Regardless of these appraisals, Humeau may need to find new ways to work, now that the coronavirus has rendered the idea of people jetting to distant cities to experience immersive art installations quaint in the space of a few months. She was supposed to present a large sculpture at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art in May, for instance, but neither works nor visitors could travel to Latvia, and the physical exhibition is being reconceived as a film. Humeau adapted by creating a performance — a single person will stand in the dark cavernous warehouse where the piece would have been and deliver a script describing it — and said she enjoyed the challenge of trying to create an emotional experience for viewers without her usual high-production means. “This, to me, is maybe like my first step into acknowledging this new world,” she said, “and what happens to making physical sculptures, what happens to art, when many of the things we could do before we can’t do anymore.”
Humeau had already been questioning her practice for ethical reasons when the pandemic hit. “I’ve felt for a while now that maybe sculpture will become irrelevant at some point,” she said, citing the environmental impact of fabrication and international travel. During lockdown, Humeau has restricted herself to buying food and basic essentials. “If I don’t buy clothes anymore, then why would I produce new sculptures?” she said.
In another sense, however, the pandemic has reinforced Humeau’s conviction in her practice. “I don’t know about you, but this whole lockdown has made me realize that we need sculpture because we need physical presences,” she said. “I’ve been feeling so depressed, not being able to see my friends — to just feel human heat. And in a way, this lockdown has shown me a prototype for a society in which we would only become digital entities, and I have found that highly terrifying and completely inhuman.” Still, Humeau (who usually works with industrial plastics) says she plans to use more recycled materials going forward and investigate cleaner fabrication methods.
Another consequence of the lockdown, says Humeau, is an urge to “be more local” — to be more involved in her community, to buy locally grown produce — and she wants to extend that philosophy to her art, making pieces that directly relate to the places in which they are shown. She is testing this approach in a new commission for Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, an Italian art organization that has invited Humeau to create her first permanent outdoor installation in a town not far from Turin. “I wanted to use this project as a sort of prototype for a way of thinking,” she said. Unable to visit the site in March as planned, Humeau focused her signature obsessive research on the Piedmont region from afar, familiarizing herself with local agricultural traditions, poetry and folklore. “To tell the truth,” said Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the head of the foundation, “I knew that she was an artist whose work is always very deep, very precise, but I was amazed by the scope of her research interests … from local soil to magical traditions through botanical science.”
Humeau envisions the piece, slated to open during the fall harvest, as a creation myth for the prehistoric origin of wine. Two sculptural grapevine deities — one male, one female — will stand at the center of a garden.
Given her fascination with primeval origin stories, Victorian oddities and radical futures, I asked Humeau where — or when — she would go if she could time travel. “I’m really happy to live now,” she said. “I feel like what we’re experiencing is quite special, in a very dark way.” The response was surprising and also exactly what one might expect of an artist whose imagination runs on mystery, and who prefers her riddles without answers.