Helen Marten

Meeting the tremendous spatial demands of König Galerie, a former cathedral in Berlin, is the immensity of Helen Marten’s labour. The effort put forth to collect, build and present her work filled me with awe, and relief. This wasn’t going to be just another quick romp. When encountering Marten’s installation, you might first embrace the intense overall structure. But then the body follows the eye inside the work, into the infinite realm of small things and materials, which seem equally recognizable and strange. The installation is comprised of three sections, or rooms or environments. However, not one of these terms is accurate as they seep into each other in proximity and the way that objects found first in the “bathroom” later reappear in the “garden,” and again in the “workshop.” Marten’s colour palette is one of fairy tales: cream, peach, lavender, aquamarine, camel, yellow and white, all of which render an anthro-poetic tale of sociocultural development from the perspective of someone who has a special relationship to language and form, art and craft, and the real and imaginary.

Like so many interior designs, the “bathroom” introduces the guest to the rest of the space. Marten’s idiosyncratic lavatory remains a place of hygiene, solace and maintenance but with the perks of non functionality. It is an excellent introduction to her language, comprised of macro to micro logic and material, literal and poetic relationships. An example—a large ceramic vessel in front of a periwinkle trough-cum-bathtub spews glittered objects normally found deep in the drain; and another—an over-height sink and a giant, curving, multicolour track that signifies both shower curtain and room divider. Soaps made of actual soap and some of pressed dirt are scattered throughout. Various pieces of cloth are strewn over the edge of the tub “to dry,” none of them big enough to use and so acting as formal place makers for texture and hue. No bathroom is complete without a mirror, no mirror complete without a reflection and no artwork complete without a gaze, so Marten included a portrait-mirror in the corner. It is a drawn face of tired grey-blues and dark lines. Frowning and dishevelled, it begs for space, so I looked down. Reiterating the function of the “mirror,” large blue polymer letters installed on the bottom half of the sink’s pedestal spell out “you” in script font. Posited on the edge of the sink, a paint can painted with its own substance disrupts the lyricism of the space and reminds me of the freedom within art. Marten is allowed, or rather compelled, to show me her making in the way that writers can’t hide the fact that they are writing, or singers singing.

Helen Marten, All mother (after James Ensor), 2018, nylon paint on fabric, ash frame, aluminum, airbrushed steel, 310 x 240 x 8.5 centimetres. All images courtesy the artist and König Galerie, Berlin.

Heading into the “garden,” I realized the extensive treatment of Marten’s objects: nailed, stacked, pleated, hooked, strung, pegged, pierced, slung, squished, laced and dangling. The longer I stay in Marten’s universe, the more her rhythms are revealed, and I learn that her world is not unlike the rest of the world: in progress and constant readjustment. Further parallels arise like the one between artmaking and real-world transformation. Both involve using trusted skills and resources in new, undefined ways in order to dismantle structures and build new ones. Take, for example, Marten’s “garden hut” made with chimney-like verticality. It consists of a masterful amalgamation of cast plastic, wood, Ikea-style parts, laminates and self-made items including irregular, leaky-looking metal shingles. It is as comic as the oversized wooden teeth resting on its sub-roof. Like highly skilled symbolic actors, the molars convey current politics as an absurd drama; orders are dismantling, control dissolving and the ludicrous is tangible. Placing objects just beside normality, Marten offers a strangely close inspection of our world that divulges the impact of materiality: ingredients like colour, shape and scale and the way we take their unique silent language for granted. It’s not that Marten’s work evades meaning, and neither is it merely eccentric or random, it’s that unless you are used to being intimate with objects, her work will escape you.

Marten’s ability to incorporate the literary and poetic into her visual work is evidenced most directly in the series of associated paintings installed on each of the gallery’s walls. The organization of her sculptures into prosaic spaces is echoed in the paintings by slim pieces of wood, which divide their surfaces into irregular quadrants. Clearly placed after the painting’s completion, they make me consider the value of boundaries in both the imagined and real world. In the installation, objects like spoons are flattened beyond function. In the paintings, flattening conflates the imaginary and the literary. Many of the paintings include text that exists as words and as figurative objects (“mother,” “brother,” “piss lemonade”). These words exemplify and expand upon sinewy, perspective-less, contour drawings of objects, animals and figures: one with a bosky complexion and rouged lips reclining in a brown cloak, yellow poison smoke escaping from her cigarette. In the way that some poetry defies clarity in favour of affect, the text in Marten’s paintings summons ideas that instruct the reading of the images around them. For example, a small, white, abstract shape in the upper corner of one of the paintings extends beyond two wooden boundaries and has small typed text on it. It reads, “People, I said. People, my mother said.” Nearby, an orange unrecognizable shape with a yellow circle in the middle has a small text beside it: “one million.” The white and orange blurbs become mapped countries, geographic and political.

A bath in italics (you), 2018, wood, steel, aluminum, Formica, cast broze, glazed ceramic, cast resin, cast Jesmonite, pencil on paper, embroidered fabric, milled modelboard, paint, cast iron, clay, bitumen, 265 x 650 x 420 centimetres.

“Language matters: it defines the limits of our imagination,” Laurie Penny wrote in Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (Bloomsburg, USA, 2017). Leaving Marten’s exhibition, I realize that you don’t have to be an artist or a writer to know that if we learn to call things black/white, here/there or me/ them, the world will seem easily divisible. Marten’s work combines the power of language and form to render things fluid, ignoring the impulse to favour words or forms or colour to guide a single interpretation. It is not either/ or, it is and, and, and.… Beyond its intense materiality, Marten’s work encourages us to change the entire architecture of our political imagination, to soften boundaries, expand and subvert conventions, and, as a result, reorder priorities. She places her objects with the looseness of a confident, highly inquisitive maker and the precision of one who knows that how we treat objects is how we treat people. ❚

“Helen Marten: Fixed Sky Situation” was exhibited at König Galerie, Berlin, from January 12 to February 24, 2019.

Jasmine Reimer is an artist and writer living and working in Berlin and Toronto. She studied at the University of Guelph and Emily Carr University.

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.