Alexander Scrimgeour Speaks With Marlie Mul

Marlie Mul’s sculptures often simulate everyday outdoor objects that refer to human interaction, such as air vents used as ashtrays, heaps of snow arranged with stubbed out cigarette butts, or gritty rain puddles littered with generic bits of trash. With cigarette butts and litter depicting traces of human behaviours, the situations presented in these works suggest to the viewer the invisible presence of a virtual population or crowd. 

Alexander Scrimgeour is a writer, editor, and curator based in Berlin. On the occasion of the ICA's Journal exhibition, he spoke to Mul about her work on Facebook, Skype, Google Docs, and IRL over the past few months.    

Alexander Scrimgeour: Would you agree that your works – I’m thinking particularly of the 'No Oduur' group and the puddle works – function as invocations of narratives, ways of summoning fictional and/or historical stories? 

Marlie Mul: You could say that I ‘make use’ of narrative, with which I mean that in some of the projects narrative is present in a way that exaggerates its usual function in art: it’s supposed to guide art’s interpretation and reception, thereby addressing how the artist is traditionally seen as the critical unveiler of truth (and how artists also tend to see themselves too much like that). 

AS: As in ‘the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths’? 

MM: Yeah. ‘Second Hand Smoke’, the text that accompanies the works made for the exhibitions 'No Oduur' [1] innocently professes to ‘just live up to’ the expectations of the presence of factual and/or theoretical contextualisation in art production: it gives the reader some of tobacco smoking’s ‘juicy facts’ in chronological order, as a way to show our obsession with understanding. That’s to say, an artwork doesn’t need or shouldn’t need to give that to the viewer, but as a modernist product it’s still the pivotal point and product of art education, as well as art’s reception: the artistic process, which is actually a fragmented one, is conventionally understood as continuous, and the resulting work or final product identified as one entity. So the topic of smoking itself is a placeholder that enables us to speak about various things, and in part it functions as tool to demonstrate how we have expectations of factual information. 

AS: And it’s hard not to have the reception of the works guided by the history, even the historiography in that text, which contextualizes them within the changing social and cultural significance of smoking. 

MM: Smoking is, on the one hand a socially loaded topic that one is expected to have a defined pro- or contra- position to, which either way is a culturally defined construct. On the other, smoking comes across as a banal subject, as something black-and-white and obvious, but it works well as a phenomenon that can be very clearly traced throughout history, demonstrating the shifting attitudes we have towards the body and its relationship to such concepts as health, addiction, power and (individual) responsibility. All the works made within this project fall very well into or serve as ways to refer to the chronological narrative of tobacco’s presence as a thing to smoke, to consume. 

AS: So the information you give to the viewer is not only something you are addressing critically, as part of what one might call the apparatus of contemporary art in the knowledge economy, but something useful at the same time, something through which to ‘read’ the exhibitions and contextualize the works. Or how would you describe the function of the text? 

MM: I would not want to claim that the works are about the text or the other way round. Text here is used as a format, to bring various pieces of information together and putting them onto same level as objects and images, as if in a flat hierarchy. In the same way as this text, the smoking works – steel wall works depicting air vents that have been adapted as public ashtrays and series of drawings with smoke cloud faces and figures – set out to present loose visual references that might add up to something that works as a reference for you or might not. In the case of these exhibitions that focus on the topic of smoking, smoke’s presence as a cloud is something that makes the metaphysical clutter of art’s ‘event’ visible and tangible: All the obligatory elements that make up the package of a show I guess, a title, some (contextualizing) text, the work, can all be treated as equal objects of which one can say that they set out ‘the’ narrative, but what happens is that on the opening night the topic primarily provides small talk, another additional element that hangs around in the atmosphere like a cloud. This is also relevant to the final sentence of the ‘Second Hand Smoke’ text: ‘It is the active smoker that creates the passive smoker. Second Hand Smoke is the conception of connected rather than disconnected bodies.’ 

AS: Yes, exactly. 

MM: It speaks of medicine’s invention of the passive smoker, which needed to be done in order to be able to blame the smoker for allowing harm to come to another body, i.e., to the non-smoker. So the act of smoking is turned into a spatial issue and air becomes something that can be territorialized. And, if one understands the body as a porous organism, where is it that my body stops and your body starts, in the realm of smoking this would mean, where is it that your body’s responsibility towards mine starts? At the time the setting of such boundaries was mainly motivated by medicinal and legislative politics but in the text and the works I guess it hints at the physical impossibility of territorialisation, how we are all in this together, and that the common social body is something that after all exists. 

AS: Which is interesting as well because it was more or less around the time of the collapse of communism, and the height of neoliberalism, that some of these ideas resurfaced within this medicinal legalistic framework, as if the hidden or suppressed social body was finding its way back in through the cigarette: the irony of smoking is that, although it is an addictive consumer product, it was sold as a symbol of individualistic freedom – the Marlboro man, or ‘liberté, toujours’.  

MM: But the smoke cloud also becomes a way to deal with air, environment and virtuality. And on top of that, a socially loaded and universal human topic such as tobacco smoking brings the works into a sentimental realm of the work and its relation to everyday life, the streets, accessibility. 

AS: Some of those ideas of course carry on into the puddle works you started making in 2013, which also deal with environment and virtuality – and the streets, the everyday. But my feeling is that they take up this question of context differently: that there’s a different kind of backstory here. Partly, for me, it’s that the pieces of trash carry a history, and with the enclosure and permanence of the epoxy puddles, there’s something transient that has been fixed, like a bee in amber. There’s a kind of sadness to them, as well as their being so shiny, something the eye is drawn to whether it wants to or not. 

MM: What I wanted was to move away from a series of works that was so much built up on demonstrating the use of theoretical or historical contextualization as a tool, strategy, or obstacle, which so much belonged to that series of exhibitions that fall under the title ‘No Oduur’.  The puddles started out from a much vaguer place, they really came out of an atmosphere I sensed at that moment amongst people, as far as I could tell from where I was standing, and that I wanted to pin down or something. A general underlying sense of boredom or underwhelmedness, a having lost sense of direction and purpose, a lack of optimism and some kitschy ideas about the end of the world seemed to float around, and still do. 

AS: Yes, there’s often this feeling that we live in end times... 

MM: It is possible that such sentiments are triggered by the continuing financial crisis, but no one seems to know what to do, or wants to do everything at the same time which kind of leads to the same result. At the time though, such at the outset politically motivated incidents as the London, Stockholm and Paris riots were seen as the eruption of a general negativity on larger scale. But in the end the cynical outcomes of these outbursts were so frustrating because seemingly fruitless, underlining again that ‘there’s nothing to be done,’ besides an acceptance of how things are or outbursts of what seems to be pointless and self-destructive violence. Around the same period there was this situation that occurred in Holland that was named Project X Haren after some 2012 movie, where a girl set up a Facebook event to invite friends for her 16th birthday party. The location for the party was to be her parents’ house, in some small town in the north of the country; everything about the whole situation was quite unremarkable. At some point the Facebook event was hacked by Internet trolls, which led to tens of thousands of people being invited to the event in the time span of a few days. With the mayor of the town on national news every day declaring there would be no party on the given date, giant guerrilla banners appearing on random buildings throughout the country, and memorabilia T-shirts of the event being sold online in advance, the situation became totally hyped. This resulted in thousands of young people travelling to the town with some sense of collective thrill of what would obviously be some pretty random creating of disruption. The girl’s family was evacuated with helicopters and the town was packed with riot police, all parties were present for some form of chaos to occur. This riot was going to be blatant destruction for destruction's sake from the beginning, but what was quite striking is that afterwards all the visual documentation of the night looks exactly like that of the more ‘politically motivated’ riots that were taking place around the same time. Dark dramatic images that show people in action, or burning cars, smashed shop fronts, blood in a face, etc. As dark as the actual situation looked, it was still random disruption created by middle class kids in a safe suburban environment out of something like boredom. Or out of needing to feel that one can create destruction in the safety of collectivity in order to feel alive. The whole situation takes its fruitlessness in its stride, but on a visual level the product or outcome seems the same. The puddles would fit well in such a scenario, in how their surface reflects light, and contain entrapped bits of trash; they have some sort of serene aftermath vibe, or are quiet onlookers to some situation. 

AS: There’s a lot of that atmosphere. But nobody would know the Project X story if they just looked at the works. 

MM: No, and that doesn’t matter. This anecdote about Project X story with the puddles is an observation rather than an answer; it can optionally function as a way to bring the works in a dusky murky place, which is much looser than seeing how they can fulfil a role within a factual/fictional or even historiographical framework. 

AS: That dusky murky place is maybe what you meant when you spoke about your work in that interview with Pablo Larios as a ‘backdrop for a general malaise’. And part of that, it seems to me, is that your work seems to refer to a kind of ‘Before’ – which is I guess this sense of an aftermath you’re talking about. And for me, this relates also the question, which also comes up in that interview, of accumulation: the way the works carry traces or residues (the cigarette butts people leave, the street trash that finds its way into puddles)… 

MM: It’s true that they depict the real, but I’d rather see the works as props than as residues. As props, they are more in the present tense, in the moment, and if you speak about residues then they’re past tense, which would bring them into a realm of documentation of the present, or like how the ancient Egyptians would try to defeat death by leaving behind images. I don’t think the works function as documentation in that way. 

AS: But isn’t another thing about them, through this dramatic or maybe filmic element, is that they point to an elsewhere, somewhere outside the gallery, maybe a place where ‘real’ or ‘realistic’ things happen? 

MM: Yes, although for me the dramatic/filmic element doesn’t literally refer to movies, or to theatre; it’s more experiential and setting out this atmosphere or mood. The pieces are recognisable and generic, accessible; they could be removed from an urban or suburban location. They have a human scale and seem to suggest a virtual presence. This superficial recognisability is an important tool to pull the viewer in. Where realist painters might be tempted to add a clump of grass or a stone to their painting, but felt they couldn’t because they need to create a concentration of reality through their technique, these pieces are an amalgamation of real bits and fake bits. Making something that represents the real but isn't, and is actually so obviously artificial, I think says more about the real, than, say, putting a readymade in the exhibition space. Both smoke, and the puddles (a body of water) are quite metaphysical things for me, something I can’t always put my finger on, which I guess suits them because they are all quite amorphous entities. ■   

 July 2014

[1] The title is a deliberate misspelling of ‘odour’, forcing a weird pronunciation of the word.