Martine Syms: Vertical Elevated Oblique
Well-versed in the architecture of the screen, Martine Syms’s first solo exhibition in New York, titled Vertical Elevated Oblique, is currently on view at Bridget Donahue until the first of November. The exhibition is a collection of artifacts, photographs, sculptures, century stands, sandbags, and video works. The installation evokes the atmosphere of a well-archived but abandoned makeshift set of a career YouTube star.
Notes On Gesture is the focal point of the exhibition. A roughly ten-minute piece performed by Diamond Stingily and sliced up by the artist, the video is a collage of black female tropes in gif-ish loops. In a talk at the Walker Art Center, titled “Black Vernacular: Lessons of The Tradition,” Syms discussed her piece My Only Idol is Reality, which consists of processed footage from MTV’s The Real World season one, explaining that she used “repetition as a framework for abstraction.” For Syms, repetition draws the viewer into decontextualized nuance. “Blackness,” the concept we are so fascinated by, is the preoccupation here, as it is in Syms’s work in physical media.
Similar to the collage techniques she employs in her video work, Syms also recontextualizes physical objects in the installation: clothing lays deliberately drooping like old painterly smocks, displaying slogans like “my eyes remind you where you came from.” The dialectical relationships between private/performative, authentic/self-promoting, and fetish object/byproduct carry forth a vague and informal YouTube aesthetic. A large purple panel–presumably the backdrop for other works–anchors the show on the right side of the gallery wall.
Syms considers herself a “conceptual entrepreneur” but doesn’t concede to the “Concept” in a traditional sense. In 1969, Sol LeWitt wrote in his highly referenced essay “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1968): “The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His willfulness may only be ego.” Syms, on the other hand, is more of an anonymous manager in the choreographed performance of ego. But the question about will is vaguer here than in the past. Syms’s current exhibition contains questions about the relationship between the mechanical and the social. She breaks down language and image in an exercise that can be read as an attempt to break down the authority of language itself—leaving us only with technical artifacts.
The virtual has not transcended socio-political judgments the way utopian afro-futurist texts envision. Rather than moving into a decolonizing fantasy, Vertical Elevated Oblique is invested in contemporary “stuckness” the way every public conversation about “blackness” eventually reaches a limit of comprehension. For example, the stuttering of speech in Notes On Gesture serves to deconstruct language while also referencing the machine-logic of beta-testing currently dominating the digital frontier as part of a post-Enlightenment culture that seeks marginal change in praxis despite a rhetoric of disruption.
Two black resin panthers, titled Black Panthers, are anchored, smoldering, toward the front of the gallery, though this area functions more like a “backstage” in the scheme of the exhibition’s installation. Purple film placed over the windows provides ethereal lighting, a more nostalgic version of the electrified purple in the video works. A metanarrative process can be traced in this section of the exhibition. The panthers present an analog doubling or “twoness” to the artist’s photographic prints—and the multiple glitchy takes in the video. A photograph showing the silhouette of a woman with arms akimbo is one of the few fixed images in the exhibition, without a visible flip-side.
As a footnote, a pop-up bookshop for Syms’s publishing outfit, Dominica, is tucked at the very back of the gallery. The shop traces related works from Lauren Anderson, Black Radical Imagination, E. Jane, Gene’s Liquor, Nicky Benedek, Marco Braunschweiler, Kayla Guthrie, David Hartt, Kahlil Joseph, Chloe Maratta, Hassan Rahim, Diamond Stingily, and Wilmer Wilson IV. The pop-up is organized in a way that suggests a kind of historical narrative progression, in contrast with the nonlinear configuration of Vertical Elevated Oblique.
Martine Syms has made some interesting new developments in her ideas since I first encountered her work earlier this year at the New Museum Triennial Surround Audience, where she exhibited S1:E1 (2015), an examination of blackness in the American sitcom. Vertical Elevated Oblique is a more ambiguous riff on a similar theme, the production of culture. The staged quality of the show creates a grotesque passion-for-the-real, rather than reality TV gloss. S1:E1 was tied more closely to its original concept; its tangible effects included a legible, self-contained script. But Vertical Elevated Oblique reveals in its totality a production model beyond being simply an array of art objects—it is a representation of a group, or a cinematic feature. It’s the kind of production expected from someone who has been using the title of “conceptual entrepreneur.” It’s a deceptively casual debut for Syms, like a planned leak of a mixtape, downloadable through a “link in bio.”
freda nada is a writer and new media theorist based in chinatown new york. her work has appeared via new inc, bullet magazine, new bloom, and the huffington post. she is currently working with live programming at ps1 and focusing on web/electronic-based projects. her social networks identifier is @spxghett1.