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Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

June 20, 2022 1:39 PM


Berlin-based artist Marianna Simnett takes you on a journey of surrealist tales that show uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. Her film, performance, sound and light installations stimulate a range of extreme emotions. Defying easy categorisation, they often evoke unsettledness but also a strange duality of intimacy and unfamiliarity with our own bodies and others. Amongst others, her work has been exhibited at The Milk Of Dreams, the 59th Venice Biennale curated by Cecilia Alemani, Castello di Rivoli in Turin, MMK in Frankfurt, and the New Museum in New York. where’s the frame? had the pleasure to talk to the artist about her practice, background in theatre and music, and her recent and upcoming projects.

When you experience Marianna’s work, the irresistible forces of sound will not escape you. It makes you wonder in what ways her being trained as a musician has influenced her practice. 'Hugely,' she affirms, 'I’m still playing music all the time - it has never left me.' 

'When starting to make art, you think it’s only about the image, but actually, it’s mostly about sound,' she clarifies, 'Most of the sensory feeling that you get out of a media-based work is sonic; obviously, you have to have the image, but the sound is really major.'

The artist was a musician before she knew what art was as she learned to play classical music at the age of 5. She later went to a musical theatre performing art school, and now studies jazz flute. 'It was a mixture of Westend high-kicks and Sondheim musicals, with Bach and Prokoviev in the background. But I hated my rigid musical training, which trained my eyes more than my ears. Now I’m working on listening.' 

Revealing a little about a new work that will be presented at her gallery Société in Berlin this year, being a musician is going to be foregrounded in a new way. ‘I’m looking at the mythology of Athena who invented the first flute. My musical side is creeping in more and more in my work and becoming a central part. In the past, I’ve composed music for my films, but I haven't presented myself as a musician.’

Marianna Simnett, video still The Needle and the Larynx, 2016,  Courtesy the artist and Serpentine Galleries.

In one of her moving image works from 2016, The Needle and the Larynx, you can see up close how the artist has vocal cord surgery to lower her voice. In slow motion, you can see the surgeon pushing down the needle, deeply puncturing the artist’s throat and injecting her cricothyroid muscle with Botox. For many, this is already difficult to watch, but what heightens the visceral experience is sound. Consisting of different parts, amongst others, a pop song sung by the artist and a dialogue between the surgeon and artist, the soundtrack, co-composed by Marianna and Lucinda Chua, is hypnotic and soaring, making it difficult to look away from the very painful procedure.

Weaved into the soundtrack of The Needle and the Larynx, the artist tells the story of a girl who wants to have her voice lowered and threatens the doctor with a plague of mosquitoes should he decline to operate.

The procedure is usually reserved for men whose voices stay high after puberty. It raises questions about binary gender norms in relation to bodies: self-perception, wanting to adhere to (often restricting and arbitrary) gender norms, and the performativity of it all. 

When asked about whether feminist artists of the previous century have influenced her work she says: 'Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger were huge influences when I was a teenager, but so were Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. I was always interested in transgressive art.' She affirms: 'I’m a feminist but I’m also very against certain types of feminism that exclude other genders. My work is queer, weird, and not normal. I want the environments I build to encourage all the wonderful non-gender-identifying humans, animals, and misfits to celebrate themselves.' 

Specifying which aspects of the feminist movement she subscribes to, she asserts: 'I’m interested in the possibilities of reclamation, of quietly taking back something that is yours but was stolen. We are all born into bodies, each of which have different amounts of the work of reclamation to fulfil.’

Another work, Blue Roses, has two parallel storylines, one of them centring on varicose veins, and in the other one, cyborg ‘biobot’ cockroaches are being constructed by computer scientists. There is a mix between documentary style and a hallucinatory narrative, subverting the ability to distinguish what is real from what is imagined. In a similar vein as the cyborg cockroaches, The Udder, made a year before, is about how there is an increased infiltration of technology into things that might be called natural or biological. It’s a tale about the increasingly technical process of automated milk production. 

Marianna Simnett, video still Blue Roses, 2015,  Courtesy the artist and Comar.

Both works exemplify another duality in Marianna’s work. Even though the subject matter and issues that are laid bare are unsettling and sometimes sinister, the imagery is so captivating and beautiful. She acknowledges that there is a certain 'Uncanniness or something in the body that you can’t really describe', at the same time she wants to produce ‘a very comforting and alluring display.’ She suggests that objective might have its roots in her background in theatre: 'I always want to put on a good show. I want it to be glorious and fabulous and unforgettable.'

To create the best possible presentation that fits the needs of the concepts, she works hard on the visual quality, 'whatever that might be for the particular work. It could be a piece of dog shit. It’s not about making seductive images for the sake of the allure. I pay very close attention, I obey what the work needs with razor sharp focus and am governed by a very strong feeling.'

As Marianna examines the praxis of technology and nature, as well as the increasing unfamiliarity with one’s body, she was asked about her position on identity within technology and the rise of the metaverse. Saying that she’s optimistic about it, she postulates: 'Losing sight of one's separatist body and the obvious need for interrelatedness and interdependence is a good thing. To lose this autonomy, individuality, selfish greed, capitalistic pursuit for the individual, and even the autonomy of the hero genius artist.' 

