BY Helen Marten in Influences | 06 DEC 16
Featured in
Issue 155

Helen Marten: My Influences

The winner of the 2016 Turner Prize discusses skeuomorphism, skins and soup - from issue 155

BY Helen Marten in Influences | 06 DEC 16

Hoarding at King’s Cross Train Station, London. Photograph: Steve Fareham


There’s a huge piece of printed plastic hoarding currently clinging to the side entrance of London’s King’s Cross Station. The section closest to the commuter entrance is boldly marked with the station’s name: a large, uncomplicated white font on a glossy red background. Redevelopments are underway so, amidst the inevitable skywards infrastructure, there’s foot-to-ground activity happening everywhere. Approaching in a zig-zag from afar, sections of this signage disappear behind the fleshy chaos of pedestrian traffic, so it is possible that the only letters logged in a first conscious sighting of these words might be ‘K’ and ‘I’. Potassium Iodide.

In a freefall of further abstracted musings, it is also possible to imagine that all the fluorescent activity unfolding behind this hoarding is in fact coupled with a radiological disaster, coagulating all rail connections and spewing nuclear mucus into London soils. The only barrier of protection is this shiny red wall, with that steady ‘KI’ lettering offering reassurance of the salty prophylactics on hand. More interesting, and still more absurd in this context, are the gradient shadows that border both top and bottom of the hoarding, alongside giant airbrushed discs that appear at rhythmic intervals across the entire length. It’s graphic approximation on a huge scale: this red length is an I-beam, the discs are rivets, and those horizontal shadows markers of the scooped areas of space between the two steel flanges. As flattened moments of abc geometry, this almost-pictogram is hard to read in zoomed-in focus; only moving backwards do all the individual flatnesses align more three-dimensionally. It’s a beautiful skeuomorphic thing, this enormously long and impossibly tall I-beam. There’s a great conflation of information as material, a laminated rearrangement of that assumed magical tie between a word and a thing. The hoarding is probably plastic and attached quickly to wooden upright posts; these rivets are bigger than a face, and completely without materiality beyond their emulation of a structural function that we recognize. It’s a series of trails, a type of comic approximation that grants imaginative license to the deciphering of all other nearby things. Translation is gorgeously wonky, but very simple too. Like the shutter-click on a camera phone, the mechanical integrity is synthetic but safe. So there’s a doubly joyous moment in imagining a plastic briefcase passing by, itself stippled with dots of imitation leather grain; it’s all part of our wonder of the atomic and everything looks good in nuclear light. 

George Herriman, illustration from Krazy Kat, c.1930s. Courtesy: Yoe Studio


The line of the cartoon activates substance beyond conventionally plausible limits. Hergé, Walt Disney, George Herriman and Kitagawa Utamaro all understood the complexity, but ultimate economy, of the hand-drawn mark. The mode of caricature is that of transposing, of moving substance, attitude and form from one very physical world to another governed only by a loose relationship to reality. In moving cartoons, the inorganic often becomes uncontrollably and beautifully plasmatized: a head might be a bottle that unscrews and pours liquid into the volume left by its own self-decapitation; knees loop into figure-of-eight knots that in turn mesh into the chain links of a necklace; things disappear, melt, blur and morph with all the plasticity of wax. Images are made wonderfully elastic, but a complexly volumed shape can be described and solidified with a few encircling marks or flicks or a line. Like the tongue on fragrant consumables, one fleeting instant of immersion is enough to furnish full-bodied sensation. The beauty of the cartoon line is that it seeks to enclose, but – either static or in animation – it is a line that can also waver.

Japanese woodblocks condense all the knottiness of woodland or the visceral stickiness of sex into a singular plane. The line of a body sums up parts, but still gives life to the contours, to the flesh and the shadows. It is connotation rather than pure description, but the emotive snags somehow remain intact. And to further confuse dimensionality, the asymmetric bow of a signature is often tucked near the edges of the page. As dispersible units, the spatial composition of a cartoon cel might be something diagrammatic. All figures in space are defined precisely through intersection by a plane of material, by their outlines or the corresponding matter of another dimension; in a cartoon landscape you can cut a square from a cube, or a circle from a sphere.

