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  • Ella Noonan

Exhibition Review - Marguerite Humeau’s FOXP2 at the Nottingham contemporary

The Following is a critical review of an exhibition I visited and wrote last year (27th October 2016)

FOXP2 is the unique, thought provoking creation and first major UK solo show of French artist, Marguerite Humeau. The handout given at the show sets the tone by stating: “Marguerite Humeau set herself an impossible challenge: to artificially recreate the emergence of sentient life” [1]. Immediately one can expect a show full of mental stimulation and curiosity.

On entering through the glass doors of FOXP2, you are instantly shut off from all light and taken into a black abyss of a corridor that is sound tracked by bizarre sounding, incoherent, almost whale-like noises. This was in fact a synthetic voice with the purpose of beatboxing the origins of language. Humeau created it for the piece with the help of multiple linguists including Pierre Lanchantin, from The Laboratory of Voice synthesis; they created a chorus of the voices of everyone thought to have lived on earth 100,000 years ago.

Once being ushered to go around the corner by a member of the gallery staff who has sensed the bewilderment on your face, you are then transported into a sleek, airy, museum-esque gallery space. The walls a pale, candyfloss pink, the floor clean and white, housing an array of plinths scattered around the open plan room. The pink theme continues through the plinths that are lined with plush, speckled, pink carpet which alludes to the idea of it being something you might find as an art piece in a luxury, contemporary house. Having gotten past the initial softness of the colour scheme, you are then faced with the harsh white skeletal structures, much like something you might find in somewhere like the Natural History Museum. Some of the biological structures were accompanied by glass tanks pumping around clear liquids, connecting to them through thin tubes. This room also featured an auditory element that differed slightly to the one in the entrance however still sounded just as peculiar.

In order to achieve FOXP2, Humeau collaborated with numerous zoologists, palaeontologists, biologists and psychologists. This enabled her to create an audible conclusion of what they thought elephants would have sounded like had they reached the stage in evolution where a language was developed. The show revolves around the concept of going back to square one and imagining that instead of humans, elephants were in fact the only known sentient beings. A notion that at first seems totally whacky and ridiculous however once you open your mind to it, Humeau’s work becomes both visually pleasing as well as truly fascinating.

Undoubtedly a vast amount of research was carried out in order to make the show possible however this is not to be misinterpreted as the show being simply academic and lacking artistic creativity. There is a large element of playfulness that is almost reminiscent of being a child and asking questions that to most people seem illogical: “what if elephants were like humans?”. A question that primarily comes across as novel and nonsensical has been brought to life and possibly even made sense of. So much thought has been put into every element of making us believe this concept, right down to the carpets on which the elephants are stood on. The pink tone from the carpets is in fact a dye created from chemicals found in the human body as well as a pigment taken from the toxic Datura plant which holds the toxic berry believed to be the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ in Genesis. By representing humans as simply a means of colouring the carpet, we are reduced down to a mere resource from which the elephants use as they evolve. This almost allows her work to hold a sense of power over us in the sense that we feel belittled and inferior to the elephants stood before us. Nonetheless, this isn’t necessarily a negative given that it enables us to put into perspective the fact that we are simply where we are in the evolutionary hierarchy due to a genetic mutation. It is this mutation that acts as the 2% difference that separates humans from chimpanzee’s, and is called FOXP2 hence the title of the exhibition.

The attention to detail in Humeau’s work really allowed it to come to life and let the viewer feel as though they had been transported to this alternate reality in which elephants thrive. The titles of the eight separate pieces gave an insight towards the various human-like qualities the elephants had evolved. For example: ‘Felice, A female engineered to be self-destructive-getting drunk with ethanol that comes from a masala fruit’, and ‘Jean, An elephant watching the scene with a sense of wonder’. In the instance of ‘Felice’ there was even a glass tank representative of the alcohol, the anthropomorphism of the elephants with characteristics and actions we recognise (sadness, crying, wonderment, happiness, etc) we are able to empathise with something that primarily seemed so inanimate and lifeless.

Ultimately I found Huneau’s FOXP2 successful on both a conceptual and visual level. I was initially drawn in by the light-hearted colour palette and overall aesthetics however I can’t deny the uncertainty I had toward the audio. Despite at first finding it off putting and somewhat unnerving, by discovering what it was all about and reading into it, the audio really added whole concept of transporting the viewer to a world that isn’t as we know it.


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