Creature discomfort

Erin Harrington considers the visceral humour and subversive expression of Marianna Simnett’s video stories.

In the languid video work The Needle and the Larynx (2016), Berlin-based British artist Marianna Simnett receives an injection of Botox to her throat. Simnett, looking like a blonde ingénue, tilts her chin up at the doctor as if he is a prince about to deliver love’s true kiss, even as he places electrodes on her throat, then digs around with his syringe. The slow-motion footage is prefigured, then overtaken, by real-time audio, including the doctor’s instructions and the buzzing of equipment. This is spliced into Simnett’s descriptive account of the procedure’s effects, and augmented by a dreamy, layered song (“better to be numb / than think of what’s to come / Botox blocks…”). The video loops: the chin tilt, the prick and the song all run again. It’s hypnotic. The procedure is designed to drop the pitch of the voice, and is sometimes used on young men, but even as the needle slides in we hear future Simnett note her extreme fatigue, the difficulty she is having speaking. It is as if she is less a charmed princess than the Little Mermaid, rendered voiceless in the pursuit of the promise of love.

This enticing, wry but disturbing fable is one of the video works that make up CREATURE, a survey of Simnett’s work since 2014, which comes to City Gallery Wellington from the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Her multi-disciplinary practice combines video installations with live performance, music, sculpture and drawing, all of which investigate the body as a site of transition and exchange. These are worlds where abject medical procedures are spliced into children’s games, and where animals, insects and body parts all become protagonists in their own stories.

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

Simnett haunts the exhibition, in body and in voice. It’s not just that she stares out over Civic Square from the exhibition’s banner, challenging the visitor: blue eyes, impeccable blonde bob, white frock, a worm poking out of her mouth. She uses her body as raw material within her practice; her physical body and the body of the work are inseparable. She is overtly present in the gallery foyer in a large text work, a type of confessional monologue or introductory statement, handpainted in block capitals, white on black. It outlines the exhibition’s concerns: embodiment, story, transformation, illness, childhood. You have to turn round and round to read it, becoming as dizzy as the narrator. It’s an apt, playful way of keeping Simnett a part of the exhibition, despite international travel restrictions.

Her body is central to two of the standalone works. Faint With Light (2016) is a distressing, looping, sound and light installation, in which a wall of horizontal rods of white LEDs flares, rising up and down in time with the sound of Simnett hyperventilating herself into unconsciousness, her loud choking gasps undermining any genteel notion of the feminine ‘swoon’. The piece was inspired by the story of Simnett’s grandfather surviving a firing line during the Holocaust by fainting. Simnett’s own breath and body work is inflicted upon the viewer through anxious silences interrupted by staccato gulps, and lights so bright they leave nauseating afterimages.

Marianna Simnett, Faint with light, 2016. Installation view, CREATURE, City Gallery Wellington, 2021

The exhibition’s centrepiece is an immersive, 73-minute, five-channel HD video installation with 9.1 surround sound, Blood in My Milk (2018). It combines and expands upon four previous video works: The Udder (2014), Blood (2015), Blue Roses (2015) and Wrong Gift (2017), this last work a companion to The Needle and the Larynx. Even prior to their combination, the individual works formed woozy parts of the same meandering whole, with characters and performers from one film popping up in another, and recurring themes and motifs echoing between the scenarios, mutating happily. Different worlds collide through disorienting editing; the boundaries between the real and the fantasy are destabilised. Each work combines realistic footage of medical, scientific and farming procedures with highly exaggerated or self-aware sequences. They are beautifully shot and edited, and frequently feature song and music. Non-professional actors, including doctors, scientists and farmers, play heightened versions of themselves. Children roam theatrical play-spaces, tormenting one another. The human and the non-human commingle; identity is precarious. A young blonde girl, Isabel, is a proxy for Simnett as well a human double for the udder of a cow, while being herself doubled by a sexualised doppelgänger, with whom she chats about mastitis and selfhood.

