BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

In Focus: Helen Marten

A digital approach to sculpture and installation; physical comedy and the very recent past

BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 01 NOV 11

If Helen Marten were a scene from literature, it would be this: Alice, wondering whether cats eat bats or bats eat cats, discovers that the Cheshire Cat is, in fact, a reincarnation of Martin Kippenberger (she can tell by his preference for pasta and puns). 

Marten treats physical stuff the digital way: she drags and drops, compresses and unpacks, crashes and reboots. She’s obviously not the only one doing this, but she does it in a way that is as comfortable with sculpture as hammering or welding (although she actually does occasionally hammer and weld). Entering the London-based artist’s exhibition, ‘Take a Stick and Make it Sharp’, earlier this year at Johann König in Berlin felt like being dropped into Tron after a troll cluttered the movie with previously deleted data. You wandered around risking knocking into a gold-coloured American mailbox, which sprouted daisies and a little black cross, and was log-jammed with rolled-up envelopes (Home Grown, 2011). Sport socks were suspended from a wall-mounted pick-up-sticks of custom-welded steel tubes in shades of green and beige, like laundry hung out to dry by builders on bamboo scaffolding (Riggers, 2011).

'Take a Stick and Make it Sharp', installation view at Johann König, Berlin, 2011. Courtesy Johann König, Berlin; photograph: Roman März

You could go on elucidating the details and wordplay in the show but that would mean becoming entangled in convoluted descriptions, as experiencing Marten’s work is equivalent to finding folders full of stuff nestled into folders nestled into folders in your memory bank. Thisfeeling of being unable to retrieve and read data in a manageable way was expressed in tangible form on the gallery wall in the form of digitally printed wallpaper, the central element of which was a ‘wait’ cursor from an obsolete generationof Apple software – a black wristwatch – surrounded by blurry, vector-drawn steam-trainsand a Greek temple: the out-of-date ridiculed by the seriously antique (Some Civic Shades, 2011). The wristwatch symbol speaks to any viewer who, like me, always wonders if the time will come when they’ll get stuck and freeze – mouth open and saliva dripping like Patrick when SpongeBob asks him a question – on earlier cultural references and ways of inhabiting them. But then, this kind of recently outdated material is hot stuff for anyone wanting to understand how ideas and styles succeed one another – the genealogy of progress. Rustic’s Ransom (Peach, Pearl Grey, Clay) (2011) is a multi-punch-lined joke about this: three panels are mounted onto steel bars like a family crest of crossed swords, yet immersed neatly into each of their laser-cut surfaces of Corian (a synthetic material used for kitchen worktops) are Nokia mobile phones from earlier this century; they’re accompanied by a brick-sized piece of wood sprouting a delicate antenna-like twig. It’s like a Neanderthal ancestor of wireless communication.

Marten’s mostly silent burlesque inhabits not only the digital world but also earlier artificial environments such as, say, cartoons or Modernist interiors. The Advent of a World Class Economy (2009), for example, is a carved polystyrene figure of Tintin: Hergé’s comic book hero is slipping into his coat, as if he’s dashing off to catch a thief – but, frozen and white, he’s drained of all colour. However, beneath his feet is a rolled-up, rainbow-coloured piece of cloth; it’s as if he’s waiting to be dyed by Paintbrush software. Tintin wears airline teaspoons around his neck, which, along with the title, adds up to a straightforward pun on the treadmill tendencies the art world shares with other globalized economies. 

Dust and Piranhas, 2011, HD video still. Courtesy Johann König, Berlin, and T293, Naples

To understand the main thrust and sense of humour in Marten’s work, perhaps it’s enough to simply quote a list of the materials she uses. The medium of Truss Girls (2010), for example – a relief that was part of her 2010 solo debut at T293 in Naples – was listed as: ‘Waxed hardwoods (Beech, Iroko, Wenge, Sepili, Pine); dowel, custom-cut vinyl from pornographic “Erasmus Girl” font; vanilla-scented air-freshener; masonry nails.’ The ‘Erasmus Girl’ font is indeed composed of erotic dancer silhouettes of the kind usually used to advertise seedy bars, but applied en miniature to the sides of the decorative ‘waxed hardwood’ structure, they inevitably deflate any suggestion it could be a phallic triumph of neat carpentry – especially with a vanilla air-freshener dangling from it. 

Ultimately, Marten’s physical comedy is at the service of getting her (and our) heads around why the world we inhabit – its designs and styles – is, puzzlingly, the way it is. ‘I never have understood why wars are arranged and declared from marvellous white palaces set in the middle of green lawns,’ declares a female voice (quoting Ettore Sottsass) in the artist’s CGI animation Dust and Piranhas (2011). The film was commissioned and conceived in response to Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion: its main stars are two architectural columns, a white antique one with raised eyebrows and the ability to blush in many colours, and a wooden Postmodern one with Mickey Mouse hands. This odd couple seems to spring from architect Robert Venturi’s unorthodox views of vernacular living environments, yet catapulted into digital pop culture, including, for example, a rap – set to minimalist old-school beats – about ‘image lobotomy’, the strange persistence of ‘good taste’ and why you never see Hawaiian shirts with long sleeves. In fact, Marten’s work in general is a bit like good hip-hop: ready to twist and wrench and squeeze every single bit of its semantic material, milking it for rhythmic flow – and meaning.

Helen Marten lives and works in London, UK. She has recently had solo exhibitions at T293 Gallery, Naples, Italy, in 2010, and Johann König, Berlin, Germany, earlier this year. A screening of her new film Dust and Piranhas was presented at the Serpentine Pavilion, London, in September as part of the gallery’s ‘Park Nights’ series. Next year she will have solo exhibitions at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, and Kunsthalle Zurich, Switzerland.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.