‘Press Here’ is written in vinyl lettering beneath a blue button. The instruction – a less romantic rendition of Marcel Duchamp’s Prière de Toucher (Please Touch, 1947) – invites the visitor to become a participant in the first major survey of Daria Martin’s work in the UK. Pressing the button prompts a projector to throw light upon a small box-room of clinical dimensions, and to begin playing Sensorium Tests (2012), the title work of the exhibition, which is premiering at MK Gallery. The ten-minute, 16mm film relates to Martin’s ongoing research into mirror-touch synaesthesia, a recently discovered neurological condition that causes a kind of hyper-empathy with other people, and, in extreme cases, inanimate objects. A monotonous ‘left, right, left, right’ is reeled off by a seated woman – Mira (played beautifully by Anamaria Marinca against a cast of non-actors) – who has each of her cheeks touched by a lab technician while she watches another character touch the two sides of a corresponding object or person. Extreme close-ups of Mira are intercut with a perpendicular shot that makes the viewer feel like both the subject of her gaze and the removed eye that observes her behaviour from behind a one-way mirror.
The film is sensual – the searing blue backdrop matches Mira’s eyes, suggesting her enhanced neural activity – but not sensational, in that the action unfolds entirely within a medical environment. By emphasizing the mechanics of projection, Martin sets the dry tone of Sensorium Tests in contrast with the emotional hyperboles that we have come to expect from the cinema – a space architecturally designed for absorption. In the cinema, we can be seduced into susceptibility; indeed, nowhere is more difficult for the mirror-touch synaesthete, as Martin’s email exchange with several sufferers (published in the accompanying catalogue) makes clear. But these patients also recognize the possibility that, as one person wrote in a round-robin exchange, we might all ‘carry physical memories that can be evoked on a cellular level just as memories are evoked on a cognitive, linguistic, visual or aural level’.
Sensorium Tests is a film about the eye’s capacity to feel, how the mere sight of something can translate into physical sensation. In this respect it follows on from Soft Materials (2005), Martin’s earlier consideration of touch, which is shown here in an adjoining room. This film, which features first a naked man and then a woman, each performing a series of dances with robots developed at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich, is evocative of 1960s performance art, in particular the films of Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer. By turns erotic, tender and funny, Soft Materials plays off perceived notions of the ‘natural’, as we become lost in the feedback loop of a man mimicking a machine designed to respond with ‘sensitized bodily intelligence’ to his movement. The mood is more gothic and the setting more baroque in Harp Strings and Lava (2007), which retells the compulsive fantasy of a friend using motifs from Frankenstein, although the concern with sensuality remains strong. Both works feature the performer Nina Fog, a ‘collaborator-muse’ to Martin, whose performance gives these intellectually freighted films a compelling, enigmatic energy.
This exhibition brings together Martin’s ongoing experiments into how the mechanics of film can elicit a visceral response – on the physical, emotional and psychic levels – from an audience. In doing so, it situates her research in the context of a history of attempts to understand art’s capacity to affect, while demonstrating her own ability, in the words of Sergei Eisenstein, to calculate ‘the blow of the sensual billiard-cue on the spectator’s cerebral target’.