Floating screens are positioned around a large, long space, with ample seating for those who wish to take in the full work. The arrangement of screens lets spectators absorb the layers of the work as they will, each experience a little different, while ensuring that no matter where they look, they have no escape. At times we are at the centre of the action, surrounded by performers and implicated in the story. Elsewhere, disjointed combinations or repetitions of images remind us of the works’ sense of distance and melodrama.

Marianna Simnett, Blood in My Milk, 2018, as installed in CREATURE, City Gallery Wellington, 2021

Audiences are also invited into the gallery’s auditorium to watch The Bird Game (2019), a new piece shot on 16mm film and made specifically as a film, as opposed to a video work. A wicked crow, equal parts bird, witch and storyteller, entices children into a series of devious games and challenges. Although created in support of the 150th birthday of the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children in London, and performed by live birds and children (many in grubby, jewel-toned Disney costumes), this is most definitely not for kids. Instead, it explores illness, cruelty and abuse. It’s funny and subversive, as much about the digitally enhanced present as the near and mythic pasts.

Both challenging and rewarding, CREATURE as a whole foregrounds Simnett’s works as fairy tales of gender and corporeality. It’s worth recalling, then, that fairy tales were once a vehicle for instruction – so what are we to learn? Voice-over narration offers straight description of procedures done to the body (the robot milking of cows, the excision of varicose veins), while didactic and sing-song recitations articulate the ‘rules’ of childhood, sexuality, embodiment and identity. At one point in Blood in My Milk, Simnett, as performer, evokes blonde Alice in her light dress clambering through the looking-glass (in this case peering through glass at a medical facility). Shortly after, the work draws on the image of ‘Hitchcock blonde’ Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963), a type of modern, cinematic, fairytale princess. The Bird Game deconstructs Sleeping Beauty, while other pieces structure themselves as cautionary tales about puberty and transformation. The works defamiliarise these stories and images, recasting them as the stuff of intertextual play, critique and performance.

Marianna Simnett, Blood in My Milk, 2018. Installation view, CREATURE, City Gallery Wellington, 2021

Simnett’s video works are also laced with mordant humour, frequently juxtaposing images of bodies in states of collapse with situational irony, ludic theatricality and sweet-faced absurdism. Playfulness and grotesquerie are key aesthetic and affective strategies that let beasts and bodies speak for themselves. In Blood in My Milk, young Isabel has a procedure on her nose to treat persistent nosebleeds and headaches. The nose as a protuberance and opening, and the recurrence of blood and fluid, have layers of libidinous meaning that are explored throughout the work. Shortly after this surgical sequence Isabel’s two slumber-party frenemies Olivia and Molly appear, wearing magenta sleeping bags, wriggling on the ground next to a giant model of Isabel’s nostrils, gnawing away at them like two Very Hungry Caterpillars. They join Isabel in a cutesy musical number, now set in a soft pink dream-space that recalls a four-chambered cow’s udder, about their role as personified bits of excised bone. “We are your inferior turbinates,” they sing cheerily, one tapping away at a child’s xylophone and another dinging a triangle. It’s like a pre-schooler’s educational music video about the Freudian return of the repressed – which is to say, it’s hilarious.

Black comedy segues into sequences that complicate our understanding of the body. Surely we must feel for the bulbous, cartoonish varicose veins—the unwanted ‘blue roses’—both a part of and voiced by Simnett, which are juxtaposed against cybernetic cockroaches whose nervous systems have been modified by scientists. It provokes simultaneous disgust and sympathy. The work asks: what are we willing to cut out or alter to conform, or minimise discomfort, and what are the stakes for the things that are cast aside? What has the capacity to feel pain, and who gets to make decisions about such invasive alterations? Where do our bodies begin and end? Such dissonant humour is perhaps a way in for spectators who are thrown by the pieces’ more confronting, visceral content.

In these narratives, the threat of corruption or collapse is always near, but this breakdown might also be a site of transgressive pleasure, even escape. Our malleable bodies, our porous identities, are always and already monstrous, and therein lies the opportunity. Young Isabel says to her sexualised double, “I’m an original—a prototype—you’re not supposed to come ’til later”—yet here she is. These works demonstrate, with abject beauty, that we are both the storyteller and the story.

Marianna Simnett’s CREATURE is at City Gallery Wellington until 11 July

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