I’ve never been ghosted by a work of art before, but I guess there is a first time for everything. On entering Martine Syms’s new solo exhibition at Sadie Coles, I am confronted by Mythiccbeing (2018), an enormous video installation comprised of hundreds of miniscule LEDs. Intermittently, a phone number comes up on a screen with the words ‘text me’ and I’m promised that if I interact, this work will respond. When people refer to a piece of art communicating with the audience it isn’t usually meant in the most literal sense, and in my case at least, I’m left clutching my phone anxiously waiting for a text back to: ‘Hi bbz… How are you?… What are you thinking about RN?… Hellooooooo.’ As the message bubbles gently shift from blue to green I feel an involuntary sense of dread – it appears even a chat bot can crush your self-esteem.
This could easily be a Machiavellian trick designed to compound the overarching sense of social anxiety that fills the gallery. Mythiccbeing is undoubtedly the focus, featuring a complex three-dimensional rendering of Syms’s face which appears to be imbued with her own physical characteristics: a brief sigh, a gentle move of the lips or a slight turn of the head. This vision is interspersed with a montage of mundane video clips, random blocks of text and found imagery, all of which coincide with Syms’s enigmatic voiceover. She reels off seemingly inconsequential and classically millennial thoughts around sex, money and everyday drama, all conveyed in the kind of language you would share with your friends in a group chat, as well as trance-like sexual interrogations: ‘Girl you like that? Girl you like that?’
These rapid switchbacks between hyper-erotic speech and trivial chat perfectly mimic the splintered communication most of us engage with every day through an onslaught of texts, DMs, emails and phone calls. Combined with Syms’s own image, it’s as if you are getting inside her head at that exact moment when it feels like the brain can’t take it anymore, and the notion of a ‘digital detox’ promises sweet relief.
Mythiccbeing, is a somewhat incongruous combination of high tech and industrial construction. An obtrusive metal frame holds up the slick LED projection surface and unconcealed cables litter the floor – all in all likening the installation more to a super computer than the handheld devices we use every day. Even more fragmented conversations surround the work. Chairs constructed from thick, brightly coloured polyester straps are scattered throughout the space, each one emblazoned with a different selection of random phrases, including a list of recreational drugs, and the imperative question, ‘Who is going to grab my booty?’ It is worth noting that you can actually sit on these pieces of furniture too, which gives you the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in the show and fully immerse yourself in Syms’s strange universe.
The walls are also plastered with disjointed phrases syphoned into something akin to a flow diagram. This installation is apparently based on the aesthetics of ‘threat modelling’, a system used to seek out possible vulnerabilities in computer systems. In this guise however, Syms’s thoughts – some of which follow universally stressful narratives such as ‘I have so much fucking work 2 do’, ‘it’s a compulsion’, and ‘go slow’ – remind me of the aesthetics used in the banal flow-chart quizzes that populate trashy magazines (complete with visual cues inspired by emojis and stickers). However, this network has violent undertones. Violence towards women, racial prejudices and body dysmorphia all integrate within this web, thus painting a picture of Syms’s ongoing interrogations around the representation and experiences of Blackness and womanhood.
The Relax Your Jaw (2018) series is the final component that completes this world of listless anxiety. A collection of seemingly random photographs document everything from an embracing couple to an anonymous landscape. They are printed on dancefloor vinyl and affixed to the ground with neon pink tape. References to Japanese tatami mats and billboard dimensions have both been cited, but to my mind they are more reminiscent of the aspect ratios used on apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Once again, the domain of the phone and wider Internet communications seems inescapable, even if the images themselves are more akin to those you’d edit out of your feed after a particularly frenetic photo blitz.
The cycles that this exhibition presents both diagrammatically and on screen build an unsettling and relentless pattern, but they nevertheless encourage you to seek a personal connection among the layers of communication that Syms has manifested. It is easy to get lost in (and somewhat confused by) the blocks of silence that cut through Mythiccbeing – though it later becomes apparent that these gaps are designed to be filled by vocalizations of more successful text chats. Likewise, you could spend hours tracing the differing outcomes of perpetual anxiety that decorate the walls. All in all, it is an uncomfortable and fascinating journey into the artist’s own psyche, and by extension our own. As I turn to leave, one final key phrase inscribed by the exit catches my eye: ‘I can’t even get a text back’. Same here, girl. Same here.