The galleries of Nottingham Contemporary are taken over by the relentless echoes of human civilization and the emotional turmoil of elephants - now the dominant species on Earth. Marguerite Humeau’s exhibition, ‘FOXP2’, comprises two immersive installations that exist in the blurred space where science ends and fiction begins, using art as a powerful medium for unbridled speculation. Entering the first dimly-lit gallery, visitors experience a sound installation that attempts to recreate the evolution of human voice over the past 100,000 years. Despite the unknown language, the timbres of the voices address a primal human instinct to interpret tone or expression. The installation is rooted in scientific research surrounding FOXP2, a gene which mutated 100,000 years ago as an evolutionary fluke and gave human beings the power to communicate through a sophisticated verbal language. It begins to consider a parallel universe in which human beings were not the species to develop this trait.
The passageway layout of the first gallery acts as a transition from the psyche of humans to the psyche of elephants. Emerging from the disorientating darkness of the previous installation, the second gallery, in stark contrast, resembles a bright showroom displaying nine artificially designed elephants that are conceived to die. These creatures are cold white shells with glass hearts that pump a destructive liquid through them, fuelling their individual emotions. Equipped with a similar consciousness as humans, Pierrre hysterically laughs, Felicie wails through alcoholic intoxication and Enid weeps with sadness. Each elephant is animated through their sound, with voices imagined as though the FOXP2 gene had affected their vocal tract. Humeau presents us with a manufactured nature, which may seem to be an oxymoron, yet reflects our technological age where these distinctions blur.
This second installation has two distinct modes: during daytime and after sunset. In the evenings, the sculptures are theatrically brought to life. The room is dark, but intermittent spotlights illuminate the elephants, signalling their pattern of their conversation and creating a sense of movement and anticipation. It intensifies the narrative of the exhibition - a family of elephants mourning the demise of the matriarch. She is at the heart of the work, initiating the anguished call and response that ranges from climactic crescendos to unsettling moments of silence.
The installation dispels the mode of thought that species ought to be preserved for the folly of future humans, instead cleverly placing humans on the periphery - an observer outside of the complex ecology of the exhibition. The programming of the elephants is a 24 hour cycle, only ever giving a visitor a partial glimpse of their existence. Furthermore, the pink carpet comprises of ‘liquid human’: by reducing humanity to a chemical formula and placing it underfoot, the human species is represented as a mere building block in elephant evolution. Humeau challenges our understanding of the world, tackling questions of consciousness, language and evolution, in a way that is immersive, engaging, and deeply thought-provoking.