Martine Syms: Loot Sweets
On ViewBridget Donahue
July 15 – September 25, 2021
Loot Sweets, on view at Bridget Donahue in New York until September 25, is a heady collage of found objects, paper scraps, and nostalgia that transforms into an uneasy meditation on consumption as a performance—on the things we buy, make, and throw away as an extension of self and culture.
As illustrated in an accompanying essay by Alissa Bennett, the origin of the show was an auction of Janet Jackson’s costumes, memorabilia, and personal belongings that Syms attended with Bennett as a witness through a phone screen. At the sale, Syms acquired one of Jackson’s jackets by the designer Alexander McQueen, which came to symbolize an embodiment of Jackson and her aura and what Bennett describes as “a psychic shortcut that circumvents the barricades erected between fan and idol.”
The artist’s recording of her purchases at the auction are immortalized in the exhibition’s eponymous piece Loot Sweets (2021), a sculpture in which a small screen is implanted in the right-hand breast of a garment bag. The screen plays a looped video of Syms surveying the auction’s items on loop and her joy in purchasing the McQueen jacket, an act that symbolizes both her admiration of the pop icon and the ways that our material belongings have a way of shaping our exterior and interior selves.
The pieces in Loot Sweets are almost exclusively crafted from ephemera, both the artist’s and others’. This includes everything from Kewpie mayonnaise wrappers to the coveted tote bags of art galleries, an object that exists as both a sign of allegiance and a status symbol in New York’s art world. Syms turns these otherwise unextraordinary objects into a treatise on material culture, Black culture, and performance, focused around a selection of two- and three-dimensional assemblages that both critique and exalt consumption, understanding that consumerism has a way of making a person or a culture immortal through its remnants.
The first piece one sees when they enter Bridget Donahue’s two-story walk-up in Chinatown is Martine Syms Merch table (2021), a table full of small, boxy sculptures, the majority of which are constructed with cardboard and covered in the flotsam and jetsam of the artist’s hometown of Los Angeles. The boxes are covered in business cards, receipts, and tape, and their M.C. Escher-esque cutouts and other lovely details show the level of care Syms took in fabricating these objects. Collages such as Do you have any film posters of… BLACK MOVIES? He understands. and Luxury is personal (both 2021) are composed of paper and plastic scraps collected from Syms’s (likely pandemic era) life: there are bags from Los Angeles take-out joints, receipts from shopping, and plane tickets. A personalized note from a Comme des Garçons shopper tells her to “please stay safe and healthy.” Another one of these assemblages, entitled Dominica Publishing Paris (2021), after Syms’s publishing imprint, is mounted in the center of the room in a manner reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s Minutiae combines (1954) that served as a backdrop of Merce Cunningham’s performances. Punctuated by a yellow Le Chiquito clutch from French fashion brand Jacquemus, the piece is a patchwork quilt of clothing labels—a callback to the importance of Jackson’s McQueen jacket.
These assemblages are paired with four video works that strategically play in sequence on separate monitors, creating a sense of narrative amongst the abstraction of the sculptural work. The exhibition’s centerpiece video DED (2021) features a woman simply rendered in three-dimensional animation killing herself in a variety of gruesome ways. Over the course of the video, she decapitates, stabs, and dismembers herself, but the violence is so austere in its presentation that instead of repulsing the viewer, there is a solemn understanding and sympathy that emanates from this work. The most defining detail of this character is a t-shirt that reads “TO HELL WITH MY SUFFERING.”
There is an irreverent sadness to these videos—not surprising considering the ways that in this moment, death seems to hover over our collective psyche with a suffocating menace. Yet, Loot Sweets isn’t an entirely morbid affair. Just as DED signals an end, the rest of the exhibition suggests a vibrant memory, like the ticket stub from your first concert or a note from a long-gone loved one. Just as we use mementos to remember a past time, we also use them to craft a persona and aesthetic in a way that feels immortal in a world driven by consumption. But it isn’t the object itself that holds the power, it’s the emotions we cast upon it. It’s not Janet Jackson’s jacket necessarily, but the power that object holds to transport you to a time or place or person that feels too slippery to keep alive with memory alone.