Marguerite Humeau: Echoes at Tate Britain

Life and death: two things that we as humans think about on a daily basis. This dichotomy of forces also happens to be the subject of exploration and inspiration for Marguerite Humeau’s latest exhibition, currently on show at the Tate Britain. ‘Echoes’ completely transforms the gallery into an enchanting space that resembles a laboratory and an ancient Egyptian temple simultaneously. Visitors are invited into a visual journey to explore the scientific research mapping modern life.

The gallery is brightly lit with lights bouncing wildly off of the vibrantly painted walls, encapsulating viewers in a hot blaze of yellow. Yellow generally symbolises sunshine, hope and happiness but it has conflicting associations. On one hand, it stands for freshness, positivity and enlightenment, but on the other hand, it can represent sickness and deceit. In this instance, the shade of yellow coating the room, and almost everything in it, is derived from the colour of the powerful venom of the black mamba snake. The sculptures around the room contain fluids that also embody poisons, and cures. In fact, the paint that has been used to colour the walls has been mixed with 2 grams of Black Mamba venom.

If yellow is overused, it can have a disturbing effect. It has been proven that babies cry more in rooms painted yellow and it can cause people to become critical and demanding. However, too little yellow can trigger feelings of fear and isolation, causing one to become possessive and defensive. To ancient Egyptians, yellow symbolised items that were imperishable, eternal and indestructible, it was also worn to signify the dead.

The sculptures featured are inspired by the ancient Egyptian goddesses and sacred animals, taking their names from Wadjet, the protector of the king and women in childbirth, who was represented as a cobra, and Taweret, the protector of fertility, depicted as a woman with a hippopotamus head and a crocodile tail. Some ancient Egyptian carvings show Wadjet with her head through an ankh, and another where she precedes a Horus hawk wearing the couple crown of united Eygpt, representing the pharaoh whom she protects.

Ancient Egyptians first witnessed the hippopotamus in the Nile well before the dawn of the Early Dynastic period and concluded that male hippopotami were the manifestations of chaos, and that female hippopotami were manifestations of apotropaic deities, as they fiercely protected their young from harm. During Humeau’s research, she discovered that hippopotamus milk contains natural antibiotics and alligator blood is resistant to many viruses, including HIV. For this exhibition Humeau draws on the power of these natural ‘super fluids’, pumping liquids, that include alligator blood sourced from Australia, hippopotamus milk sourced from a Taiwanese zoo, Black Mamba and King Cobra venom sourced from Florida, across the gallery through a series of tubes connecting to the sculptures and large barrel containers, to create a substance that has the potential to heal any disease.

While viewers are mesmerised by the modern day ‘temple-lab’ they are also being subconsciously hypnotised by the echoing sounds of the ancient Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. Produced in collaboration with historical experts and translators, Cleopatra’s voice has been resurrected and sings a lovesong from her era in the nine different languages that she spoke, including Median, Arabic and Persian.

Cleopatra accomplished much in her lifetime and her reign and she has continued to be an iconic figure in history. However, after a naval defeat in 30 BC, when Cleopatra learned that Octavian planned to have her bought to Rome for his triumphal procession, she took her own life. Octavian was said to have been angered by her suicide but still had her buried in royal fashion next to Anthony in her tomb. Although her physician did not give a clear account of the cause of her death, it is popular belief that she allowed an asp, or Egyptian cobra, to bite and poison her. Although no venomous snake was found near her body, she was found with tiny puncture wounds on her arm.

‘Echoes’ is a stunning and mesmerising exhibition that fully immerses those who visit it into a world that merges ancient history and wisdom with modern science. Ancient Egypt is brought forward to the present day in the most beautiful and intriguing fashion, exploring myths and the desire for immortality, despite its possible dangers. Humeau creates an experience that expresses scientific knowledge alongside elements of storytelling and imagination, perhaps causing viewers to reflect on their own future as hybrid creatures.

"Echoes" by Marguerite Humeau is on show at Tate Britain until 15th April.  More information may be found here.