The Housemarten 2: Helen Marten and the politics of managed depression

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Digital ink does not dry. If it did, it would still be wet by the time I’ve started getting comments about my slightly ironic review of Helen Marten’s show at the Turner Prize. The first hint came from Politika, who repeatedly asked to clarify my position. Did I like the work or not? If I did, how come there’s such a sharp turn at the end? If I did not, why do I insist I liked it to begin with?

My point, of course, was both and neither. I do like it (as design) and don’t really like ‘liking it’ as art; however I like it being there in a place of art-of-today. I feel I’ve been tricked into liking it through the potency of its twee ‘poetic’ ambiance, which may or may not be consciously borrowed from Vento & others but is very closely related to it. Rhizomic sharing of visual materials does contribute to the sense of something being perceived as ‘good’, ‘innovative’ (or just ‘in), and embedding it into the psyche of the viewer who finds themselves silently soothed by the delicious clutter and faint familiarity of it, which may be read as recognition of meaning, or of being spoken to directly.

The main comment was that Helen Marten’s work, like that of the other Turner contestants this year, is not political enough, instead playing it safe. Why is it failing to address the pressing issues of our times? Why all that faffing about with buttocks, coins, impenetrable installations while the ship is sailing away, and all of our dignity, compassion, social policies and standards with it?

A brief comment first: Marten did in fact deliver a politically conscious Turner awards acceptance speech, and she shared her monetary prize for both the Turners and the Hepworth prize with her fellow contestants. Contrary to the frustrations and disagreeances of the part of the art scene that would prefer to see her reject the prize and make some sort of rebellious stance, Marten delivers the work which can be read as hermetic, complex, parochially self-involved, feeling a little delicate and in need of light amusement: precisely the snapshot of the state of shrinking British isles and its preoccupations since Brexit.

That, in my mind, is an interesting and subtle experiment that may reach further than angry words and fractions. It has been proven, quite undeniably, that activists and pro-EU campaigners have been out of touch with the times; that their war cry has not reached the periphery of northeast London; that their protocols, agency and projects have had little enduring effect against the tide of rightwing politics. They have failed to bring the audiences into contact with reality whilst also claiming that it is the artists like Marten who fail to connect with the “art that reflects the political realities of our time.” However, it does just that: Marten’s art bides its time, counts its Etsy clicks, shops tidily for Christmas, strokes a kitten, looks longingly towards the clarity and simplicity of neo-retro-modernism which, even in its vampirised neoliberal form, entirely stripped of its social dimension, still has the aura of the utopias that once fought to bring accessible, functional design to all social strata. In its present state, with its insular earnest prophecies, neoliberal identity politics and interbred parochialisms the British art scene may drift to a visibly more peripheral position in the near future.

My text, with a bit of self-irony (as it would be false to extricate myself from this space), has attempted to point out that art can act politically in different ways. It doesn’t need to be a left-leaning parole, it can be about building programmes and promises as frail as bird’s nests. It could quietly detect the frail balance of consumerist dream and reality. It could also be about critique of the incongruous pageant of privilege, with its genteel hobbies and desolate suburbs.

Let’s remember, out non-elected Prime Minister Ms May, has proclaimed at the Conservative Party conference less than two months ago: “If you believe you are the citizen of the world, you are the citizen of nowhere”.

Marten’s art is that citizen. Underneath her reserved spectrum of polar lights one can detect an aspect of the dystopian relic of modernity, of post-enlightenment sorrow and post-truth depression residing presently on these Nowhere shores.

Depression depicted as a warm blanket, as a pretty and elusive scene with its back turned to the world: how can depicting that be apolitical?

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