Show Hidden Characters: Helen Marten

Helen Marten in conversation with Matias Faldbakken


No, it’s not like really being there. Not like walking around it. The images scattered across the web can’t translate works, can’t tell you where the action is, where all the fiddling notations should sing. Helen Marten does an excellent job of explaining to Matias Faldbakken why exhibitions are important, and why it’s worthwhile to build everything from scratch.


MATIAS FALDBAKKEN: I have seen none of your work in the flesh. Does this matter to you?

HELEN MARTEN: Photographing what I make is the part I really dislike the most. How do you fold multidimensional objects with equally important sides into a flat image without castrating a really deliberate part of the work? Impossible! And then piecing things backward from a spatially compromised “whole.” You set up undesigned hierarchies about how to use your eyes, what is the most essential part. Things look and feel quite different when you can walk around them. My work is very fingertippy, there are so many details you couldn’t translate from a pixel. It makes me wonder whether there is a look of density to the way things are pieced together, or whether the photograph strips the frenzy out of it. Because there’s definitely a dishonesty—not always deceitful—to photographed artworks. An act of camouflage. Perhaps I should tell you it’s all Photoshop!

MF: I often feel that installation shots add a lot. That works look better in the photographs. They seem to have more aura. Like photos from parties you didn’t attend. Places you haven’t been. Times before you were born. You missed something, and that adds something.

HM: In the flesh, I know where the “action” is, where all the fiddling notations should sing. Pictures of work in galleries look very different from other kinds of photography; there’s often an ironic heaviness because everything is totally static—a violence to the whiteness of it all, hyper-flatness or saturation. A seductive freeze-frame, really—commodity head shots! I get jealous of a lot of work in photographs, but then you see it in real life, and there’s a real deflating moment. So the danger is in the ubiquity and ease of JPGs, GIFs, Tumblrs—how they lend a “poor” image monumentality without critical thinking to prop it up. The slipperiness of the web is very different from making touchable “stuff.” I’m not interested in replicating virtual/digital space, more the sign language and mesh of symbols embedded into it. The smoke, the bristling uneasiness of bringing materials together or inverting their functions is what grabs me. Woods, fabrics, finishes—the industry is so alluring! And I think this provocation, the luxurious substance of it all, ties into a pictorial and narrative generosity, which is sometimes hard to grab from digital work.

MF: A lot of art making today seems to exist in this circuit: drag things off the Internet, materialize it, exhibit it, photograph it, and feed it back onto the Internet. Your art is undeniably “internetty,” but you still insist on the physical, sculptural, 1:1 experience.

HM: I use the Internet a lot, but more as an immediate tool for looping and grounding things than anything else—the potential for accidental discovery is intensified because of the way disparate patterns of informational traffic are digitally fitted together. Google has become a piece of “equipment” with the same kind of pragmatic studio function as a hammer or a drill. Its primary use for me is as an indexical catalyst; you wander around seeing things every day, flexing theft habits, hoarding snapshots, and the Internet somehow scratches a nerve that tips all the ideas over the edge. Things form and dissolve very quickly. It’s often a question of gathering the right kind of formal thinking to carry the visual conversations forward, analog research waiting for the material conjunctions to hit you on the head.

MF: The hands-on/hands-off plot thickens: you make many of your objects from scratch, but you don’t necessarily give that fact away. What essentially looks like found objects, assemblages, montages of appropriated material is more or less crafted sculpture. Is that right?

HM: Where possible, everything is fabricated from the very beginning. I don’t have a problem with the idea of a readymade, but it means that you’re already having to deal with an external set of intentions, something assigned a way to be understood. So adopting an object into a new sculpture necessarily involves some kind of primary disguise. Concrete, certain wood grains, pop rivets will always imply the look of industry or a type of branded commerce because we are accustomed to seeing them as totalized products—in the legs of a chair, a car door handle, bridges—and you don’t often question where or how it was made; only the end point is visible. So you can import the idea of something, exploit the emotional and social strains embedded, and reassemble a look that is slightly off-kilter but somehow foggily recognizable. For me, work really flops over if there’s no investment in the way it leaves the studio, how it is touched, thrown around. there’s a specific kind of wonkiness to the things I make, a balance between a finish—the seamless coldness of fabrication—and then a kind of assertive crappiness. Sometimes there’s more humor in using polystyrene or clay—“pathetic” can be really useful, cynical even. You’re reading the weight. And a surface that has been welded with drippy beads, strained under massive heat, and ground repeatedly can be powder-coated and all that labor in the touch is completely displaced. The finish now “looks good,” and in that there is a hint of artifice.

MF: So a piece of design furniture or some industrial material is really fake (that is, handmade)? Does this go for imagery, logotypes too? Do you redesign this material before it enters your work? Is there an inverted trompe-l’oeil thing going on here?

