Art critique

Martine Syms highlights black banality in a major exhibition in Chicago

Personal exhibition of Martine Syms, She’s mad season 1, is a conceptual project in the form of a semi-autobiographical television show. Unfolding through episodes made between 2015 and 2021, the experimental sitcom follows a young graphic designer, also named Martine and also living in Los Angeles, as she attempts to make it as an artist. Composed of five video works installed on either side of a zigzag metal structure that crosses the gallery, she is crazy draws on staged scenes, TV show clips, social media and memes to sketch a narrative around Martine’s daily life.

Syms is best known for her video work that centers the portrayal of black people in popular culture, often through satire and digital media. Referring to herself as a “conceptual entrepreneur”, Syms has a practice elastic enough to encompass not only work in all media, including graphic design and publishing, but also branding projects – her collaborators include Prada, Nike x Off White and Kanye. West. Syms situates this work as part of a larger practice between art and life, and as a pragmatic question of survival as an artist.

But she is also distinguished by the production of video works which are sometimes cinematographic and narrative, sometimes analytical and sometimes as in she is crazy, nonlinear and experimental. Although TV clips feature prominently in these videos, she is crazy is itself distinctly un-TV-like. There are no character or plot arcs, although there is a catchy opening jingle. The project has the feel of a series of visual notes on the making of a future show, rather than the outline of a readable series on its own.

Installation view of Martine Syms: She Mad Season 1 at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art Photo: Nathan Keay; © MCA Chicago

This effect is amplified by the montage of snapshot-like photos from Syms’ personal archives that scroll between each screening: empty parking lots, hands removing candles from a birthday cake, giant teddy bears slumped in rolling office chairs, the album cover of a band whose name is a racial slur, palm trees against a glass building, the contents of a refrigerator. Shot in the vein of what I consider art school vernacular – bad flash, diagonal composition, a vague sense of alienation, a blurring of the urgent and the mundane – the images scroll across each of the five screens. These recurring photos give the exhibit a muted ethnographic quality, as if viewing the contents of someone’s Google Drive in its entirety.

daily darkness

This makes sense, given Syms’ continued focus on everyday narratives of black cultural production. In his 2013 work The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto she criticizes the central tenets of Afrofuturism (“the connection between the Middle Passage and space travel is tenuous at best”) and praises a kind of everyday darkness instead. In a cultural context that too often presents black characters as eternal “others”, sensationalizes black suffering, or completely erases identity and structural violence, Syms is interested in the political possibilities of black banality. In Introduction to Threat Modeling (2017), a 3D modeled depiction of the dancing artist in a T-shirt emblazoned with the text “To Hell With My Suffering”.

Martine Syms, Introduction to Threat Modeling2017, again. Courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York

Within the context of this larger atmospheric project, moments of narrative or theoretical clarity take on added importance in shaping the work as a whole. One of these touchpoints is the plot of the work’s second video, Laughing gas (2016), which refers to an early silent film in which a woman visits a dentist who gives her nitrous oxide. In the Syms video, Martine suffers the same fate. She is seen during a dental appointment, scrolling through her phone on the exam chair; shortly after her wisdom teeth were removed, a dental assistant informed her that the $1,700 bill was not being forwarded to her insurance and asked her if she had another way to pay (“Can you -be called dad?”). Martine runs away from the office and gets on a bus, but as she is gassed, she can’t stop laughing. The scene recalls both the history of medical abuse against black Americans as well as the costly farce that is the American healthcare system.

Completely avoiding clear representation or linear narrative, which Syms suggests with she is crazy is a strategy to also avoid these pitfalls

But it’s a moment in the first play of the series, A pilot for a show about nowhere (2015), which suggests why Syms avoided narrative convention for this project. Framed as a pilot episode for the season, it begins with Martine imagining what the series would look like. “The opening sequence would have a shot of establishing Los Angeles. Probably the downtown 1-10-10 interchange, none of that Hollywood crap,” Martine says as the narrator. The episode skims through clips from early shows and the long history of racist stereotypes in film and television; Syms traces the first sitcom to a radio show voiced by two white actors in blackface, which was in turn based on a minstrel show. one of many talking head segments that deal with television and the portrayal of black people, one interview subject notes that although The Cosby Show may have appealed to many black viewers because it presented its affluent characters as a normal family dealing with day-to-day problems, it also erased all the real challenges faced by poor, working-class black people. Completely avoiding clear representation or linear narrative, which Syms suggests with she is crazy is a strategy to avoid these pitfalls as well. It cannot miss about itself, because its subject refuses to be contained.

One of the possibilities offered by the presentation of television works in an exhibition space is to play on the sense of linearity between episodes. Syms makes convincing use of audio, with the sound of one video blending into that of another. The steel structure that runs through the space – painted dark purple (Syms said her signature use of this tone makes people say “the color purple” out loud, referencing Alice Walker’s famous 1982 novel ) – also allows easy movement between episodes in any order: although placed chronologically, going from right to left, the screens are installed on either side of the frame, and gaps between the beams facilitate moving from one viewing area to another.

Martine Syms, female dog zone2020, again. Courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York

The last episode of she is crazycalled female dog zone (2020), which plays on a large transparent LED screen placed in the back corner of the steel structure, parodies the artist’s real-life experience of attending summer camp at age 13 led by supermodel Tyra Banks. Set in the year 2000, the scene is acted out by Syms’ contemporaries (their impeccable sense of early 2000s fashion – center partings, puka shell necklaces and all – lends the veracity of the era). A character named BBQ takes the stage in front of the seated campers and launches into a motivational speech about body positivity.

The painting takes on a garish quality, however, when the barbecue invites the young women to play in what is meant to be a teambuilding activity. Because race isn’t discussed enough in the United States, she says, it’s time to expose it openly by saying different racial stereotypes out loud. “Whites can’t digest spices,” says one camper; another replies, “Black people have thick fingernails.” “Asians don’t have sweat glands,” shouts a third. Shot in red and black, the group grow increasingly enraged and the camera pans up as they begin to attack each other.

It’s a poignant ending for She’s crazy exposure and season. It’s both humorous and almost insurmountably dark in its satire on how talking about identity and structural violence is strained in a country so deluded by its own history that the teaching of slavery in the school curricula remains a divisive issue. In female dog zone, Syms’ camera revels in the chaos, turning pain into entertainment. And as spectators, we too participate in the spectacle. “To hell with my suffering”, declares Martine – author, avatar or character – on the back of her shirt, diverting voyeurism as much as she recognizes its structural power and the impossibility of avoiding it.