Helen Marten

11.23.12

View of “Almost the exact shape of Florida,” 2012. Kunsthalle Zurich, 2012.


Helen Marten is a British artist based in London. She graduated from the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford University in 2008 and has since had several solo exhibitions, the most recent at Kunsthalle Zürich. Marten’s film Evian Disease plays until July 2013 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In 2011, she was awarded the Prix Lafayette and in 2012 the Prix LUMA. Here, Marten discusses her latest exhibition, “Plank Salad,” which is on view at Chisenhale Gallery until January 27, 2013.

MY LIST OF MATERIALS COULD RUN FOR PAGES, ranging from spaghetti and foliage to silk-screened leather, tequila, and bent rebar. It’s pornographically tactile; there is so much saturation in the skin of it because the surfaces have traces of touch invested in them. The list is madly indulgent—an engorged yet stylized stuffing of substance. Because the majority of objects are recognizable, they have a weirdly slippery, slightly uncanny status that activates a process of slippage or breakdown: Things are continually folding in and around themselves. There’s a lot of density, but at the same time I hope the work possesses a kind of lightness; there are recognizable outlines and things we can index or name. There is a universal hook as each substance is translatable: pasta, keys, chairs—all things that add up to images with related functionalities, histories, or social temperatures.

Recently, I have been quite frantic about the idea of tracing around outlines of things, creating approximations of identifiable stuff: domestic objects, banality, or boredom. But in each, there’s a surface foil or an interruption or some other hidden linguistic trap that trips up meaning, pushing the object into a new space. The objects I use are already saturated with languages, so there is a lot of punning, linguistic jokes that never quite deliver a punch line. So everything is activated in a perpetual shuffle where the grammar of objects is either forced or overstylized.

Rhythm is another thing I was thinking about. In some ways, my work is a prolonged stammer of information. There are groups of very flat ramps machined from inlaid hardwood, which are butted together and sit very low to the floor. They become like typographic punctuations or laterally flattened commas. On top of each sit these small steel panels, each airbrushed with remixed fabric or fruit packaging motifs. They’re terrifyingly gorgeous, and more so because the process of airbrushing removes any sense of the touch involved in their making; they look laminated or digitally printed, so there is something completely totalized or violent about them as objects. They are quick, but of course the manufacture of them is painfully slow. Alongside these packages are a handful of objects: a friendship bracelet, a coffee cup, a plastic heart wrapped in foam off-cuts, a discarded sock, and some broken glass.

We’re grubby humans, always scuttling around at street level; layers of activity and history are built upon pavement. The street is a different optical space from the one we visit when we stare up at the sky, so there’s a joke about sedimentation, of perpetually stomping down layers of grime—cigarette ends and wrappers—layers of activity and history. Street level becomes some kind of weirdly hallucinogenic space—and yet, the space above street level is glorious. The ramps speak explicitly about this relationship to gravity, to defiant flatness, lateral spread, and what it is to pedestal overlooked debris or trash into something with posture.

I am interested in how everything has a social beginning. Certain materials have an inherent temperature and you can ask materials to behave in certain ways. Formica is cold because it’s seamless, you can’t get behind it, and it’s wipe-clean—the language of hospitals and schools. At the same time, it possesses a weird treachery: There is something about it that has information. Wood is inherently warm, it’s organic, you can make it do anything; it’s an analog material. Steel can be both, because you can fold it and give it the impression of weightlessness but it has its own natural density. By flexing these materials you can thwart expectations of how they should perform as substances. By fucking with their materiality you can exploit their seams.

— As told to Allese Thomson