Marguerite Humeau, installation view of “Birth Canal,” 2018. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

Marguerite Humeau

New York

New Museum

“Birth Canal,” Marguerite Humeau’s first solo exhibition at a U.S. museum, featured 10 new bronze and stone sculptures configured in a darkly cavernous spatial installation. Humeau, who was born in Cholet, France, and now lives in London, transformed a room just off the New Museum’s brightly lit lobby. Spotlights periodically illuminated a landscape of purpose-built, sharply angled architectural platforms, focusing on individual female figures and vaguely brain-like forms, which ranged in size from a few inches in height to almost life-size. With no transition to let the eyes adjust to the darkness, one blindly followed the light to the objects, allowing it serve as a guide through the potentially treacherous space. One emerged back into the brightness of the museum with a feeling of relief after passing through the “Birth Canal.”

Humeau’s disorienting environment engaged multiple senses, from sight to hearing to smell. The sculptures displayed a variety of surfaces, from slick, shiny metal to worn-looking stone, their generally neutral colors varying from gold and bronze to off-white, pink, and gray. Arranged on their multi-level platforms, some behind glass, they recalled an archaeological or anthropological exhibit, doubling as artifacts displayed for close inspection. The strange sounds emerging from the darkness varied from monkey-like chattering and other animal calls to trance-like chanting, to alarming almost-screams and other ominous, indefinable noises that conjured a primal atmosphere. Though not loud, this aural element was definitely disturbing and eerie, an effect only reinforced by the subtle smell that wafted from somewhere around the figures. Slightly metallic and vaguely sweet, it mimicked the odors associated with the messy, bloody process of birth.

Humeau has said that her work begins with research, and this installation was no exception. “Birth Canal” managed to transport viewers out of the present to an ambiguous time and space where human origins colllide with possible futures. Animism, totemism, and spiritual travel also come into play, fusing with the title’s distinct reference to the birthing process. The brain-like sculptures allude to the theory of early humans eating animal brains to absorb their characteristics, while some of the figures recall ancient fertility goddesses such as the Venus of Willendorf and other prehistoric statuettes found throughout the world. Humeau’s figures represent different ages, some quite elderly and some in the prime of life, others almost unformed or even alien; all of them, however, are unambiguously female.

Although Humeau did not use her hands to form her sculptures—she worked with a bronze foundry and a stone carving company to produce them, and the digital renderings retain a slick, machine-made appearance—her control of their concept and presentation in such a physically responsive and evocative atmosphere was remarkable. Powerful and immersive, “Birth Canal” served as a great introduction to the work of an artist who has the potential to become an important sculptor. Humeau’s work is highly conceptual, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and technically astute, as well as definitively female.