HM: Not quite, because the implication of “fake” would be a kind of poverty, or simulacrum. If there is a look of homage, it is squashed sideways by a new appendage or surface rendering that acts as a foil to whatever the initial expectation was. There’s quite a blurry pooling between artifice and replication, so it’s getting more difficult to tell what is custom fabricated and what is “found.” It’s definitely something to do with “totalizing,” how the speed of the touch and finish can negate certain impulses. But it’s not dishonest, because the process is laid bare, just a little rearranged. Maybe that type of look would be a kind of loaded minimalism—no trying to shrug off content. A cursory glance might see you locate these objects in a store, but how they’re put together is too dumb—there’s such medieval grubbiness in the making. I rarely allow myself to take something and simply place it untampered into a work. But “redesign” sounds too formal. Sometimes it’s a case of letting something sit on your window for six months, and then realizing through this hilarious courting process how it works. Like you have to allow a little time to fit your brain! And it’s not tactical, but when objects or materials are grounded in some history, you can identify them without having to add more parts. Like the culvert pipes in the “A is for anarchy…” series, when they rip through the maple or the steel, they’re already operating a certain vocabulary. You instantly see Gober-isms, so there’s no need to pile on any more dirt, because it’s already whispering. It’s a reductive strategy, a freebie! And that ties very much to a logotype—I absolutely love the economy of them—like the idea of weather-chart graphics. You don’t need to spell out what the meaning of the symbol is, as it’s universal.

MF: Speaking of spelling things out, I’m always under the impression that most image production has text at its core. There’s always a pitch; all the good TV series are basically good text; amazing computer-animated features have narrative dialogue as their starting point; most “spectacular” output is a textual intention overlaid with some hallucinatory imagery. Also the excuse that “I like to fuck around with colors and materials” is initially words. Even a Google image search starts with typing. Is culture a great transcoder from text into image—a black box that has text for input and images for output? You have a lot to say about your work. Verbal associations, histories, and anecdotes are attached to it—language is sitting in the front seat somehow. There is a verbal drive. But it also seems like your objects have this ambition to represent you (and/or your imagination) in a convincing (although more muted/nonverbal) manner when you are not present. And to do so through a certain visual grammar. What about the interaction between language-based motives and fingertippy ones, visual ones, retinal ones? Do you at some point transfer the “responsibility” of the work from the verbal to the retinal realm? Or is the process a “binary” flickering between the two? Or are these inseparable? When something sits on your window, and you realize how it works, what do you mean by “work” as “text” or “image” or “material” or “object”?

HM: Tough! It’s difficult to talk impartially about “text” or “image” without invoking some great looming shadow of “theory,” which I don’t necessarily mean. But—yes, there absolutely is a language impulse that, at least in the beginning, propels imaginative image into becoming something material, something more surface. But they’re such grand themes; I couldn’t devise a formula. These markers (linguistic/retinal)—they’re really rearranging themselves quite continuously. It’s difficult to flatten the layers (no Photoshop pun!), because the whole action is very much a knotty bundle. Like a Philip Guston painting where you get an image of running legs, but lots of them, all twisted together in a ball. The image or graphic is of movement, and the painter’s hand is frenzied—the feeling is one of urgency—but the material quality of the paint is very dense, quite static on the canvas. There’s some kind of continual referential slippage between all three ways of reading. So how I start is never consistent. There’s an idea of the look of the work, the main parts, but in the rub and pull of “putting together,” a lot changes quickly. The title is almost always last, or midway—never at the beginning. I have an image bank, a word/phrase bank, a list of materials—types of things that I have an urgency to use, so there’s a forcing of different types of tension. Language has comedy, and words inevitably rearrange themselves between existing histories, social expectancies. But you’re sniffing about in the dirt, scraping at something that’s just there, but somehow out of reach, out of touch and definitely out of sight. The waiting is the time in which you devise a sign language and assign it credibility in layers—in the markers or hieroglyphs you gradually bring into the “real.” A red dot, for example: there’s the blank abstract reading, the formal language, the geometry of it, the logotype. And then your head catches up with your eyes and you think about pistol safety catches, bolted hubcaps on tanks, or designer lamp switches. Change the material—the fingertip rendering—and you shift the vocabulary. Now you’re looking at nipples or ice cream. So some of the time, “building” a sculpture is as rudimentary as making something to see it, to understand how the physicality of mixed visual-linguistic thoughts operate when you actually assign substance to thinking. And it can be terrible, too! So many mistakes—you produce a bad metaphor or cliché—but that accidental clunkiness is incredibly fruitful, too. You make luck happen.

MF: And how about a term like style?

HM: There’s an incredibly difficult balance between the impulse for sexiness and awkwardness, between integration and decoration. Lots of artists know very well how to make the look of “taste.” Smart “compositionists” quickly making very good-looking objects. That sort of flippancy links with the tone of language. With speech, you assert an exactness with your verbal inflections. But remove those determiners—the tone—and the meaning can get catastrophically misplaced. Text messages get read badly, aggressively, because the tone is displaced. The same happens with a wordless image/material object. Which, like you say, is why language in the “driver’s seat” is important because you have the applique of a voice crisscrossing via the title and the expectations. It’s this knotty leg bundle again. So a “representing” of myself is more like wanting to keep a light hand on the work, to show, “yes, I made this and I thought that about it,” but also allow external thoughts to wander in surprise directions. Explaining your work in person to someone will necessarily skew the meaning for them. There can be a weird space in between making and displaying. The public exposure forces your synapses to click into place and define what the hell it is that is being looked at—all the whys and hows that can be allowed a little fuzziness when you’re babysitting a new piece in the studio. The teenage uncertainty is shrugged off when an object needs to stand alone and face a critical audience. All the bits grow up and form a solid outline.


Originally published on Mousse 28 (April–May 2011)


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