Helen Marten - Conversation Taken from TTA11 - AW 2016
Interview Jan Kedves
Photography Juergen Teller
Installation Views Annik Wetter
Helen Marten was born in 1985 in the small Cheshire town of Macclesfield, in the middle of the beautiful green hilly landscape of the Pennines which surround Derbyshire and Yorkshire. She studied at Central Saint Martins in London and at The Ruskin School in Oxford and quickly became one of today’s most celebrated artists of her generation, creating wonderfully cryptic yet graceful small- and large-scale sculptures that look incredibly fragile, but also so impeccably finished they have the appeal of mass-produced factory wares. This year Helen is certainly on a roll, having just opened her solo show “Drunk Brown House” at the renowned Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London in late September, winning the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture as well as this year’s Turner prize. Prior to these astounding victories, Helen spoke to us about her early, pre-artistic childhood hoarding impulses, about the two rapping Greek columns—yes, you read that right—that she once came up with for a video (which she now hates) and the embarrassments of travel, specifically her wacky passport photo.
Congratulations on being nominated for the Turner Prize, Helen. What does that mean to you?
It’s such a weird thing. I think historically when the prize was initiated in 1984 it was really a weighty, important thing because it was unburdened in a way and the artists who were nominated were always tinged with an idea of newness or a kind of radicality. But I think it’s become sullied by a media context that always desires inflammatory content, or alternatively subscribes to the myth that an artist’s personal life is an accessible and legitimate platform to explore.
Sullied in which way?
I think the Turner Prize today is very much bound up with the politics of spectacle. It’s not a prize for the art world, it’s a bizarrely hierarchical construct that explicitly facilitates speculation about worthiness. Every newspaper covers it, television is involved; it’s a prize for the media. Or for people like my parents – the uninitiated public – who understand that it is a thing to go and see, to think about, because it’s at the Tate and it carries institutional kudos. Of course it’s amazing to be nominated, but equally if this had never happened, I wouldn’t mind. [laughs]
But for your parents it’s a big thing?
I think so. They’re really excited about it, their perception of it is as a kind of pinnacle achievement. But their context of art-politics is also marginal.
Since the magazine is about travel and journeying, I wondered about your hometown Macclesfield . . .
It’s a Northern town just south of Manchester, a post-industrial grey-zone, really. Its biggest claim to fame is that Ian Curtis went to school and grew up there. It’s a predominantly working-class and insubstantially liberal town.
So people there voted for Brexit?
I’m not sure what the final polling numbers were. But as was symptomatic with a lot of Northern English areas, a lot of people there are marginalized and skeptical of the EU. Inflammatory voting habits, naturally, are sadly exacerbated in places where an idea of universal equality seems ever further out of reach. Ironically, Macclesfield used to be a silk weaving town: it was one of the primary destinations on the Silk Road with traders arriving from China and the Middle East. The town still retains that proud legacy of a very mercantile, industrially-orientated ethos. There are a lot of contemporary pharmaceutical manufacturers now. My dad actually worked for one as a drug developer. He travelled a huge amount . . . Mexico, Puerto Rico, Japan.
Did you have the chance to go with him?
No, he travelled for work, visiting chemical factories in other countries. But we travelled vicariously with him as children, because he’d always bring back weird little objects. I have this amazing collection of stuff he brought, probably grabbed last-minute in airports, but things that have stayed with me through my adult years. Still on my kitchen table I have a little lacquered ebony slice with tiny ceramic Japanese characters sitting every few centimeters across it. It’s covered in glue blobs from all the times I’ve dropped and broken it throughout the years, but the pastel and fluorescent colors are still wonderful. We got so many t-shirts too, Hello Kitty from Japan, palm trees from Puerto Rico and all kinds of pharmaceutically emblazoned pens . . . I also remember very vividly that my dad always used to steal airplane teaspoons, so as kids we were always super excited about what kind of teaspoon he’d bring back. The cutlery set designed for Lufthansa in the early ’60s by Wolf Karnagel is incredibly beautiful and seductive; it’s a real covetable design icon now! So yeah, my father had this desire to resituate little fragments of the places he went to, and I guess that’s why collecting was always something I aspired to. As a kid I had hundreds of collections of odd things, like toothbrushes, both used and new.
What did you do with all the toothbrushes?
I used to drill holes in them and string them up around my bedroom like some kind of lunatic bunting . . . Or I would go to the hardware store with my parents and pick up all the nuts and bolts off the floor, stuff that had been dropped by people, and secrete it away in my pockets without paying or saying a word. I had a terrible hoarders impulse. I’d have these drawers in my bedroom with labels like “metal,” “stones,” “feathers.” Retrospectively I can see this might have been the beginning of my organizational impulse.
Or your artistic impulse?
I’m not sure whether I’d call it artistic, but I certainly wasn’t collecting stuff a small child was supposed to be collecting. It wasn’t football stickers, you know, it was just chunks of metal that I’d put into little paper covered matchboxes, as though I was wrapping up a present for myself.