Marks can be thick, blank and dumb, puffed-up and Napoleonic in attitude, or they can skitter into sinewy scribbles, exclamations of pace, excitement or nerviness. The cartoon is a paradox of a thing, defiantly promoting substance, but jellied by an impossibility to spring off the page. Animals, vegetables, fur, machines or light are afforded equal status, liberated by the idea that a drawn clock is quite simply the graphic division of a circle by lines and so a hierarchy of time can never admonish the marks asserted by the draughtsman. Slogans and polemics are condensed into graphic inflections, so language is allowed to puddle into a series of fast-paced images that rush, continually leaving themselves behind. Smoke and fire are repeated motifs of the Fleischer Brothers, with the comic steam engine panting from heat, or the erotically mischievous candle flame anthropomorphized into a miniature but quick-footed body that refuses to be extinguished. Complex psychological anxieties are cooled beneath outings of slapstick impossibility. A hapless character may run in panic off the face of a cliff and hang suspended over a gaping void, only to fall once cognitive dissidence is overshadowed by retinal certainty and the falling is verified by the eyes looking down.

Photograph: Helen Marten


In all its engineered shapes, colours, flats and corrugations, pasta is one of the most fabulously playful dishes. To sit consuming a bowlful of spaghetti is to be brought face-on with material floppiness, with squiggle, softness and swelling. Pasta is architectural, monumental but also absurd. The idea of alphabet noodles in soup is amazingly provocative: think of little un-tethered limbs of vowels, bridged hs and swooping cs forming unscripted and glutinous sentences as they swim down the colon towards the bowels and further excretory punctuations.

The outlines of food are important; it’s spectacular to photograph. Soup is an undulating blobby weight, a foamy liquid volume that happily caresses the sides of any container it might encounter. But it is also prone to splashed dribbles and to pierce it with a fork is impossibile. Where soup becomes spooky is in imagining its hidden layers – what information has been dimensionally compromised, flat-packed, blended into uniform beige. Vegetables with upright responsibilities, with discernible, touchable outlines, are ushered into a state where image staggers to a near full stop. Any chopping, decorating, storing, edifying impulses are stripped out, clouded over by matter only to be guessed at. The colour spectrum flits, at most lurid, to a milky orange or dirty red but hovers mostly around a safely indiscriminate band of mud greens and beiges. In liquid form there is mystery! Like the illusionist’s puff of smoke or the compression of a zipped file, the information is hidden away, made discrete and repackaged.

Where soup is clouded and molecules band together, salad is described as ‘strong’ because it is raw. It has a visual nakedness, so promises an event. Crudités are also raw: the beginnings of a larger meal – they are tasters, appetite whetters, place holders. A young salad – that modestly glistening baby plate – is the opening chime in a much longer staggering rhythm of dishes. And linguistically, there is crudeness in there too: overtly sexy matter. What is bared is nude, un-blanched, not cooked. So maybe salad is sexy, too! Where soup implies unknown depths, salad speaks multidimensional eroticisms, a curling, flicking sexiness! Lacquered in dressing, or eaten unadorned, placing salad on a plate can be a deliberately stylized ritual, an action of overwrought composition – it is a wonderfully formalized manicuring of nature: an impromptu hairdo! As a mix, salad can be self-possessed, authoritative and unabashed with equal conviction. It comes in a bag, in a box, from the earth! These greens are leafy, crisp and defined; they have complex shadows, typographic curlicues, hairs, veins, definition.

