in Features | 02 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Here's Looking at You

From Andy Warhol to Memphis furniture and Photorealism, Simon Martin questions art’s relationship to its context

in Features | 02 MAR 08

Carlton (2006), film still

In a corner of Simon Martin’s studio, amidst a number of other cultural totems, sits Andy Warhol. He’s waiting to star in a film by Martin called A for Andy, but Andy doesn’t know when the shoot will commence. He can’t recall whether Martin wanted him here in London or in Manhattan. Perhaps it was Milan. Andy’s not sure. Andy’s not really himself at the moment. Andy, you see, is a Pinocchio-sized replica of his late self: pasty complexion, white wig, big glasses, black polo-neck and skinny jeans ending in spotless Reeboks. A papier-mâché mini-Andy: blank ‘Oh gee’ expression and everything.

Martin would like mini-Andy to sit in the back of a Mercedes limousine sailing through central London. It will be dark outside, with late-night shopping and busy pubs emptying into the small hours. The limo’s black paintwork will be so polished that it camouflages itself with reflection – sodium street-light necklaces slip and slide along the length of the vehicle. As the Merc whispers through Canary Wharf, the City, Soho and Mayfair, Martin will show us images of the perfume counters in Selfridges department store: shots of thick-cut glass bottles filled with fragrances by Chanel, Guerlain, Calvin Klein and Stella McCartney, stacked, racked, spot-lit and under-lit in infinitely luxurious arrangements of desire and exclusivity. Andy’s car will pass fast-food outlets and chic restaurants, zinc-clad bars and blond-wood chain pubs. It will cruise along flyovers and through tunnels, past glass office blocks, global-brand flagship stores, civic buildings, penthouse property developments. Rows of Oxford Street shopfronts will salute him – those Selfridges perfumes gathered in the sumptuous throne rooms of its windows. Music can be heard too: a soundtrack as disembodied and synthetic as mini-Andy, or perhaps perfume. Think mid-1980s. Think ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins, or ‘Crockett’s Theme’ from Miami Vice – immaculately emotive, propulsive and pristine.

For the time being, however, Andy remains sat in Martin’s studio. The film is a work in progress, currently incarnated as an unlimited edition print that exactly reproduces the original inspiration for the work – a poster giveaway Chanel issued in the late 1990s for their outlets and concession stands, and which used a Warhol image of their famous No.5 fragrance. I ask Martin about this poster, about his plan to reclaim the high-society Andy of those last, great self-portraits and remake him as a voodoo doll haunting the visually hyper-literate landscape Warhol predicted we would inhabit. He quotes The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975): ‘“Another way to take up space is with perfume.” I was thinking of him as an intermittent signal,’ says Martin. ‘Somehow faded though not fully lost from view. I was interested in how he has been internalized by us. Much like Jasper Johns described Marcel Duchamp as having “changed the condition of being here”. I wanted Andy’s presence in the film to be slight, fleeting.’1 Like perfume.

Martin detects Warhol’s faint aroma hanging less around blockbuster exhibitions, or memories of summer 1986 and that last show at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, than in the city air – a tang permeating today’s mutating sensibilities of consumption, from art to Big Brother and back again. It’s in museum gift shops and the evolution of the word ‘creative’ from adjective to job title. In the rate at which designer fashion collections are copied by Topshop and the way expensive apartments are marketed as promising an ‘urban’, ‘edgy’ living experience. In the soggy legacy of Appropriation art and those guilty moments of relativist ennui that make one suspect that The Sopranos is more interesting than most video art. It’s in YouTube clips, e-flux announcements, iPhones, Internet shopping and articles about Banksy in The Evening Standard. In the way that celebrities are referred to by their first names rather than their surnames – Amy, Britney, Damien, Tracey – and the way Warhol’s always called ‘Andy’ and Duchamp never ‘Marcel’. It’s the synergistic smell of capital, convenience and the promise of better living through cultural acquisition.

But if that’s how it smells, what does this landscape look like? What is it made from? ‘A generalized environment of quote, reference and approximation, a place of perpetual refurbishment and all-purpose vernacular’, according to Martin’s film essay Carlton (2006). Its subject is the Carlton shelving unit, produced in 1981 by the design group Memphis. Founded by the late Ettore Sottsass, Memphis brought a Postmodern irreverence to the world of industrial and product design and was, as Carlton’s female narrator tells us, ‘an attempt to radicalize our understanding of materials and meaning, to bring our attention to the equivalence between inlaid mother-of-pearl and cheap Formica, cheap coloured light bulbs and expensive marble’. Martin’s thesis is that the equivocal, pick ‘n’ mix example set by Memphis – embodied in Carlton’s multicoloured laminate surfaces and distinctive totemic form – has played out into the present in the form of ‘a mutated Postmodern gene’: the ‘chrome, plastic wood, real wood, Perspex and cast-concrete flagstones’ that can be found everywhere ‘from a cocktail bar in Liverpool […] to a car showroom in Cape Town’.

