into images for the human eye.
Often Marguerite explores expanded scales, producing larger, monumental sculptures, such as Rise (2021), created in smelt aluminum, which depicts a grapevine’s microscopic process of pollination. The increase in scale never compromises the delicacy, flow, or presence of Humeau’s work. However large, the sculptures’ material language always captures the vibrant, undulating substance that resides in their essence. The suggestion of movement or mutability is another important formal aspect of Humeau’s practice. The creatures depicted often appear to be iridescent; others seem to be perspiring, glowing, floating on currents, or color-shifting as if in response to temperature changes around them. To produce Rise, as in her other bodies of work, the artist did extensive research, in this case focusing on a local community in the province of Cuneo in Italy’s Piedmont region, collaborating with experts such as wine producers, authorities on alchemic traditions, geologists, specialists in renewable energies and biotechnologies, botanists, biologists, and local healers. Constantly perfecting her alchemical processes, Humeau’s interdisciplinary collaborations have been vital for the success of her projects. Ancient and contemporary systems of knowledge are brought together under the same umbrella to envision new modes of being and belonging.
For “The Milk of Dreams,” Humeau conceived Migrations (2022): a body of work composed of three massive interrelated sculptures that appear as dreamy organic bodies on the edge of falling. The sculptures, although abstract, seem to be a puzzling mix of plants, animals, seeds, and organs, and are elevated on a curved platform that echoes the movement of a cresting wave. Captured side by side in the Biennale’s Arsenale, the three characters, titled “El Niño,” “La Niña,” and “Kuroshio,” named after ocean and atmospheric currents, seem to be frozen in movement in the midst of a state of transformation. They also appear to be carrying translucent, glowing pouches, an allusion perhaps to carrying and protecting significant possessions — though whatever this concept might encapsulate in their world is left to the imagination.
The creatures have richly textured smooth surfaces, exuding a sensual and appealing materiality. They are the result of a precise and complex material experimentation that the artist has been researching for years in her studio, together with specialists from different fields. Through a range of evocative materials — biological resins, polymers, algae, synthetic resins, bone, pigments, mineral dust, stainless steel, seaweed, glass, salt, ocean plastic — Humeau constructs a mythological universe rooted in the realities and materialities of our world, both ancient and contemporary, scientific and speculative. Beauty, she seems to imply, consists in allowing our everyday to be permeated by magic and alchemy.
As an overall exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams” emphasizes magic and metamorphosis, clearly stating its desire to understand different ways in which multigenerational artists from across the world have found their own paths to reconnect with an individual and collective internal landscape during trying times. Surrealism, through its association with the occult and mysticism, has always emphasized an existence beyond our own. Emerging as a current that allowed the mind to travel freely, it always represented for artists an invitation to constantly reinvent the self, but also to perceive the world as an interaction of forces that are beyond human understanding. Surrealism allowed for an unguarded exploration of magic and myth — a potential to render the invisible visible, and to expand the borders of consciousness and creativity.
Like the Surrealists, Humeau gets her inspiration from plants, animals, and the surrounding natural world, but also from technological and scientific developments. Her practice emphasizes material and immaterial transformations, gaps in our knowledge, and, like many of her predecessors, the merging of the conscious and the unconscious, the material and the spiritual. Many of the artists in the Biennale, including Humeau, are inscribed in this legacy, reinstating a set of concerns that have always felt valid but which now feel urgent. Perhaps, as in the case of migratory butterflies like the monarch or the painted lady, it takes successive generations to fulfill a full migratory route. No individual completes the entire journey they embark upon. Instead, somewhere along the way, they reproduce and die, so that future generations can close the loop.
Thus, Humeau’s work carries the legacies of Surrealism into the realm of post-anthropocentric and posthuman thought. The importance of kin and collaboration, at the heart of her work, shows how only through these relations can she develop such resonant speculation on the contemporary. And this, combined with her commitment to creating stories based on real facts, has the potential to redefine the role of art. Her method of working and championing collaboration dismisses the idea of the artist as an individual genius creator, and generously acknowledges a full ecology of partners — human and nonhuman — that don’t merely fill in technical or theoretical gaps, but are also drawn into the process of creative speculation alongside the artist.
Humeau’s ability to recognize that science, speculation, and magic are all cradled within nature is another essential aspect of her work that could be shifting things for contemporary art. Not only does her work muddle these boundaries, but it also portrays how all of these categories are constantly permeated by imagination and ideas. Pushing the limits of empirical knowledge denotes a new way of thinking and art-making, one that is full of potential. These new narratives and unprecedented scenarios train the mind to think beyond the present. Humeau is not afraid of big, unanswerable questions. By venturing beyond the uncharted limits of our awareness, she looks into the depths of black holes, the strata of soil; she listens to the whispering of plants and to the songs of deep-time creatures. The work creates a contemporary mythology that addresses the most important issue that we are facing today — the pinnacle and logical conclusion of our dysfunctional physical and metaphysical systems — the climate crisis.