Sculptor and video artist Helen Marten (b.1985) described her work in Interview Magazine as ‘exploring what it means to be a tribal human preoccupied with the status of toothpaste, the floppiness of pasta, eroticism of rubbish, or tedium of hair’. Such whimsical descriptions and uncanny oppositions were very much present in the two works screened at the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art on 9th February 2016.
Both Evian Disease (2012) and Orchids, or hemispherical bottom (2013) are set in interior living spaces, populated by the objects of everyday life, from toy boats, to paperclips, to blueberries on a kitchen counter top. Evian Disease begins as a tour around an apartment; the digital imagery materialises as if captured by a camera moving through space. The edges and surface of various objects are examined in exhaustive, almost excessive, detail in both films. Rotated and displayed from multiple angles, each object is made to stand out against the otherwise banal living space. The objects are presented and replaced at a steady pace, with little clear connection between one thing and the next. Yet not a single one appears more or less important in the sequence, but rather a steady multiplicity of interchangeable things.
In both films the animation is also slick, shiny and almost bluntly digital, reinforcing the artificiality what is being shown. ‘Weightless’ is the way Marten has described her video work; there is no context to ground the transformation of a billiard table into sea or the appearance of a cat’s tale through a gap in a wall. Such unexpected transformations, apparently free from any rational connection, do suggest an influence of Surrealism. There is here a temptation, as viewers, to try to infer a pattern from the flow of digitally sculpted mass-produced forms. Marten also complicates this by occasionally inserting something natural, like a flower, amongst the artificial items or by lingering for a moment to observe something transform, such as meat rotting slowly on a billiard table.
In Orchids, or hemispherical bottom many of the objects morph into one another in bizarre and interesting ways. For example, a spoon congeals into the face that was reflected in it, and 2D faces that are drawn onto a surface by a crayon, are then wrapped up by a rolling pin. A perceptively pretentious voiceover accompanies the flow of images in each film, but what is said does not refer to or describe what it shown. Rather the multiplicity of objects is matched by disconnected words and phrases that tumble over one another in a stream of nonsense. Due to this separation between what is said and what is shown, it is a struggle to process and make sense of the overload of visual and oral information. Lest the viewer become accustomed to this discord Marten occasionally makes a word correspond to an image shown. This dovetailing, amidst the stream of mismatched images and sounds, is paradoxically jarring. Likewise, the odd phrase from the voiceover seems almost self-reflective. For example, towards the beginning of Orchids the voiceover inquires, “I suppose I couldn’t say whether this diagram of stuff is generative or corrupting”. With such statements Marten plays with the possibility that the films are in a bizarre way being narrated.
The response to the screenings from the audience was mixed. Certain images and transformations were praised while other images, such as the intervention of a hand into the frame of Orchids provoked different interpretations. Several participants were puzzled by the choice of narrator in this work particularly, whose voice and performance seemed deliberately grating. The overall challenge posed to Marten’s films, however, was to what extend they were distinct from the work of other video artists who play with similar themes of materiality and consumerism and who use a comparable style of digital animation.