Helen Marten: Plank Salad

Chisenhale Gallery, London, 23 November – 27 January

By Oliver Basciano

Helen Marten, Plank Salad (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery), 2013. Photo: Andy Keate. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Helen Marten, Plank Salad (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery), 2013. Photo: Andy Keate. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Helen Marten, Plank Salad (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery), 2013. Photo: Andy Keate. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery.

Any attempt to give an inventory of the found and fabricated objects that make up Helen Marten’s 13 tight, discrete installations in full would use up the allotted space (and any reader’s patience) pretty quickly. But that’s not to say that such things are unimportant. Indeed it’s these objects that overwhelmingly shape the initial experience of this exhibition. My notes from the show – a long list of random items – starts ‘cigarette packets, tangerine, bread, workstations’ and continues in a similar vein.

The ‘workstations’ (that’s my description, not the artist’s) make up an installation titled A Face the Same Colour As Your Desk (all works 2012), comprising four desklike steel units that, together with a fifth longer, taller piece of ad hoc furniture (reminiscent of an extended lectern and titled Peanuts), stand in a narrow space leading to the main gallery space. Each workstation is bedecked (albeit delicately) with a variety of objects – the tangerine, cigarette packets and so on. The main gallery houses five freestanding installations – each turning over a variety of aesthetic references in their object mix. Sometimes the obvious influence of interior design comes to the fore: in the polite panelling of Ways to Inflate, for example, or with More Handles Than Fingers to Count On, a sizeable ceramic urn inscribed with the name ‘Lauder’ in various fonts. Other works – One for a Bin, Two for a Bench: Friend, Amigo, Sport, a totemic pine sculpture with an anthropomorphised cloud at its head – are more cartoonlike. These twin notions come together in the four large Roy Lichtenstein-esque graphic portraits of Mozart silkscreened on leather, and hung on the far wall. Bits of chewing gum have been stuck on and left to harden at a point between the print and the frame, and like weights, various bottles of spirits dangle on string from the bottom of each picture. Facing these on the opposing wall is Traditional Teachers of English Grammar, various wallmounted, three-dimensional, silhouetted depictions of Victorian-era domestic chairs in black-painted welded steel. The furniture droops this way and that, however, prompting references to surrealist painting. The final flourish to this work is the presence of bunches of keys hanging from the legs and arms, heavy connotations of internality and externality.

Yet far from being the visual cacophony that the notes and my more extended descriptions might suggest, the works remain strangely composed – or rather, Marten bestows a sense of ordered, poetic, cleanliness on her installation that sets the work apart from that of other artists – Isa Genzken or Steven Claydon, for example – pursuing a similar process of found-object collation. Marten’s compositions come together like a form of materialised modernist poetry: opaque, sometimes hard to follow and occasionally absurd, yet with a distinct, if whispered, sense of authorial voice. It’s a voice that seems, to a certain extent, and in an abstracted and quietly political form, to add biographic detail to the imagery – the choice of one brand over another, the relative attractiveness of certain packaging, issues of health (the orange) and unhealth (the cigarette packets) – the facets of aspirational design with which we’re surrounded and bombarded with every day. There’s an aphorism from Seneca the Younger in which the philosopher writes that ‘the primary sign of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company’. What Marten’s work demonstrates is that being in the modern world means never really being alone. And she leaves it up to the viewer to guess what that’s doing to our minds.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue.