In Helen Marten’s hands, an exhibition is an environment where everything is connected to everything. In Sparrows on the rock, the British artist’s new show at London’s Sadie Coles headquarters, she’s playfully engaging with human form and invites us to follow the contours of a giant metal stick figure to see artworks that share the idea of the reprimanded body politics.
Twelve intricate screen-printed paintings — each three feet high — form the centerpiece of each limb or bodily organ, with small sculptures (all hand-made) at the base. I start at the head and then navigate through the arms, looking through a chorus of organized painted heads that reminds me of a Giotto fresco.
Before long, I reach the bowels of the show, with the entrance to the belly marked by a tall sculptor named “Horizontal Weather” – for Marten, a kind of barometer of the various moods of the exhibition. “I loved the idea of having a guard in the most variable organ, the stomach,” she says as she walks me around. Then it goes to the gut and a sculpture entitled “A Tantrum Carved from Stone”, in which pipelines lead to the apartments of the 1950s and body-like bells bulge out of the wall.
Marten, born in Macclesfield in 1985, studied at Central Saint Martins and Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art and had her first solo performance at the T293 Gallery of Naples in 2010. More to follow in Paris, New York, Berlin and the Chisenhale in London. She was commissioned to work for the 2013 and 2015 Venice Biennales.
Then came 2016: within a few months, Marten had a solo show in the Serpentine, had a job at the Sydney Biennale and won both for the first time Hepworth Prize and the Turner Prize. It was a year of extraordinary success, yet also frustrating: “I was so busy working and yet I had so little conversation about the content of the work, so little response from peers or curators.”
Media coverage, for example, focuses on her desire to share the prize money, and in most cases, critical involvement in the job has been lost. “These prices are so dangerous: they generate so much spectacle,” she says. ‘Part of the draw is that it’s a spectacle and a competition. I hate it! Often the people you show up with are your friends and you respect their work. It’s not about competition. ”
Her response was to take a step back. ‘I needed a new set of lenses for myself, so I did not go to the studio. In 2017, she began writing her first novel, The Poetic and Peculiar The cooked in between, published in 2020.
In Marten’s carefully plotted worlds, image and language go hand in hand. She is a compulsive reader and is always on the lookout for phrases that can generate a work of art. The phrase “horizontal weather” comes from Gilles Deleuze, for example. Logic of meaning, in which the French philosopher immerses himself in sense and nonsense, sexuality and psychoanalysis, through texts, including Lewis Carroll’s. In the same book, Deleuze describes the body as a ‘Harlequin mantle’ of erogenous areas. Marten also picks up on this, especially in the painting “The Hot Rain (Catchy Weather)” where, the more you look, the more harlequin diamonds you see.
In her literary sampling, Marten usually uses just enough of the context around a phrase to generate new associations, but stops not to go deeper into her source. Instead of pursuing Deleuze’s arguments, she separates here via the diamond shapes in phrenology and the idea that you can point to a small part of the body and say “this bit is about ‘fear’ and this ‘desire'” .
But not all of the artist’s inspiration comes from books. The idea of the stick-figure infrastructure of the show, of which we carefully negotiate with the metal cables between one body part and the next, took a sunny day in Bregenz, Austria. Sitting in an outdoor cafe, he watches birds stream overhead and is amazed by the abstract patterns formed by black power lines against a clear blue sky.
There is no direct connection between her novel and the show, yet it swells in places. The chorus of secluded heads, for example, is similar to the Messrs., All-seeing characters in her novel who comment on and lure the protagonists to action.
Language and image merge and visual games abound in, for example, the picture “Criminal Routines”, where a policeman puts his fingers to his lips while chasing a crook, while their bodies are placed around the first two letters of the word “silent”. “to spell out”. Below, a clown juggles the words ‘fact’ and ‘power’.
“All art is political in nature as a single voice projected into a multiple world,” Marten says. A clown juggling ‘facts’ and ‘power’ can be a metaphor for the legal system or politics of our current government. This is not a literal image of it, [just] a clown who enchants his own incompetence or moral unrest. “
We have become accustomed to the betrayal of language: Marten’s work emphasizes the fact that objects can also deceive, and she is very happy about finding points where logic fails and meaning falls into nonsense: the impossibility of the phrase “a tantrum carved from stone “is a good example. “You stumble together in this algorithmic maze and think it and it’s equal to it – until it does not happen,” she says. “It’s so exciting!”
Marten is grateful for the opportunity that the pandemic provided to slow down and spend more time working on this show. But with three stained glass paintings to be unveiled soon Luma, Arles’ new arts foundation, and a solo exhibition of works on paper opening at Greene Naftali this month in New York, she was busy.
With Marten, things just grow. From her current exhibition, she says: ‘I promised a very simple painting that only increased a little. I’m not able not put together. ”
‘Sparrows on the Stone’ runs until October 30; sadiecoles.com
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