Helen Marten talks quickly and at great length, in a sort of quasi-Deleuzian stream of consciousness fashion that's difficult to follow and almost impossible to make much sense of. Plank Salad at Chisenhale Gallery, her first solo exhibition in a UK public space, follows a similar presentational style.
What I can only call stuff is everywhere. Cigarette packets, a half drunk frappuccino, one ironed sock, a sports bag, a loaf, pizza delivery fliers somehow mashed up with images of Gerhard Richter's hugely recognisable Betty, fake donuts, bags of rubbish, a pound coin, some strange flat objects that look like they could be veneered speed bumps. Loads of apparently random stuff.
There are a few slightly less random bits of stuff on the walls. And I mean slightly. One wall offers what ought to be furniture. It is immediately recognisable as a grouping of chairs. They are objects but they are flattened down to a two dimensionality that renders them functionally redundant. They are coded for us as chairs but they are useless as such.
The opposite wall gives us flattened, stylised images of a man's head printed onto modular gatherings of stretched leather and ostrich fabric. The man turns out to be Mozart. Oozy bits of cement appear at various points between frame and stretcher and from the bottom edge bottles of alcohol - Limoncello, Ouzo, Courvoisier if you're interested - hang from bits of strings. Mozart's face, Marten tells us, is “castrated by its flatness”, but reactivated by the alcohol which is “a liberator and a catalyst, but also a stagnator”. I see.
The first thing to have hit my retina in what Helen Marten styles the “entrance space” to her exhibition is three canisters of Greek olive oil standing on the floor. This entrance space exists because Marten has built a wall sectioning the white cube into two: a smaller, introductory atrium and a larger central space. This, apparently, is the artist playing with hierarchies, with questions of value and worth, margins and leftovers. More interestingly, it is also her playing with time. The wall interrupts the flow of the viewing experience. Like a gigantic architectural comma it delays our progress. We are, if you will, deliberately “snagged” upon it. She is dictating our movement and in the process bringing to our attention the element of time in connection with the viewing of objects and images. Objects have a speed, a rhythm, a pace, she says, that is central to what they are and the way we understand them.
Objects and images are so loaded with association, “pregnant with their own suggestion” as she puts it, that all they are capable of is “performing” themselves in space. A bag of rubbish performs our idea of what a bag of rubbish is or should be. The more densely overlaid or overwrought objects become with information the emptier they are. She speaks a lot about treachery and violence.
When I saw the canisters of Greek olive oil my mind went to a story in Vonnegut's Bluebeard, a story of treachery and violence funnily enough, in which we're told that Mussolini liked to punish his victims by making them drink a quart of castor oil. The result of this was that they would shit and vomit themselves to death. That's an association peculiar to me of course and peculiar to that moment in time, but in a way it seems to sum up something about this exhibition. There's something rather sad at work here. It's as though content has been deliberately evacuated and all that remains is surface and highly informed but ultimately empty rhetoric.
written for This is Tomorrow