Marie Karlberg: “A Stranger in the Dark”

Words By David Riley

Artist Marie Karlberg takes Topical Cream on a tour of her first New York solo show, and talks about performance art, internet trolls, and her personal definition of feminism.


In only a few short years, Marie Karlberg has established herself as an unmistakable presence on the downtown New York art scene, both for her fearless personality and her trademark style––part Fassbinder muse, part eurotrash club kid. She greets me at Reena Spaulings gallery wearing platform shoes and spider web earrings. “Do you recognize the floor,” she asks, pointing to black tiles splattered with blotches of purple and red. “They’re the same as the floor of the subway.”


Installation View of Stranger In The Dark at Reena Spaulings

She is also the instigator (along with Stewart Uoo and Hayley Pisaturo) of XTAPUSSY, an infamous and unlikely Soho rave, and the star of a series of highly charged and self-objectifying performances. These include “Slapped” at Frieze, “Infested” at Artist Space, and “A Woman for Sale” at 1:1. In this last performance, she methodically listed her physical traits, removing her clothes, and all traces of herself, in an attempt to make herself easier to sell.

“Most of my performance has become a critique, or a bit satirical, towards performance art. Instead of buying something I made with my hands, you can buy my whole body. You can buy me. With “A Woman for Sale”, I was trying to become a product in the performance.”

Untitled and Tied, 2014, urethane resin, rubber, fabric, assorted hardware, 71 x 70 inches

Uploaded to YouTube by a random spectator, a video of the performance received over 700,000 views, as well as a slew of comments, some supportive, some disparaging, many outright misogynistic: “Don’t let your kids get a fine art major” (Karlberg doesn’t have one), “some real underground hipster ass sht [sic]”, “Be a BRAVE woman take off the panties”

“I was definitely surprised by the extreme misogyny on the internet. Maybe they were intrigued by the title. Maybe they were expecting a Russian bridesmaid. I was really fascinated with it, that’s why I used it in my performance in this show.”

Tie Up Your Friends, 2014, rubber, urethane resin, fabric, pearls, assorted hardware, ink on paper, 100 x 200 inches

For the opening of “A Stranger in the Dark”, Karlberg created a performance in which she recited a long list of these comments, in a room full of newly created physical objects which emphasize aspects of her performance work: ink drawings, squares of fabric smothered with urethane resin, embroidery joined together with rubber and hardware, and layers of printed vinyl mounted on plexiglass and bolted together. It’s a collision of the pretty and the ugly, the whimsical and the utilitarian, the masculine and the feminine.

Parasite, 2014, ink on paper, framed, 11 x 8 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches

The ink drawings were inspired by The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s collection of often salacious stories set during the Black Plague, and seem to revel in the grotesque assortment of elaborate medieval headgear, weathered faces, and bare asses. Elsewhere she pulls from the later work of Brueghel and Holbein. Death and the Lady, a corpse smiling over the shoulder of a voluptuous Renaissance beauty, appears on a plexiglass plinth, opposite an image of Karlberg showering. In similar fashion, a nearby plexiglass frame layers an image of men burning at the stake with an image of the artist. “It was the first time I had seen an image of men burning at the stake instead of women. And then I put myself on top of it.” It’s titled ‘Burning Man’.

Further down the wall, a web of embroidered pieces are bound together with rubber cords and hardware. She transforms this usually ladylike activity into something more sinister, with stitching that resembles scars (“like when I removed some moles this summer”), and clusters of plastic pearls that look like bedbugs or lice. Certain patterns recall ancient runes or Byzantine lettering. “I love the way P looks. For a collector, it might represent Price. For an artist, Prostitution. Or a gallerist might say Production. “

Add to that Performance and Panties. In her performances, Karlberg’s sexualized body becomes a place where her complex and unresolved political and anarchistic views play out. “That’s my way of expressing feminism. Feminism for me is not acting like a victim. Instead I’m trying to take up space. I demand space. And I demand this sort of attention as a woman… being able to express myself like any man would. I’m raising my hand. That’s my way of demanding that people listen to what I’m saying. “

She finds the legions of internet trolls unrelatable, but in another way, their banal comments serve as their own critique of performance art.

“Some are creeps. Some are haters. Who has time to comment on the internet?”