Marianna Simnett, video still The Udder, 2014,  Courtesy the artist and Jerwood / FVU Awards.

Mentioning a book by Legacy Russell called Glitch Feminism, she agrees with the writer’s position on the benefits of being online. 'You can disguise your identity. Legacy is specifically talking from the position of a black queer woman. Maybe being someone else is a very exciting prospect of being able to occupy many different avatars. In my latest work, The Severed Tail, I explore the need and possibility of escaping one's body and entering a more animal one.' 

Ever since 2019, there seemed to have been a shift to more animal-centred films. There is the sculpture Hyena and Swan in the Midst of Sexual Congress and The Bird Game, and its companion Confessions of a Crow which centre on a talking crow. 'It explores the human need to become an animal, to become an animal through a lens of fetish and play, performing a world that isn’t your own.'

Marianna Simnett, installation view Hyena and Swan in the Midst of Sexual Congress, 2019. Part of ‘My Head is a Haunted House’ curated by Charlie Fox, Sadies Coles HQ, 2019. Photography Tim Bowditch.  

Asked whether animals were better suited to tell this story, she replies, 'they’re both animals and humans, they’re hybrids, mutants. It’s a different way of exploring similar topics of the alterity within us—it might be that I’m exploring my stories through medicine, animals, children or technology. Visually they are different, but beneath the surface they are dealing with continuous themes.'

In another recent work, Prayers for Roadkill, which was presented at Art Basel last week and  also on view at Castello di Rivoli, Marianna uses real roadkill as the characters. Noticing that there was a surge in how many animals were hit by cars during the pandemic, she wondered if the sudden surge was due to there being fewer humans on the road, that cars were driving faster, or that animals were becoming more confident crossing roads. ‘I started to collect their mangled bodies and personally skinned each one and built an armature, turning them into puppets.’ While the film evokes memories of children's television series because it’s made with a stop motion technique and shot on 16mm on a Bolex camera, it actually explores rather inharmonious themes. ‘The film looks at the slippages between violence and care,’ she reveals, ‘the animals in the film perpetually die over and over, like a weird nightmare that keeps returning.’ 

Marianna Simnett, video still Prayers for Roadkill, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Castello di Rivoli.

She elaborates how in all of these works, she’s still exploring 'the troubling factor of the other within us, the stranger that is always within us. Whether it’s with technology or animals, there are all these systems of control and power that appear in my work, where the animal is still considered a subordinate species to the human. I try to subvert these systems by asking humans to play the roles of animals. I’m instrumentalising the animals, in a fictitious way, to probe questions about our relation to power and dominance over other creatures and our planet.' 

Marianna Simnett, The Severed Tail, 2022, Three-channel video installation. 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. With the additional support of Societe, Berlin; Zabludowicz Collection; British Council. Photography by Roberto Marossi

The Severed Tail also takes place in an animal world. One of her more recent works, this video installation was created especially for the central exhibition of the 59th La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. Split across three screens, visitors follow a piglet’s journey after she has her tail chopped off by a farmer. 'The Severed Tail is very much about coping and surviving in this current climate of extreme distance and alienation and finding fantastical wild possibilities within that, trying to find new ways of living, even if that means living not in your own body and taking on the guise of someone else.’ 

Tail docking, an existing practice of cutting off the tails of piglets at birth, is done to reduce the risk of tail biting which is not only painful but can lead to serious diseases. This biting is caused, however, by stress when there are too many pigs in a pen. So instead of choosing to not overpopulate the pens, they opt for this cruel practice. 'It’s a comment on claustrophobia, compression and capitalism,’ she points out.  

Marianna Simnett, The Severed Tail, 2022, limited edition print, behind the scenes photograph by Vitali Gelwich. 

The production of this film has been different to the ones before. 'It’s an ambitious and very collaborative project with a huge dazzling cast. It’s also the first time I have shot for three screens. It’s completely immersive, and I’m not using that word lightly. The characters are fragmented—a head here, their body over there, they talk to each other and run across the screens. So the viewer is self-editing the story. It gives them more choice and more agency to choose their version of what they want to see. Also, there is this huge wolfish tail coming through the room that people sit on to watch the film. And you walk through a delicious velvet red curtain. It’s very much like a warped Hansel and Gretel, following the tail, or walking into a fairytale.' 

The story can be seen as a fable, using an animal world to highlight something about human society. Marianna mentions that the story has an intentionally unresolved ending. 'The piglet who is transformed into a human, she kind of gets her comeback at the end. She defeats the evil king seahorse who tries to seduce and rape her, but in a perverse way it’s an anti-resolution, it’s an homage to Leonora Carrington. I made it in the spirit of her writing and paintings and felt her ghost sitting in the room as I filmed.' 

Playing up emotions as well as reason, the surrealist storylines that unfold in her films expose insidious truths. Even if the characters are clearly fictional and the plotlines impossible, her work always speaks the truth about the world we live in. 'I like prodding my fingers into things that feel sticky, that get into the darker recesses of humanity, and ask questions about who we are and how we treat others. Often opening these wounds can be alarming and difficult, but they hold up a mirror to reflect our society.'

Marianna Simnett's The Severed Tail is on view at the Venice Biennale in the Arsenale building until November 27, 2022. Check Société Berlin's website for updates on her solo show later this year.

Cover image: Naomi Rea

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