The Making of Helen Marten

This piece appeared, translated into Dutch, in Metropolis M:

‘Success in public life seems sometimes to be not unrelated to the possession of thick skin – thick enough to be proof against penetration by any caricature not drawn with an electric drill.’ (Helen Marten, Evian Disease, 2012)

Getting an interview with the highly sought-after London-based artist Helen Marten is no mean feat. It seems that everyone wants a piece of her these days. With a spate of international art galleries representing her (Greene Naftali, New York; Johann König, Berlin; Sadie Coles HQ, London; T293, Naples), a couple of prestigious art prizes to her name (LUMA Award, 2012 and Prix Lafayette, 2011), well-received recent solo shows at Kunsthalle Zürich (‘Almost the Exact Shape of Florida’, 2012), the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (‘Evian Disease’, 2012) and Chisenhale Gallery, London (‘Plank Salad’, 2012), upcoming shows at CCS Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Sadie Coles HQ and the Lyon Biennale, as well as work included in the main show of the Venice Biennale, the 27-year-old artist has been getting no shortage of attention. In the last two to three years, frieze, Artforum, Kaleidoscope, Mousse, the Guardian, you name it, have featured interviews, close-ups, essays and cover stories dedicated to her by some of the most influential critics and curators out there, hailing the birth of a star.

Even when she does graciously lend herself to the exercise, Marten dodges any questions that might shed light on the meteoric rise of her career with a Bartleby-like ‘I would prefer not to’. Trying to work out how she came to be where she is today (all over the place) in less then five years – roughly since she completed her degree at the Ruskin in 2008 – consequently feels like detective work. Connecting the dots between the different entries on Marten’s CV makes for instructive reading when it comes to the power dynamics at play in the art world since the artist appears to have been blessed with some powerful backers, the kind who can make or break a career. How did her career take off? Who discovered her and first gave her a break? Why is she having a moment and what gives her a competitive advantage over her peers?

As with any success story, Marten had more than just talent going for her; she was extremely lucky. According to ArtReview, Beatrix Ruf, the curator and director of Kunsthalle Zürich, who came seventh in the magazine’s most-recent Power100 poll (listing the movers and shakers in contemporary art) and nominated Marten as a ‘future great’ in March 2011, is to be credited with discovering the artist. Ruf came across an installation of Marten’s Live – a three-part silk print banner that recalled Daniel Buren’s use of fabric and colour, displayed together with one of her Corian mobile phone ‘paintings’ – in a fashion shop in Miami (something the artist’s gallery T293 had arranged) in 2010, and was instantly impressed not only by the work itself but also by Marten’s ‘professional use of the situation’. Two hours later, she went back to the shop to meet Helen and they started discussing the possibility of working together on a project for Kunsthalle Zürich.

Paired with a show by Wolfgang Tillmans, likely to attract visitors, Marten’s first institutional exhibition, ‘Almost the Exact Shape of Florida’ (restaged, under different guises, at the Chisenhale Gallery last autumn and at CCS Bard in June 2013), was planned for the reopening of Kusthalle Zürich in the former Löwenbräu brewery in August 2012. For ArtReview, Marten’s good fortunes and ubiquity amply demonstrate Ruf’s leverage power. Before Ruf took the artist under her wing, the biggest show Marten could boast was a solo exhibition at her Berlin gallery, Johann König, ‘Take a stick and make it sharp’ (2011). Incidentally, it’s a show with Johann König that won her the FIAC’s Prix Lafayette for the best exhibition project presented by an emerging gallery in 2011. That very year, she was one of 15 artists nominated (by a selection committee made up of Tom Eccles, Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno and Beatrix Ruf) for the LUMA award, which she won the following year.

But others had spotted Marten’s talent before Ruf came across her work. In a Kaleidoscope interview that came out not long before Marten’s Dust and Pirhanas (2011) – a video piece made in response to Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Gallery pavilion – was shown at the Serpentine in the popular Park Nights series, Hans Ulrich Obrist, another star curator to champion the young artist, noted that the first show he had seen her work in was ‘Boule to Braid’, Lisson Gallery’s 2009 summer exhibition curated by British sculptor Richard Wentworth. Wentworth, who went on to win the Turner Prize that year, had invited Marten to take part in the exhibition alongside such artists as Tony Cragg, Tony Ousler and Ryan Gander in her first year out of school. In 2010, he selected Marten as a young artist to watch for a Guardian piece on the best new artists in Britain. ‘She is making codes,’ he told the Guardian. ‘Her work is like a contemporary Rosetta stone. It is part of a broad conversation.’

Marten wavered between an artistic and a literary career, eventually opting to do a foundation year at Byam Shaw School of Art, part of Central Saint Martins, in 2004-5, followed by a degree course at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford. But she continues to spend a lot of time writing, mostly undisclosed content that she sees as a means to clarify or else muddle her own ideas. Marten’s fondness for talking in riddles, using opaque, dense and poetic language, comes across in the scripted texts that accompany most of her video works – the outcome of months of scribbling, re-writing and editorial fine-tuning. ‘Language and image are addressed as partnerships, and then rearranged into stylized outings of error, misalignment or perversion,’ as she eloquently puts it.

The artist’s literary aptitude and avowed interest in ‘the boundaries where humour, self-deprecation, sexiness, absurdity and violence all someone fold into one another’ invite comparisons with Ed Atkins especially, among her peers. Back in May, Atkins programmed her video Evian Disease (2012), made for the Palais de Tokyo solo exhibition, alongside his own work and James Richards’ Rose Bud (2013), in one of the more successful strands of ‘Flatness: Cinema After the Internet’, the chosen theme for this edition of the Oberhausen Film Festival. For Atkins, Marten’s Evian Disease embodies ‘flatness’ in all its weightlessness, emotional deficit and hollowness of representation. The fact that it’s completely unapologetic about it is what makes it a dangerous piece to his mind. Atkins, Richards and Marten were among the youngest artists to have their work shown in Massimiliano Gioni’s ‘Encyclopedic Palace’ at the Venice Biennale. (All three also happened to have had recent solo shows at the fashionable independent Chisenhale Gallery in East London, directed by Polly Staple.)

Marten’s work has lately been lumped together under the convenient label of ‘post-internet art’ with that of other British artists of her generation working in moving image – Ed Atkins and James Richards among them – who grew up with the Internet and speak its language. In his prescient use of the Internet, maverick video artist Mark Leckey is something of a godfather figure for what has been hailed as a new generation of young British artists. Part video, part sculpture, Helen Marten’s whimsical contribution to the ‘Encyclopedic Palace’ (‘Orchids, or a hemispherical bottom’, 2013), sat across the alley from Leckey’s own installation at the Arsenale.

Understandably, Marten finds this lumping together critically lazy, and goes as far as to claim, paradoxically, that she has no interest in the digital and the Internet or, for that matter, in any sense of commonality or context that it gives artists working today. She tends to look at books and use hand tools far more than she does anything digitally or in an online space; the analogue and the hand-wrought experience provide the density, whereas CGI to her ‘reeks of dishonesty’. And yet Marten does have a lot in common with her peers, not least a certain nostalgic quality to her work that harks back to the 1980s in its choice of colours, for one, and a fascination with skeumorphs, which, on the face of it at least, is somewhat at odds with being, as she undeniably is, ‘of the moment’.

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