Salad is sexy. So says Helen Marten in a faux-erudite text – covering topics ranging from culinary experiments to the Florida landscape, in a vivid discussion of the symbolism of ‘things’ – written to accompany her exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery (the first version of the show was at Kunsthalle Zurich last year, and the concluding iteration will be presented by CCS Bard in June). The young London-based artist noted that the show was ‘triggered by thinking about this idea of what happens to image when substance goes on a diet’. Titled ‘Plank Salad’, various consumables – from toiletries to Starbucks cups to seemingly perfect re-creations of donuts and a loaf of ciabatta – were combined with more surreal ‘silhouettes’ of furniture. Marten’s work is often discussed in terms of the digital realm, yet her amalgamations of image and object – where one becomes the other, objects as image, image as object – and their relationship to language often render ‘dimension’ irrelevant.
Marten’s work sits within a certain lineage that includes Isa Genzken’s architectural accumulations of pop-cultural ready-mades or Rachel Harrison’s combination of objects, images and handcrafted forms. Also relevant is Mark Leckey’s work on ‘Long Tail Theory’, which Marten’s writing recalls, in its collage of image and linguistic associations. Leckey’s 2009 performance-lecture Mark Leckey in the Long Tail conceived of the Internet as the site for a never-ending connection of minor associations via images while, more recently, he has discussed ‘techno-animism’, which he describes as the inanimate ‘coming to life’, as the objects around us begin to communicate.
Nicolas Bourriaud opened Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay (2002) – a book which likens post-production to certain strands of contemporary art practice – by suggesting that the passage from Marcel Duchamp’s ‘real’ to Jeff Koons’s ‘fake’ prefigures the ‘recycling’ and ‘remixing’ of existing objects and materials by artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Marten’s work can be thought of in this context to an extent, but it also forms part of a recent wave of work by younger artists – including Nicolas Deshayes, George Henry Longly, Jess Flood-Paddock, Pamela Rosenkranz and Anthea Hamilton, to name just a few – whose work combines the trajectory of readymade to sculptural assemblage with the flattened-out world of the digital age (and open-source material), as if the virtual world were re-made in three-dimensional ‘drag’.
A wall about a metre and a half from the entrance to the gallery created a long corridor in which multiple sculptures sat. Glistening donuts, embodying the essence of food-porn photography, were placed on a colourful keyboard-like bench, alongside a loaf of wholemeal bread and the titular Peanuts (all works 2012). It was impossible to ascertain whether or not they were real. Close by were a number of smaller sculptures, a little like wonky 1990s computer desks, with various things – pots of Biros and Nivea Cream – placed on or hanging off them.
The large space on the other side of the wall contained a number of wooden sculptures that mimicked dressing screens, alongside pastel images of a delightfully feminine Mozart – a kind of caricature, built from blocks of paint printed onto what looked like leather (actually ostrich fabric), while bottles of Ricard and Pernod hung on strings from the bottom. (Embarrassingly, I found myself Googling ‘Mozart’ and ‘drunk’ as I wrote this: the Urban Dictionary claims that ‘Mozart’ is slang for ‘drunk’, due to the fact he composed whilst intoxicated.) Marten herself describes this over-stylization as a form of ‘drunk’ cartoon dealing with a failed view of genius. Opposite these sculptures were multiple wall-mounted black iron chairs, that curled and coiled as if abstracted, silhouettes of the real thing (Traditional Teachers of English Grammar) – simultaneously snarling and flirting – from which hung suggestive clumps of car keys. On the floor lay a rectangle of planks made out of different shades of veneer – Falling Very Down (Low pH Chemist) – their edges bevelled to slope to the floor, with various tray-type items lying on top, seeming to ridicule Minimalist floor sculptures of the 1960s. The world Marten creates is enjoyably bizarre; the familiar is assembled and reformed, in a process of Alice in Wonderland-style haptic dissolution.