In the space of little over eight minutes Martin spins Carlton into play as a cipher for how objects accrue emotional baggage – how radical aesthetics evolve into the popular décor of daily life. As his camera tracks hypnotically across Carlton’s struts and wedges, the film’s softly authoritative voice-over moves from the origins of Memphis to big-picture ruminations on how 30-odd years of Postmodern relativism may have affected the look of ‘today’. We see the unit stood in sepulchral gloom, crowned by a small halo of light behind its head. (The shot is based on a famous photograph of Carlton, a composition Martin rarely disturbs with 360-degree movement around the shelves, as though to suggest that this piece of furniture is to be remembered as much as an image – or an idea of the object – as a physical thing.) We are told near Carlton’s end that ‘Nobody knows exactly when “today” actually happened. Maybe “today” occurred with the closure of Andy Warhol’s Factory, or with the growth in the secondary market for avant-garde furniture […] Perhaps it is the point when one notices elderly people eating in McDonald’s for the first time or realize that you know the lyrics to “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys by heart.’

Carlton makes its case with such elegant, nimble rhetoric as to leave you with the feeling that you’ve been run through with a razor-sharp sushi knife some time during its screening but only noticed the blood on your shirt as you ordered your lunch in Wagamama afterwards. And there you sit – at a wood-and-laminate table in an Asian-fusion café, a copy of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1979) in one hand and imported Japanese beer in the other – reflecting on how we could answer the kinds of questions Carlton asks, such as: ‘Can one observe latent revolutionary content in a construction of wood and laminate?’ You may worry about the implications this has for making art but comfort yourself with the memory of someone telling you that ‘a good image is always a social moment’.2 You may wish there was a place to meditate undisturbed on how cultural history foxes the materiality, surface and volume of art works or design objects and leaves them to weather in the great big vernacular outdoors. You wonder whether this would even be a useful thing to do.

Martin asks himself this in another film, Wednesday Afternoon (2005). Its narrator – male, with a mid-Atlantic twang – tells of his fascination with the theatre and ambience of museums. He speaks of wanting to ‘capture the magic of wandering around, looking at people and things’ but ‘without altering what is there or anything that might happen’. Filmed in the Victoria & Albert and British Museums in London, shots of African sculptures, Egyptian mummies, medieval gargoyles, stuffed monkeys, Classical statuary, marble horse heads, fat Staffordshire ceramic children and busts of Regency courtiers stare back at us. (Totems and faces watch us throughout Martin’s work; even the Carlton shelf looks as though it’s topped by a squat, schematic figure.) He describes slowing down ‘to the pace of guards’ in order to sense better the distractions nagging at the edges of the displays – ‘the semiotics of tourist leisurewear’ and ‘people moving against the immovability of objects’. Yet he is disappointed with his attempts to pin down the experience: ‘I wrote a lot of high-minded prose about the demographic of the museum visitor, but most of it was turgid, phoney and ended up in the bin.’

Wednesday Afternoon performs a neat switcheroo by embedding within its self-deprecatory monologue reasons why such over-earnest institutional critiquing might fail. Chris Marker’s documentary fantasia Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983) is invoked – in particular, a sequence depicting the Tokyo subway during which the city is described as a vast musical score that can’t be pulled apart for analysis note by note. As Wednesday Afternoon returns our gaze with each successive smiling sculpted head or startled stuffed animal, the act of looking soon starts to seem like a vortex of association, aspiration and ideology projected onto the ‘endless amounts of stuff pressing into the moment’. Like Louise Lawler, whose photographs depict the shadow life of art works – in half-unpacked crates, in a collector’s home next to the Ming vase and designer armchair – Martin is interested not just in the object but also the floor on which it sits and the shoes of the person looking at it. Take, for instance, an untitled sculpture he made in 2007, comprising a bronze African figurine placed next to a real, organic lemon.

