Los Angeles born artist Martine Syms has earned wide recognition for a practice that combines conceptual grit, humour and social commentary. Using a combination of video, installation and performance, often interwoven with explorations into technique and narrative, Syms examines representations of Blackness and its relationship to vernacular, feminist thought, and radical traditions. The artist obtained an MFA from Bard College in 2017 and a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007.
During her BFA, Syms coined the term “conceptual entrepreneur” to characterise her practice. The artist’s self-identified title sustains one of her main ideas: self-determination through a sustainable institution, which stems from her interest in independent music and Black-owned businesses. Her research-based practice frequently references and incorporates theoretical models concerning performed or imposed identities, the power of the gesture, and embedded assumptions concerning gender and racial inequalities.
The latest screening in Sadie Coles HQ’s SCHQ Electric series is Syms’ recent video piece Ugly Plymouths, 2020. The work comprises a one-act play of three screens starring Hot Dog, Doobie and Le Que Sabe. As the narrative progresses, the three characters talk and sing alongside and over each other, one receding as another moves into the foreground. On occasion their dialogue falls into a robotic unison, a kind of emotionless chorus – the voices define the distance between them more than the relation. They have trouble relating, despite their efforts at romance, and this troubled connection is the subject of their dialogue.
In Ugly Plymouths, the characters are not visualised; only their surroundings, and surrounding thoughts, are. Videos pan across beach vacations, domestic scenes, music concerts and everyday life in motion. The video takes as its establishing environment the Los Angeles described in Bob Kaufman’s poem “Hollywood”: in this Los Angeles, the city is sick without leave. Actors, artists, pimps, salesclerks and poets are selling delusions whole-heartedly, where there is always a catch and never a foundation.
Syms’ artwork has been exhibited and screened extensively, including presentations at the Museum of Modern Art, Hammer Museum, ICA London, New Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, among other institutions. She has also lectured at Yale University, SXSW, California Institute of the Arts, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and MoMA PS1.
Martine Syms, Ugly Plymouths, 2020 is online until 25 June 2020.
Feature image: Still from Martine Syms, Ugly Plymouths, 2020 © Martine Syms