But the outlines of an object frustrate too; in soup there is liberation and with amorphous looseness, all usual written limits are overridden. The envelope – that packaging of ‘image’ – meets geometric impossibility in the form of soupy sludge. Soup is the formalness of salad denatured, quiet (but not at a loss) and condensed. From soup, there is the marvelous idea that we could recombine, re-texture … conjure a Frankenstein resurrection of something with more shape and shadows! To blend is to physically destroy all pictures, all geometric certainties and thus to start anew with possibility, with a sexy kind of ambiguousness. As with liquid, with snot or goo – ambiguous mashes – shapes are destroyed, but given freedom to pan out, to ebb and to gel. Density is re-plotted and skin defiantly overridden but invited into new constellations.

Paul Cézanne, Still life with Apples, 1890, oil on canvas, 35 × 46 cm. Courtesy: Hermitage, St. Petersburg / The Bridgeman Art Library


I recently saw a shop window display mortified with hungover Christmas jolliness by a barrier of spray-on snow frosting that ran across the bottom of the glass frontage like a declarative refusal to abandon seasonal cheer. On the other side of the glass an assortment of palm-sized pinecones sat among a mismatched collection of red and blue baubles; nothing of the assortment suggested placement beyond sporadic and chance-mediated scattering. The whole arrangement was buffered on a much-folded wodge of some kind of white fleece material – not frothy enough to look like cappuccino foam, and too singularly rigid to pass for snow. This little still life struck me not only for the speed of its assemblage, but also for the beautifully silent posture that the ambiguous white backdrop afforded all the individual elements.

It’s easy to imagine that what whiteness does to form is to activate it as sexy, as seductive, or performative. Things look good ordered on melamine shelves or made static in catalogues. A fake mango isolated against white in my studio is both the foodstuff it approximates, but also a gorgeously swollen bulge that moves from dusty yellow to a squiggle of poisonous green. We’re always approximating flatness, but it’s a perfect flatness just beyond our powers of patience to reach. Think of all those products designed with future photographs in mind, all the dressing up, the tarty colours or the pointless rounded edges. On a very basic level, our optical relationships to a product might only be about style and skin. The eyeball invests cognitive energies, painting surfaces and weights to make stuff visible, but I love the game that our brains play, find perverse pleasure in undoing all this – unveiling the treacheries, deciphering all the seams and naming the points of error. We see a package, and there’s desperation to hold it or unwrap it. Think of the sexiness of a can, all that excellent workmanship breathing atop carbonated gloopiness: imagine the pang to throw such a thing away. There is outrage in the highly polished surface of the rough edge and the skin is millimetres thick, but still maintains volumetric integrity so there is a perfect balance of barrier and opportunity.

Paul Cézanne spent a lifetime trying to paint around the skin edge of an apple, but in doing so, also catalogued meticulous interest in weight, form and density. His images are unashamedly and knottily visceral. In our current world of retinal impatience, simulacra are everything. Within the digital, there is mechanized instinct so the physicality or surface frictions of images are confused: we must apply our own emotions, assert temperatures and navigate momentums. Information is delivered at breakneck speed (we should wear a helmet!) but it is always contained within the same plane of focus. So there is something spooky about the idea of a dislocated, real-life hand tracing around untouchable matter in order to generate content. We spend many thousands of hours poring over images, investing speculative thought or shunting observation to more disinterested peripheries. So perhaps desperation lies in continually trying to claw around the edges, to peep behind the screen and see the entrails.

Helen Marten lives and works in London, UK. In 2013, she will have solo shows at the Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, USA; and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Her work will also be included in ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, 55th Venice Biennale, Italy; the Lyon Biennale, 2013, France; and the 59th Oberhausen International Film Festival, Germany. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Plank Salad’, at Chisenhale Gallery, London; ‘Evian Disease’, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France; and ‘Almost the Exact Shape of Florida’, Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland, all in 2012; ‘Take a stick and make it sharp’, Johann König, Berlin, Germany; and ‘Dust and Piranhas’, Park Night Project, Serpentine Gallery, London, both in 2011.

Helen Marten is an artist and writer based in London, UK. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (2018); König Galerie, Berlin, Germany (2018); and Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2019). She is currently working on a novel.