Were your parents worried?
Oh not at all. They are both scientists, so they know this empirical desire to collect and organize things. My dad is organizational to the point of pedantry. My parents mutually taught us how to make chemistry sets as kids, how to grow crystals or how to fabricate an electrical circuit with your own batteries and wires. So that impulse to sort and understand a logic for putting things back together again was definitely something that was there when I was growing up.
The first work I saw by you was a video installation for the Venice Biennial in 2013, Orchids, or a hemispherical bottom. I really loved it, the humor and how well-written the monologue was, and the digital animation looked amazing, but I read somewhere that you actually don’t like that work.
I shouldn’t say this, but I’m so ashamed of all my video works. I wish I’d never made them.
Why did you make them?
Well, they were all made circumstantially for one reason or another. The first video for instance, Dust and Piranhas, I made explicitly for the Park Nights public program the Serpentine Gallery had in 2011. They invited me to make a performance or something with a single hour duration in their Peter Zumthor summer pavilion. To simply place a sculpture in there and ask it to captivate imagination or attention for an hour would have been a useless impulse. As a kind of mitigation and engagement with the idea of a temporal audience-based event, I initially wrote a script and imagined I would have it recorded and delivered by an actor. It would have been a single voice, which bound the audience to a space within the pavilion. But I suddenly realized that my awfully indulgent and baroque script was also painfully tedious! So I was essentially forced to find some image-based protagonists for these written voices. I somehow stumbled upon Adam Sinclair who is a brilliant and extremely skilled CGI animator, and he helped create these two caricatures of columns that move throughout the various landscapes. So that first video made sense at the time because it was not for an exhibition, it was a performative thing, a kind of plotting of a behavioral timescale. And then suddenly curators were only interested in inviting me to make new videos . . . [laughs] Yeah, so the video you saw in Venice, that was actually the last video I made. The curator asked me specifically for a video, even though I didn’t want to make another one. Because to be honest, I have no interest in the making of video, whatsoever. Not in the mechanical aspect of it, not in the formal technology of it. I’m really not into technology at all, or in media in that sense. I like handling material, physically constructing, rather than working with an interface which really holds you hostage. There is a ghostly treacherousness to the process of making a video with CGI . . . it’s so incredibly laborious but even generating 30 seconds of content can take three days! I have no patience, and no theoretical interest in it; more simply put, it’s not fun for me.
And yet you’ve been described as an “artist for the digital age” . . . isn’t that funny?
I don’t understand it. I mean looking at my work, to me it absolutely grows from a more analogue proposal for interpreting or indexing the world around us. Things are made and alive with the language of tactility. Of course inherently, because of my generational context, I’m an internet native: I’ve grown up with this technology, but I’m not on social media, and I’m just not interested in the wider platform of the internet as a mechanism for generating content. So yeah, I really don’t approve of the ‘digital’ label. I often wonder if artists were stripped of biography and their date of birth were made invisible, then how would they get located in this messy spectrum of time and space and information? I think that that could become really quite interesting, because you could plot aesthetic values, formal inclinations and basic content in more algorithmic sequences rather than a basic correlate of time and context which might output something as facile as “young and digital.”
In your sculptures you seem to enjoy hanging things; there are bottles dangling from screen prints, or little sculptures hanging from cupboard-like sculptures, or balls of herbs hung from small wooden poles.
I feel like I’m constantly tying knots [laughs]. Half of my studio days I’m tying strings together . . . I’m half joking. But it’s true that there are a lot of balancing moments in my work, a lot of inherent precarity. I guess one way to rationalize it would be to think about the notion of the word “prop.” You know, prop is a kind of linguistic conflation of multiple contingent propositions. It’s theatrical, in terms of a theatrical prop. Secondly, it has poverty because it’s a supporting thing, in the same way a crutch might be, or a set of spare legs improvised to hold a tabletop. And its third meaning could be that it’s a purely formal thing, literally holding something up or resting. So the prop has this kind of dual mechanism where it can act as both a structural, material thing, but also as a linguistic device. And I love the idea of contingency, the thought that things only step up for action when they are needed. There is a kind of dormant potential energy that all things have ... I find it quite interesting.
Do these balancing acts involve some kind of static engineering, or do you just experiment and see whether it holds or not?
I’m terrible with numbers. Terrible! My knowledge of all this stuff is approximate. Of course, by repeatedly handling materials in the studio you do gain a basic sense of how things respond to gravity. Like if I balance two sticks together, do they need a third one to support them? Yes, they do, because otherwise they will fall over. A number of my larger works involve complicated engineering. To facilitate this I work with a handful of external people who either produce metalwork or carpentry to a level of skill that I don’t have and that really does involve a lot of informational understanding: looking at structural drawings and figuring out how my crappy sketch can be translated into something that is not going to fall over and kill somebody, or cut my head off, you know? But I’m also quite impatient when I’m making things by myself in the studio. So this method of balancing, of propping, might also just be an impulsive means of putting things together at speed. I think there’s something really beautiful about a material combination of things that look like they’re stuck together with spit.
