Martine Syms: Vertical Elevated Oblique

Words by freda nada

Well versed in the architecture of the screen, Martine Syms’ first solo exhibition in New York titled Vertical Elevated Oblique is currently on view at Bridget Donahue gallery until the first of November. The exhibition is a collection of artifacts, photographs, sculptures, century stands, sandbags and video works. The installation evokes the atmosphere of a well-archived but abandoned makeshift set of a career YouTube star.

Notes On Gesture, is the focal point of the exhibition, a roughly ten-minute piece performed by Diamond Stingily, sliced up by the artist. The video is a collage of black female tropes in gif-ish loops. In a talk at The Walker Art Center, Syms discussed her piece, “Black Vernacular: Lessons of The Tradition” which consists of processed footage from MTV’s The Real World season one, explaining that she used “repetition as a framework for abstraction.” Repetition in Notes On Gesture draws the viewer into decontextualized nuance. For Syms,–repetition draws the viewer into decontextualized nuance. ‘Blackness,’ the concept we are so fascinated by, is the preoccupation here as it is in Syms’ work in physical media.

In addition to her video work, the artist recontextualizes physical objects, clothing lays deliberately drooping like old painterly smocks, displaying slogans like “my eyes remind you where you came from.” The dialectical relationships between private/performative, authentic/self-promoting, fetish object/byproduct carries forth a vague and informal YouTube aesthetic. A large purple panel–presumably the backdrop for other works–anchors the show on the right side of the gallery wall.

Syms considers herself a ‘conceptual entrepreneur’ but doesn’t concede to the “Concept” in a traditional sense. In 1969, Sol Lewitt wrote in his highly referential “Sentences on Conceptual Art”: “The artist’s will is secondary to the process he, initiates from idea to completion. His willfulness may only be ego.” However, Martine Syms is more of an anonymous manager in the choreographed performance of ego. However, the question is more vague here than in the past. Syms’ current piece contains questions about the relationship between the mechanical and the social. She breaks down language and image in an exercise which can be read as an attempt to break down the authority of language itself– leaving us with technical artifacts.


Notes on Gesture, Video Color, sound, 2015

The virtual has not transcended socio-political judgments the way utopian afrofuturist texts envision. Rather than moving into a decolonizing fantasy, Vertical Elevated Oblique is invested in contemporary ‘stuckness’ the way every public conversation about ‘blackness’ eventually reaches its limit of incomprehension. For example, the stuttering of speech in Notes On Gesture, serves to deconstruct language while also referencing the machine-logic of beta-testing currently dominating the digital frontier as part of a post-enlightenment culture which seeks marginal change in praxis despite a rhetoric of disruption.

Two black resin panthers, titled Black Panthers, are anchored, smoldering, towards the front of the gallery; though this area functions more like a ‘backstage’ in the scheme of the exhibit’s installation. Purple film over the windows provide etherea lighting, a more nostalgic version of the electrified purple in the in her video works. A metanarrative process can be traced to this section of the exhibit. The panthers present an analog doubling or ‘twoness’ to the artist’s photographic prints–and the multiple glitchy takes in the video. A photograph showing the silhouette of a woman with arms akimbo is one of the few fixed images in the exhibition without a visible flip-side.

As a footnote, a pop up bookshop for Syms’ publishing outfit, Dominica, is tucked at the very back of Bridget Donahue. The shop traces related works from Lauren Anderson, Black Radical Imagination, E. Jane, Gene’s Liquor, Nicky Benedek, Marco Braunschweiler, Kayla Guthrie, David Hartt, Kahlil Joseph, Chloe Maratta, Hassan Rahim, Diamond Stingily and Wilmer Wilson IV. The popup is organized in a way which suggests a kind of historical narrative progression, in contrast with the nonlinear configuration of Vertical Elevated Oblique.


Martine Syms has made some interesting new developments to her ideas since I first encountered her work at the New Museum Triennial Surround Audience where she exhibited S1:E1, an examination of blackness in the American sitcom. Vertical Elevated Oblique is a more ambiguous riff on a similar theme, the production of culture. The staged quality lends a grotesque passion-for-the-real, rather than, reality TV gloss. S1:E1 was tied more closely to its original concept, its tangible effects included a legible, self-contained script. Vertical Elevated Oblique reveals in its totality a production model beyond being simply an array of art objects, – a representation of a group, or a cinematic feature. It’s the kind of production expected from someone who has been using the title of ‘conceptual entrepreneur.’ It’s a deceptively casual debut for Syms, like a planned leak of a mixtape, downloadable through a “link in bio.”


Prone Horizontal Forwards, Elevated Oblique Noting, A Thread Or Line That Holds Things Together, 2015

freda nada is a writer and new media theorist based in new york chinatown. her work has appeared via new inc, bullet magazine, new bloom and the huffington post. she is currently working with live programming at ps1 and focusing on web/electronic based projects. her social networks identifier is @spxghett1.