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Art Exhibition Review: Marguerite Humeau and Otobong Nkanga at Nottingham Contemporary

1 January 17 words: Ruby Butcher

This stunning and immersive two-part exhibition presents work from Antwerp-based Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga with her first solo exhibition in the UK, alongside work from London-based French artist Marguerite Humeau.

Otobong Nkanga, The Encounter That Took a Part of Me, 2016. Installation view, Nottingham Contemporary. Photos: Stuart Whipps

We start our journey through the gallery with Otobong Nkanga. Inside Gallery 1 where A Taste of Stone is being exhibited, Nkanga has created a Zen rock garden; bleach-white tumble stones cover the floor and melt into the white walls giving the illusion of endless space. Dotted around the room are large, deep red and sandy-coloured rocks, plant life growing at their base, striking in their colour against the white landscape. My initial feeling on entering was one of confrontation, but also calmness. It catches you off guard. One moment you are idly strolling through the gallery shop and the next your senses are hurdled into unfamiliar tranquillity and stillness, shifting your perspective from the mundane and stressful day-to-day, into one of peaceful observation.

Much like the Buddhist Zen rock gardens of Japan, it is a space that people can react to in contemplation or meditation. However, unlike the traditional rock gardens, it’s not just to be looked at but used. In essence, the visitors to the space become part of the art. Nkanga has given the idea of a traditional Zen garden a push into the contemporary art realm. Over the duration of the exhibition she has invited local musicians, dancers and storytellers to take inspiration from, and perform within, the space.

What is interesting about Nkanga’s work is the fact that it is site-specific. She creates her work around the spaces she has been presented with, connecting her artwork with the room in a more natural way. Moving along to Gallery 2, exhibiting The Encounter That Took A Part Of Me, and a huge wall painting and a digitised tapestry dominate the room. We see earthy reds and deep coppers against cold blues and greys, an explosion of colour in comparison to the previous room. What these colours appear to represent is natural elements such as rock and mud, next to manmade compounds like metals. In the centre of the room, Nkanga also explores the idea of rusting and decay; the objects here are ever-changing during the course of their display, each being exposed to respective environments, so these objects might look very different by the end of the exhibition’s run.

Marguerite Humeau’s exhibition begins in the foyer. Shop-front-style neon white letters read FOXP2 - the name of the mutant gene that developed in humans, allowing us to create sentient language, and thus making us earth’s dominant species. Enter Gallery 3, and you find yourself in a dark black corridor inhabited by a chorus of unsettling noises surfacing from the walls. Put your ears to the walls and you can hear the voices in somewhat distressing, gory detail. The artist explains these odd sounds as a choir of 108 billion voices that intend to recreate the moment our ancestors obtained the FOXP2 gene.

Emerging at the other end of the corridor and into Gallery 4, we have entered a parallel world. Again, we see the artist toying with the idea of evolution, but more specifically what it might look like if another animal were to have developed language the way humans did. Huge, white, elephant-like sculptures, almost deliquescent in their smoothness, occupy the room as well as Humeau’s dystopian vision.

These creatures all have their own names. Seriously, ask one of the gallery assistants. And their different forms all represent their unique personalities in response to mourning the death of Echo; Echo is the elephant helplessly lying on her back in the window, dying on a 24-hour loop and quite hauntingly displayed for all to see. Every now and then, the focus in the room will switch with a flash of a light and the rumbling cries of the elephants - a sound not far off from an air raid siren. The emotion of this mourning is always present. One of the elephants is so distraught that it spends all day crying and getting drunk (you’ll have to see it to understand).

Humeau’s background in design is highly present in her exhibition. The sickly pink colour on the carpet is the artist's own concoction called ‘Liquid Human’ and is made up of colours that represent each compound making up the human body, along with a compound of poison. This image of life without humans as we know them is ironically in a setting that is glaringly similar to that of a shop display, a human concept. Attention to detail like this is what makes this art so admirable, but the focus on the design is what makes it so accessible. The minimal white, washed-bubblegum-pink colour palette, and nod towards visual merchandising, make it a dream for an Instagram post, but if you spend enough time looking and asking questions, you will learn about the incredible depth of this piece.

The exhibition, as a whole, is some of the best work I’ve seen at the Contemporary. You cannot simply pass through and see it completely, like you would a static sculpture, painting or photograph. The work from each artist lives, moves and changes through time. The more you visit, the more you will get to experience.

Marguerite Humeau’s FOXP2 and Otobong Nkanga’s The Encounter That Took a Part of Me and A Taste of Stone is being exhibited at Nottingham Contemporary until Sunday 15 January 2017

Nottingham Contemporary website

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