Marlie Mul: Arbeidsvitaminen

14 February – 21 March 2015, Vilma Gold, London

By Sean Ashton

Nicotine Patch Panel (Healing #2), 2015, Plexiglas, steel, silkscreen, 122 × 212 cm. Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy Vilma Gold, London

An air of provisionality pervades Marlie Mul’s show at Vilma Gold: three of the five sculptures use cardboard boxes as presentational devices. The largest work, ‘Ug’ (Ug), ‘Duh’ (də), ‘Muh’ (mɜːɹ), ‘Bam Bam’ (bæm bæm) (all works 2015), features 13 of them, haphazardly stacked, some closed and some open. The contents, 25 caveman clubs made from an amalgam of polyurethane, paper, sand, glue and varnish, spill out onto the floor or poke up into the air from snug nests of polystyrene loosefill. Some of the clubs have been removed and positioned alongside the packaging, while others appear to have been dropped in disappointment. The notional recipients of two other cardboard-packaged works, tech (#1) and tech (#2), have shown less patience, ripping the front faces off the wall-mounted boxes to reveal a complex system of steel cogs welded together.

These ‘consignments’ represent man’s technological odyssey, from the Paleolithic to the industrial era, perhaps presenting themselves as artefacts rather than artworks – though that is deliberately undercut by the cartoon slickness of the clubs and the nonfunctional status of the cogs. Mul’s central conceit is to look back at the folly of the Anthropocene from an unspecified future. ‘It can only be hoped’, runs the last sentence of her slightly rebarbative press release, ‘that one day future generations will look back at us with as much contempt as we do our troglodyte former selves’. I’m not sure contempt is what I feel for my less privileged ancestors – neither does any of the work here, considered without this Cassandra-like strapline, seem to excoriate man’s fecklessness.

Would it be better if it were more palpably antihumanist? Actually, I’m glad it isn’t. The two other – for me, more accomplished – offerings, Nicotine Patch Panel (Healing #1) and Nicotine Patch Panel (Healing #2), seem to leap forward from the industrial era to the neurotic present. In both works, images of nicotine patches are silkscreened onto two-metre-square Plexiglas sheets, held in vertical position between two steel supports. Blown up, these medical appliances take on a votive feel, sacraments of an epoch defined by rituals that oscillate between self-harm and self-help. Again, there is a hypothetical recipient of the knowledge encoded here – but we are not it. This is the most interesting aspect of Mul’s approach. Her objects present themselves as starting points for an epistemological game, one in which we are asked to think about the traces our current material culture may leave behind. That may sound like a familiar artistic ploy, but her presentational rhetoric – the idea of positing a work as a consignment of goods – adds another axis. Clearly there is an interest in how the cooption of an object into the world of commerce alters its meaning. The prosaically welded cogs in tech #1 and tech #2 look like pastiches from an outfit specialising in neo-dada assemblage, while the caveman clubs resemble film props. Central to the appeal of both works is the mystery of who might have sent these objects and to what end.

Perhaps this strategy is in its early stages. There is a whole category of contemporary art that uses the language of sculpture while simultaneously disavowing it by assigning the material a loosely defined conceptual status. I would suggest that there is a disconnect between Mul’s abrasive critical agenda and its playful material outcomes. If future projects in this vein can lighten the critical payload, finding their subject matter through formal inquiry rather than through prior thematic stipulation, the results might be more consistently seductive. 

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.