New YorkThe New Museum
September 4, 2018 – January 6, 2019
Birth Canal, Marguerite Humeau’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States, is presented in conjunction with Birth Canal Drawings at CLEARING’s upper east side location. Curated by Natalie Bell, the exhibition is the tail end of three successive exhibitions by Humeau: ECHOES (2015) at DUVE Berlin, FOXP2 (2016) at Palais de Tokyo, and RIDDLES (2017) at CLEARING.
Prior to Birth Canal, Humeau’s last large-scale project was RIDDLES (2017), simultaneously exhibited at CLEARING’s location in Brooklyn, and at the Schinkel Pavilion in Zürich, and on the High Line in Manhattan. The topic of RIDDLES was a contemporary manifestation of the riddle of the sphinx. At the installation in Zürich, a diffusely lit pavilion housed a sculpture that resembled a network of metal turnstiles or security gates with large, blue, glass eyes suggesting an ancient sphinx and a security camera. It emitted a droning sound as visitors approached. In Brooklyn, a similar empty diffusely lit, spacious gallery housed a metal surveillance apparatus suspended from the ceiling. Accompanying it in two further rooms were a number of enormous matte-white chimpanzee masks with grotesque expressions on their faces that each emitted a soft mechanical heartbeat, and three cloudy vats of what looked like blood guarded by a white, three-headed vulture. RIDDLES drew on ancient history to speculate about a dystopian future where surveillance technology becomes humanity’s most feared predator.
Humeau’s choice to switch in the span of a year from the bright, blinding exhibition where everything is at once hidden and illuminated to Birth Canal where the setting is intimate, dark, somber, and muffled seems like a complete reversal, but it is more a reversal of tone than substance.
Birth Canal is a primeval theater of wailing, gibbering objects. The gallery is arranged like a birth canal and we enter at the exit. Given this symbolic act of walking back into the womb, the exhibition feels like a gradual retreat backward into the womb of history. At first, the sculptures appear soft, abstract, and spectral until one gets closer and sees they are made from marble, bronze, and alabaster. They were designed using CAD (computer-aided design) technology. Birth Canal is inspired by the work of American anthropologist Bethe Hagens, who theorized that early modern humans may have ingested animal brains for their psychotropic effects. 1 In this theory, Venus figurines served as anatomical guides for Cro-Magnon shamans. In her essay “Venus Figurines and Spiritual Technology in the Upper Paleolithic” Hagens demonstrates the striking visual affinity between the shape of a turtle’s brain and the odd exaggerated curves of a Venus figurine. She dismisses common interpretations of the figurines as “paleo-porn” due to the clearly inhuman proportions of their features, and because these theories did not take into account the central role shamanism and diversity of diet played in early human societies. Hagens speculates that it was more likely they were used as symbolically layered spiritual technology, or “recipes” for understanding the psychoactive and medicinal properties of animal brains.
Humeau’s Venuses reference the ultimate origin, not only the architype of the matriarch but also the “midbrain” referred to by Hagens, which is a section of the human brain that most resembles the “reptilian” brain of humanity’s non-human evolutionary ancestors. Humeau uses titles to contextualize each piece, for example, Venus of Hohle Fels, A 70-year-old female human has ingested a sloth’s brain (2018) which resembles both a small person with big feet and labia but is in fact a sloth’s brain turned on its side; and Black Spirit, A female human of an unknown age has ingested a Tasmanian devil’s brain (2018) which clearly resembles a naked woman standing rigidly upright.
Humeau’s unique contribution is bringing childbirth and the future of human life into an interpretation of Hagens’s theory. Birth Canal (Venus body odour), The scent of the birth of humankind (2018), a synthetic scent that mimics the smell of human birth, accompanies the twelve spot-lit sculptures. The sound piece The Venuses envision the extinction of their offspring, humankind (2018) is overwhelming, we hear sounds of an alien language made up of whines, shrieks, gibbers, and laughing, which are impossible to understand literally. After sitting in the gallery for long enough, the two bronze sculptures Superior Oneness, A 70-year-old female human has ingested an alligator’s brain (2018) and Two-Headed Venus, A 25-year-old pregnant female human and herself as a 90-year-old have ingested a tortoise’s brain (2018) begin to perform a kind of dialog where one sounds like it is guiding the other though the pains of labor. The spot lights are synchronized to flash over certain sculptures along with the audio, making it appear as though they were communicating.
While in RIDDLES Humeau speculated about a dystopian future, in Birth Canal there is no future, humanity will be extinct. What distinguishes this exhibition from Humeau’s previous ones is this marked turn away from the future to delve even deeper into prehistory. In this sense Birth Canal resembles the path leading into an ancient grotto where time is mythical and cyclical. But does the theatricality of Birth Canal take away from its message? For Humeau, the sculptures are in a “polyphonic trance” where they see the “future extinction of their offspring, humankind.” Within this context it is strange to see visitors laughing, ecstatic about the artwork, reacting to the cavernous space like it was a Disney Land ride. The potential for Humeau’s vision of an unrealized matriarchal shamanism to break free of a lost world seems overshadowed by its own performance.
- Venus Figurines and Spiritual Technology in the Upper Paleolithic by Bethe Hagens, Governors State University, Illinois, originally published in The Ley Hunter, issue 107, January 1988
NICHOLAS HESKES is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY.