An Interview with Marianna Simnett
Marianna Simnett lives and works in London. Through performance, video, watercolour, and installation, she challenges how bodies are perceived and imagined. Uncanny narratives display the body as a site of dispute, performing surgical interventions and gestures of collapse and ecstasy.
Solo exhibitions include the forthcoming Frans Hals Museum, Amsterdam (2019) and Kunsthalle Zürich (2019) as well as Copenhagen Contemporary (2019); FACT, Liverpool (2019); the New Museum, New York (2018); Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2018); Zabludowicz Collection, London (2018); Matt's Gallery, London (2017); Seventeen Gallery, New York and London (2016). Group exhibitions include the forthcoming Sadie Coles, London (2019) as well as Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2019); Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (2019); the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2019).
Omer Soylemez: What stemmed your interest into medical procedures? What was your goal in making it the focus of your recent work?
Marianna Simnett: I use the operating table as a testing ground to mutate bodies and identities. I cut bodies up and put them back together in strange ways. There is no such thing as a normal body. Everyone is fucked up in one way or another, whether it’s visible on the outside or not. I interrogate corrective procedures, and systems that try to box people into categories of male, female, sick, broken, ugly, hysterical.
Omer Soylemez: What reactions were you expecting from Blood In My Milk? How did the audience conceive it?
Marianna Simnett: People didn’t leave. It was spooky how most of them fell into the rabbit hole for the full 73 minutes. I wanted to create an environment that felt over-the-top safe, but very suddenly tipped into fear. It jolted between catchy nursery rhymes bleeding into grisly images of amputations. Of course, there were those who walked out in horror, covering their kiddies’ eyes as they went. It was a very positive response.
Omer Soylemez: I see that you use real people to play themselves in your films. In what ways is this making the experience more authentic for the audience?
Marianna Simnett: Actors would ham it up. It would be terrible. I’m not interested in authenticity. The films are a witch’s brew of my imagination, my desires, and the rich narratives my characters already carry. The way the surgeon holds his needle, the herdsman talking about his cows, the bionic cockroach inventor piercing the ganglia… I observe these actions forensically, as I do the inside of a body or an organ. I interview the ‘chosen ones’ over several months. I am a magpie and I collect — stories, anecdotes, weird facts, lyrics — then blend them together until I’ve built a world I want to inhabit.
Omer Soylemez: Did you intend to create a sense of discomfort in the audience? If so, what was the reason for this?
Marianna Simnett: I’ve never set out to cause a particular reaction. I’m just telling the stories I see. I hope they are very tender and funny, as well as uncomfortable. It is wonderful when people faint or puke, or walk into walls, which has often been the case. To be willing to shake your status quo, to shatter a unified sense of self, is a very generous gift from a viewer. The work stems from my deeply unsettled and intense outlook, so it is no wonder that some of this resonates in the work and beyond.
Omer Soylemez: Lets talk about your process, how did you go on to explore medical procedures?
Marianna Simnett: They are very specific. One is a turbinectomy, the removal of the inferior turbinate bones in the nasal cavity. I reconstructed a procedure given to one of Freud’s patients, Emma Eckstein. It was believed in the early 1900s that the nose was a clue to other regions of the body. Removal of the turbinates would supposedly ‘cure’ women of menstrual problems, headaches, masturbation, hysteria… Another is the latest laser technology for varicose veins. Another was an injection of Botox into my larynx to temporarily deepen my voice. I’m attracted to states of transformation.
I make relationship with surgeons, who are in turn, interested in my work. It’s no new thing. I always return to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). Surgery has been inextricably entwined with art for centuries. I cut my films like a surgeon cuts a body. Like the razor blade through the eye in Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), I am attracted to surreal or nightmarish associations, jolting the viewer into unsuspecting moments. It is in these moments that we are able to be reformed.
Omer Soylemez: Can you talk about the structure of your work, why did you choose to make a multi-media installation?
Marianna Simnett: The work contains narratives around fractured selves, incomplete bodies, disease, sickness and contamination. Characters bleed from one film to the next, becoming older through the work. It felt appropriate to make my own carrier bag of fiction, to display these narrative across multiple screens, so that each way you turned, a different viewpoint was shown. This amplifies the obvious impossibility of being able to take in everything at once. It places demands on the viewer, it offers up a choice. It is a universe that you can enter and momentarily escape the horror of the real world on the other side.
Omer Soylemez: What was the significance of sound and space in this installation?
Marianna Simnett: I designed a 9.1 soundtrack so it was different for each viewer, depending on where they were standing. The large spaces at the New Museum, New York and MMK, Frankfurt, afforded me the opportunity to make something truly multi-dimensional. The sound panned through the room in a way that just isn’t possible with a smaller space. The musical sections rang out on all 9 speakers, creating moments of unity and togetherness, which would then collapse back into something more dissonant. The bodies in the space became integral to the work, in the way they moved and responded and began to mirror the bodies on screen.
Omer Soylemez: What was the most arduous part of overtaking such a Project?
Marianna Simnett: Editing 5 x 73 minutes separate edits is akin to making five feature films at the same time. I thought my brain was going to melt. I’ve thankfully forgotten the pain by now, but it was hard.
Omer Soylemez: What is the significance of the human body for you? What was your purpose in using it as a medium?
Marianna Simnett: It’s the most vulnerable and powerful tool I have with which to communicate. I don’t distinguish between a tool and a body. My voice is just as much a technology as a camera. Animal bodies feature greatly in my work, too, as well as organs and bacteria. I certainly don’t privilege the human body.
Omer Soylemez: For your piece called The Needle and the Larynx, you received botox injections to your vocal cords. Can you please talk about this experience?
Marianna Simnett: I contacted a surgeon and asked him to lower my voice. He told me about a condition called puberphonia in which men retain a high voice after puberty, and that there was a procedure he could do which would be temporary. I was up for a permanent result but this would involve invasive surgery which noone was prepared to do. By injecting the cricothyroid muscle responsible for pitch, we could temporarily lower my voice. It was a strange experience, and I lost it completely for two to three weeks. I wrote a story, a fable and made a soundtrack which plays over the top of slowed down footage of the procedure itself. The Botox wore off after about 3 months.
Omer Soylemez: What does your work say about “what is to be human”?
Marianna Simnett: As humans we are crawling with colonies of bacteria and microorganisms. We have never not been hybrids. We are chimeras, connected to complex animal and technological systems. We need to learn to embrace otherness and accept it as part of ourselves.
Omer Soylemez: Would you consider your work Biology Art?
Marianna Simnett: No.
Omer Soylemez: What could artists and scientists gain from more frequent collaborations?
Marianna Simnett: Illegal experiments (artists are great lab rats, I can testify), exploding limbs, new diseases, interspecies sexual relationships, Frankenstein’s monster for the 21st century... such glorious work to be done — bring on the artist and scientist collabs!
Omer Soylemez: What directions do you imagine taking in your future work?
Marianna Simnett: I recently finished a sculpture called Hyena and Swan in the Midst of Sexual Congress, 2019, showing now at Sadie Coles, London, as part of My Head is a Haunted House curated by Charlie Fox. Next up will be a film called The Bird Game about a wicked trickster bird who snares innocent children in the elaborate game of the title and leads them to their deaths.
BY OMER SOYLEMEZ
OMER IS A CREATIVE STRATEGIST BASED IN NYC