Untitled (2007), bronze and organic lemon

At this stage it would be only natural to wonder – given Martin’s preoccupation with how art’s relationship to context calls into question the value of making it in the first place – just what kind of objects he himself might choose to create. Conceived as a desk sculpture, Untitled is considered incomplete if merely the African bronze is on display, if the lemon sits on its own or is rotten. The work exists in the relationship between figurine, fruit and you. Its terms of display stipulate that the lemon must be fresh, and so it needs replacing every week or two: a regular reminder of the sculpture’s presence in your daily life. Despite its modesty as an object for the home or office, and (no thanks to Primitivism) the faintly disquieting generic anonymity of the bronze, it flatly refuses to recede into the background. It will not let over-familiarity turn it from solid object into a decorous image or half-noticed ghost of itself. The size of the lemon will change. Its position next to the bronze may alter. And so, unlike the Carlton shelf, its materiality will not evanesce into the spirit-world of ideas. As faintly absurd as Untitled sounds, it is a work made in opposition to equivocality and asks something quite serious: might there be other ways of seeing, of brokering our relationship to objects, without recourse to the conventional rubrics of white-cube display or now-familiar strategies of post-Conceptual work? (Expanding on Untitled, Martin is currently producing Lemons and Statues (2008), a film that juxtaposes Sicilian lemon groves heavy with their crop against shots of artefacts in an ethnographic museum: natural cycles of growth and nurture, a harvest of souvenirs shipped far from their natural habitats of use and value.)

Martin is attentive to detail: the associations an accent may carry in a voice-over, for instance, or the particularity of patina on a bronze figurine. This assiduity quickly gets down to brass tacks: ‘At what point does form become an idea?’ it asks. ‘What associations haunt materials? What is the thing-ness of a thing?’ (The cryptic answer given by a sculpture from 2000–3 of a perfectly spherical simian head, is that The Monkiness of Whatness is All Monkey.) In 1998–9, Martin made Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, a painting depicting a fabulously toxic-looking amphibian poised amid glistening, wet foliage. Martin’s bravura command of paint sits the piece convincingly within the register of Photorealism, a genre appreciated more for its truth to the look of photography than life itself. It allows Strawberry Poison Dart Frog to be thought of as an image filtered through the colloquialisms of genre, which in turn begs the question of how a picture of something so exotic can seem oddly familiar – is it simple category recognition or has it something to do with the popularity of nature documentaries on television? The question of familiarity begins to seem particularly febrile when you learn that, since 1997, Martin has been working on a copy of Gerhard Richter’s Betty (1988) – or rather, a copy of a reproduction of Betty in a Tate catalogue from some years back. Like much Photorealism, Richter’s Betty is, at a very basic level, a painting that draws notice to its materiality by being the kind of art work over which people ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ in admiration of its virtuosity – all that exquisite modelling and luminosity – and there is something singularly apt, not to mention deliciously perverse, about Martin choosing to square up to a reproduction of it, to a banal consequence of Richter’s intense painterly engagement with photography. Martin’s Betty remains unfinished, a work in progress subject to perpetual revision and retuning. (He initially made his version the same size as Richter’s original but subsequently remade the stretcher two inches smaller on each side, because he had come to think of his as looking too big.) The Tate catalogue plate ‘is a “normal” reproduction’, says Martin. ‘There is nothing special about the surface or quality of paper. I think, however, it’s to do with the impeccable surface of mass reproduction. It is simply a page in a book, a reduced-size image of something. Its physicality as a reproduction drew me in; like that thing of looking at an album cover for ages and ages, as if it would somehow give up more the longer you stared at it.’3 Just what is the Betty-ness of Betty? And can it be seen, like the ‘today’ heralded by Carlton, in ‘the quality of reproduction in pizza flyers, free news-papers and in-store magazines’?

Brian O’Doherty (it seems apt to mention him at some point) once wrote: ‘Style in art, whatever its miraculous, self-defining nature, is the equivalent of etiquette in society. It is a consistent grace that establishes a sense of place and is thus essential to the social order.’4 Out there, in that ‘generalized environment of quote, reference and approximation’, we depend on style for survival – the image-idea of ourselves, of the buildings we inhabit, of the people we interact with and the things we use in order to do so. (‘If you could not get the surface right, what hope was there of expressing whatever lay beneath it?’ wrote Jonathan Raban in Soft City (1974), his vivid study of urban style and sensibility.5) Depending on how much value one places on art’s influence outside its specialist spheres, the power we invest in images or objects as totems of aspiration that will enrich our lives has been turbo-driven by the legacies of Pop and Conceptual art; the democratic spirits underpinning these movements – openness to the importance of the vernacular, say, or the demotion of technical virtuosity – have ultimately helped to give licence to cultural over-production. If everyone is an artist, perhaps it’s why, as Martin wryly observes in Carlton, artists these days ‘look like everyone else, worry about their weight, book foreign holidays’.

You may have the look, but Martin’s work begs the question: do you know what you’re looking at and why? And was that really Andy Warhol in the limo that just passed by?

1 Email to the author, January 2008
2 Philippe Parreno in conversation with Tom Morton, ‘Team Spirit’, frieze, issue 81, March 2004, p. 85
3 Email to the author, January 2008
4 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999, p. 74
5 Jonathan Raban, Soft City, Fontana/Collins, London, 1975 paperback edition, p. 64