BY Brian Dillon in Frieze | 10 SEP 20

Helen Marten’s Intimate Affinities

The artist’s first novel proceeds by image and incantation rather than much in the way of explicit plot

BY Brian Dillon in Frieze | 10 SEP 20

In 1935, Gertrude Stein declared in ‘Poetry and Grammar’: ‘I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.’ The rigorous thrill of sketching grammar’s architecture, the satisfactions of seeing where syntax may lead us, the sense of sense resolving, or not: this tricky prose kick is also present in the sculptures and screen prints of Helen Marten. Where the artist has spoken of her works as diagrams – maps of relation between exotic and mundane objects, luxe and grubby materials, attending ideas – I’ve always thought of them instead as sentences. Especially slippery sentences that slide through the mind and bear much pleasurable repeating before they will make known their meanings. In a ‘Lexicon’ for the catalogue of Drunk Brown House, her 2016 show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Marten wrote in an entry on cartoons: ‘The whole grammar is geared towards a state of physical change and material sensation.’

A cartoon scuffle between form and feeling: this might be one way to describe Marten’s extraordinary novel, The Boiled in Between – out next week from Prototype Publishing. There are the rubbery outlines of a story, or at least a setting. Two middle-aged characters, Ethan and Patrice, living in a frustrated, mangy suburbia, fixating on their queasy erotic and alimentary lives, the vagaries of weather and crumbling architecture, the habits of their neighbours. Overseeing all of this is the protean, immaterial ‘Messrs.’ They are a pair (or is it a legion?) of sentient, knowing atmospheres whose voices interrupt the monologues of Patrice and Ethan to comment on the characters and their universe. ‘We look down on these awful people and their endless capacity for enhancement.’ Each time they appear, the Messrs. are displaced and renamed: ‘Messrs. External &’ some new state or quality: Crumbly, Melancholy, Weary, Yellow, Peaty, Sorry. The life they observe, say the Messrs., is ‘Something like a syntactical form of mitosis, with each article of speech, each pulling of the bathroom plug, each lunch and breakfast in bed, all of it only a comma in the great future run-on unfolding.’

Helen Marten, The Boiled in Between, 2020. Courtesy: Prototype
Helen Marten, The Boiled in Between, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Prototype

Language and body, in other words, are intimately involved, sentences branching and cells dividing. Impossible to quote Marten writing about sex, violence, food, age or decay without noting how much work the texture and rhythm of her prose are doing. The Boiled in Between is a novel that proceeds by image and incantation rather than much in the way of explicit plot. Here is Ethan: ‘Well what is a body anyway, when framed in words? A dough trough? A collapsing figure for poking and kneading? For baking, for burning, for pulling apart like a hot-pocketed roll?’ And Patrice: ‘I hoped for cosy berries in flabby tides of cream. The soft smell of new strained cheese.’ Elsewhere, a world of extreme violence is broached by an italicized news report: ‘a sixteen-year-old who, after throwing her newborn into a fast-flowing river, jumped in herself with a sack of stones around her neck; the outdated car-making machinery in a Mississippi factory tore the thigh and collarbone clean off one of the company’s longest serving employees.’

Marten’s sculpture also conjures a kind of machinery, sometimes sinister, frequently playful, always mysterious. Hers is an art in ambiguous love with objects and substances, which are complexly tesselated but also self-involved, singularly seductive or repellent in their own right. The stoniness of stone, the laciness of lace: these seem resolutely themselves, and also as if they might at any moment transmute, recombine, regenerate as anything else. So, too, in The Boiled in Between, where matter and things can appear more lively protagonists than Ethan and Patrice. Marten’s attention to textures is the book’s chief strangeness and achievement. Here is a novel in which a loaf of bread is ‘one of those loaves so heaped with sugar it could already be fifty years old, baked up with flory moths and pubic hair.’ In which the description of a humble garden sprinkler requires a page of infinitesimal, estranging detail: ‘Strung with tensile integrity cells amongst a web of slender tendons there is a complex network of pipes.’

Helen Marten, The Boiled Between, 2020. Courtesy: Prototype
Helen Marten, The Boiled Between, 2020. Courtesy: Prototype

To what purpose, all these oddities? The Boiled in Between starts with an epigraph from Bertolt Brecht’s Svendborg Poems (1939): ‘In the dark times / Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.’ The bright enigmas of Marten’s prose, like those of her sculpture, can easily be interpreted as merely formal or simply curious, as teeming celebrations of matter and movement. But, as with her art, there is a kind of wild critique at work here of the madness of production, the ubiquity of environmental neglect. The Boiled in Between is in pursuit of the most intimate affinities between bodies, earth, atmospheres, images and commodities – this is a book that will not let us forget that it is all one bruised mass of becoming, about to wink out at last.

Main image: Helen Marten, ‘Drunk Brown House’, 2016, exhibition view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London. Courtesy: Serpentine Galleries; photograph: © Annik Wetter 

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.