Do you like it when people look at your sculptures and find them funny?
I think so. I mean I don’t set out to deliver a punch line but I’m interested in humor. I think my work definitely has humorous moments, but maybe it’s a much darker, oblique or seething humor, rather than a brick-on-the-head type of cartoon humor.
The art critic Jörg Heiser wrote something about you in Frieze in 2011 which I wanted to ask you about. He praised your work as “a bit like good hip-hop: ready to twist and wrench and squeeze every single bit of its semantic material, milking it for rhythmic flow—and meaning.”
I think that was actually referring to my first video in 2011. I wrote a rap for it, this deliciously awful rap which is delivered by the two column characters that I created together with the animator, one super post-modern, very phallic looking column, and the other kind of neoclassical, Doric column. I gave literal volume to these two columns by forcing them to behave as a weird conduit for laminating language and rhythm together, leaving corresponding images to percolate in this highly-saturated soup in a very deliberate but also open-ended way.
Do you like rap music?
I actually rarely listen to any music, it’s strange. I don’t have a passion at all. I mean I like music when I hear it, but I just have no energy to discover or research it in any way. I cannot focus when I’m listening to music, I get so agitated. So if I listen to anything in my studio I listen to audio books or spoken word. Stories, fiction, theoretical talks, you know . . .
Like the BBC’s In Our Time podcasts?
No, like novels as audio books, or artist talks, lectures. If I need background words where it doesn’t matter if I miss the narrative, I listen to Al Jazeera where you can hear the world’s rolling catastrophes first-hand and less censored. [laughs]
When you say you have no interest in music, that means you also don’t go to concerts?
I never go to concerts.
Well now that you say it, it’s true that apart from the two rapping columns, it’s really hard to spot any pop culture references in your work . . .
There aren’t any. It’s almost embarrassing. I’m so ill-informed about pop culture. I have the same kind of blind spot with films. I wish I didn’t. I love the idea of watching movies, but similarly I don’t have the passion to devour them in the same way I do with books. I’d much rather sit down and read than watch a film. Or I have to be very specifically initiated.
So even when you’re on a plane traveling to install a show somewhere you don’t use the onboard entertainment to catch up with what’s happening in Hollywood? You just read your book?
For sure. But I do also watch crap films too and Netflix!
How do you deal with travelling?
Travelling as an artist is always such an odd thing, because more often than not you’re travelling to install a show, make a site visit. It’s like you’re moving in an impervious isolated bubble, suffering the casino-effect where your perception of light and timescale diminishes! You go to the museum, you go back to your hotel, you go to the museum, you go back again. I think a lot of my artist friends experience this as well. Travelling of course can be totally informative and liberating, but it’s sometimes also a prolonged means to an end rather than an experience to take pleasure in. I did spend nearly three weeks in Kassel in Germany when I was installing my show at Fridericianum, which was actually amazing. Kassel is such an odd spooky town and I loved that middle-of-nowhere German mediocrity. I went to the same restaurant every single night.
So I guess this was not during Documenta, when Kassel is actually very different, much more buzzing . . .
Yeah, it was two years ago in one of Kassel’s downtime years. I just went to the department store a lot. They had an amazing food hall in the basement. I somehow always end up in a department store and I often buy a pair of socks. Good German Falke socks. I love them. This very specific cotton Falke blend you can only get in Germany. So in Kassel I bought a lot of Falke socks. [laughs]
Excess luggage . . . !
I used to always over-pack; I’m much more practiced now. But I am such an anxious traveler, constantly panicked I’m going to miss my flight. I hate travelling on my own and I’m definitely not a good passenger. I’m always nervous to show my passport at border control because it has a photograph of me that was taken about six years ago in which I have the most insane haircut. Every border official looks at me like, who are you kidding? This is not you . . . Bleached out white hair in profusion, sticking straight upwards. I look like a drunk Mr. Whippy ice cream.
It’s probably really one of the very few universal shared experiences of mankind, people hate their own passport photo. But mostly because it shows how much they’ve aged, or how much weight they’ve put on . . .
If anything, I look younger now than in my passport photo from six years ago. People are often very suspicious about my age. I often don’t get served alcohol on planes because people assume I’m underage. Or I’m mistaken for a small boy. Once when I was travelling with a friend and she was asked by the stewardess: would your little brother like a Coke? I said, no, I want a fucking Bloody Mary! It’s a mystery to me, there seems to be some mysterious fog at airports and on airplanes where my gender classification translates only as a 12-year-old boy.
Helen Marten is the recipient of the Turner Prize 2016. Here is more information on the Turner Prize Exhibition now showing at Tate Britain in London until January 2nd 2017.
For more information on Marten's work, click here.
To order issue 11 of The Travel Almanac which features this interview and many more, click here.