REVIEW: Borrowed Lady: Natural and Constructed Signification

Kayla Elderton | December 22, 2016

Martine Syms, Borrowed Lady. Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2016. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Martine Syms' exhibition Borrowed Lady, at the Audain Gallery from October 12 to December 10, 2016, is an expanded four-channel installation of her 2015 single-channel video Notes on Gesture. The work is inspired by the connections between seventeenth-century physician John Bulwer's study of hand gestures, Syms' own personal interactions with signifying gestures, and shared experiences of mass circulated Internet gestures such as emojis and GIFs.  The bookshelf in the gallery's vitrine is filled with books that have refined Syms' attachment to signification, as well as references that curator Amy Kazymerchyk has selected to offer contextual thinking for Syms' current direction.

Martine Syms, Borrowed Lady. Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2016. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

A circle of four monitors face each other, mounted on poles in the purple painted gallery. They each play a unique edit of Notes on Gesture. The formation draws viewers to the center of the multisensory display where the conversation moves continuously between the screens and speakers. The performer's actions and speech in the video are looped to a quick rhythm, syncing with the edited sounds. Her vocals are distorted enough that I could minimally understand some sequences, whereas others seemed completely foreign, or abstractly acoustic. Her physical gestures loop, leaving the viewer only to catch glimpses of what is being expressed.

In the public conversation between Syms and SFU School of the Contemporary Arts professor Dr. Laura U. Marks, Marks describes Syms work as a manifestation of gesture, some of which are "owned, performed, mimicked and borrowed". Syms addresses this as a collection of affective coding. Marks also describes Syms' work as being "unavailable" even though the viewer is "sitting within it, you can’t quite access it because there is an intimacy between [Syms and the performer] that is inaccessible".  This follows Syms' interest in the limits of performance, and the authenticity and construction of gesture. Syms references Prosthetic Memory by Alison Landsberg, a book that considers taking on gestures that aren’t yours; gestures that form from memories that are accumulated through exposure to cinema and mass media. "Prosthetic memory" pertains to Syms' interest in the way in which black culture is portrayed in mass media and the cultural gestures that are coded as a result.

Martine Syms in conversation with Laura U. Marks. SFU's Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, 2016. Photo: Cassidy Miller.

Marks also introduced Syms' use of purple as a coded colour, which she describes as having "a spiritual presence in a secular environment." Although Syms was originally drawn to the colour for its cultural association with black history in Alice Walker's novel and subsequent film The Color Purple (1985), as well as Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1991), she is also intrigued by its ever-growing meaning and association. The colour, just like the gestures Syms explores in Borrowed Lady, is coded because it cannot exist without an association.

Syms invites us into the semiotics of her work which results in what Marks describes as a feeling of "whiplash". This whiplash is inherent to the embodiment that exists between the viewer and the work. Marks describes this as "haptic visuality." She explains that Borrowed Lady's "tactile effect comes mostly through mimesis, through the response of the viewer's body to the performing body, body to body contact." This is experienced most saliently by standing in the center of the four monitors within the purple painted gallery and feeling the haptic visuality directly.

The November 19th film screening at SFU's Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema titled The Unreliable Narrator consisted of previous works by Syms: My Only Idol Is Reality (2007), Lessons (2014), A Pilot For A Show About Nowhere (2015), Memory Palace (2015), Notes on Gesture (2015) and She Mad: Laughing Gas (2016). The screening began with My Only Idol Is Reality, which replays a scene from the first season of MTV's The Real World. Within the scene, an argument arises between a white female and a black male around issues of privilege. The footage is of low quality and as the fight progresses so does the image's deterioration. This video set a tense tone for the rest of the screening. Following the seven-minute argument, a work called Lessons was shown. It is a selection of commercial length vignettes randomized by a VLC player, to produce different sequences each time it is viewed. Many of the vignettes relate to Syms' perspectives on black identity and black histories that were repeated throughout the screening.

This feeling of racial coding is a common thread throughout Syms' work and relates to Borrowed Lady's observation of the constructed signification of cultural gestures. The idea of gestures and phrases being racially coded is completely evident on the Internet through Vines, Memes and GIFs, where actions and phrases are framed as belonging to black culture and then mimicked. These politics weighed heavily throughout the screening, considering the racial tensions that currently exist within North America. The screening unfolded some of these cultural complexities that have dominated the media, such as twenty-first century segregation and the unmet expectation of racial equality in the United States.

Borrowed Lady involves viewers haptically as Marks suggests, and this haptic element leads us into the deep seeded issues that saturate Syms' videos. The videos repeat just as questions around race and identity circle throughout Syms' works. The presence of her practice is resilient in its form and inquiry and only time will be able to answer its call.

Work Cited

[1] "Martine Syms: Borrowed Lady" Web. 14 Oct. 2016.