PRINT February 2017


View of “Heather Phillipson: EAT HERE,” 2015–16, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Hanging screens: COMMISERATIONS!, 2015. Photo: Norbert Miguletz.

THE MINIMALIST ATRIUM of Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle has perhaps never looked more maximalist than it did a little more than a year ago, when Heather Phillipson’s installation EAT HERE, 2015, was on view. Suspended and strung about the glass-sided cylindrical space were clusters of popped-open red umbrellas, corpuscular crimson trash bags and hot-water bottles, tennis rackets and tennis balls, and deflated killer-whale inflatables. Dangling amidships were black-edged cartoon cutouts of spermatozoa-like splashes, jagged lightning bolts, giant eyes with spidery lashes. Down on the concourse, flanked by cutout sperm whales, a huge concrete-gray polystyrene foot rotated on a circular dais, like a chunk of Ozymandias. Those staring eyeballs reflexively cued the wide-eyed act of looking at—and parsing—EAT HERE’s elements, its hovering nouns. But even given the title’s alimentary instruction, it took time to see this collective delirium as a half-exploded body, its scale ratcheting wildly up and down, fluids pumping in a transparent torso and swirling with other pseudoanatomical aspects. And only on the heels of that realization did it become clear that most of these elements were doing double duty, evoking not only grist for some unimaginable appetite but also, more obliquely, various accelerants of the heartbeat: sex, sport, anxiety about environmental apocalypse (a landfill’s worth of trash, enough umbrellas for a hundred unseasonable downpours, all those whales). Ascend midway to a mezzanine, meanwhile, and you could view the show’s heart: the fifteen-minute video COMMISERATIONS!, 2015.

COMMISERATIONS! centers on the artist’s recitation of a poem that anatomizes, yes, the heart: the organ that was, for Elizabeth Hardwick in her iconic 1979 collage-fiction Sleepless Nights (and for Robert Gober, in titling his 2014–15 MoMA retrospective), “not a metaphor—or not only a metaphor.” “Pulmonary hypertension is raised blood pressure within the pulmonary arteries: It’s serious, and has the flavor of a nightlong barbecue,” Phillipson intones during a verbal tour of the heart’s abilities to tug people around emotionally, endanger them physically. (Her own, she notes, is “in the big boom phase of its boom-and-bust cycle. . . . One major fault with hearts is you can’t light them and lie them in an ashtray.”) As the artist speaks, digitally rendered images—most prominently, a graphic illustration of a real, ugly, medical-textbook ticker, all seams and chopped aortas—morph, gluing hearts to heads, sweeping them down ominous tunnels, across heart-shaped hotel headboards. The sound track shuffles from Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara”to Mario’s “Let Me Love You” to Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” segueing in accordance with the heart’s momentary condition, its panoply of potential troubles—though generally appearing robust, it looks rather deathly at times.

View of “Heather Phillipson: TRUE TO SIZE,” 2016, Plymouth Arts Centre, Devon, UK. Photos: Steve Tanner.

ARTIST RECITES POEM. That sounds bad, even given the past decade’s bed-hopping between the literary and visual art establishments. But let’s establish Phillipson’s bona fides. She has won a prestigious award for poets under thirty; had her first collection published, to acclaim, by Faber & Faber in 2009; and has since published two more, NOT AN ESSAY (2012) and Instant-flex 718 (2013). She discovered her writerly aptitude while studying art in London: Focusing on audio works and performance, she took a module in creative writing and fell for poetry—particularly the New York School (itself reciprocally involving a proto-Pop impulse toward linguistic assemblage). In parallel with her writing, and stemming from visual backdrops created for poetry readings, Phillipson makes videos—digitally driven, candy-colored, texturally shifting, kinetic, talky, and associative—and, since 2011, has been conflating them with elaborate sculptural environments.

These projects have steadily grown in scope. For example, her recent show at Plymouth Arts Centre in Devon, UK, “TRUE TO SIZE”—which opened early this past summer, during the hallucinatory moment of the country’s vote for Brexit—featured seven videos embedded in an eponymous colorful, nerve-jangling multipart installation, dated 2016, that intermingled eBay-sourced, sad-eyed, made-in-China bears, more umbrellas, and blown-up cutouts of various emojis: rainbow backdrops, flames, falling leaves, Holbeinesque anamorphic skulls, cigarettes, raindrops, clouds, tsunamis, blood-filled syringes, and nosediving planes. You navigated gingerly through these jutting artifacts toward the short digital films. In these, Phillipson’s downbeat recitations ranged across haywire weather (“Tiny scraps of information blown out of the skies—officials are saying it could be human intervention, technical failure, time fizzing out”), bodily health (“When we think we’re in Hawaii we’re in our livers, dying from aftermath, hangover, all-you-can-eat buffet and data”), the regular horror of mass shootouts, the fear that we’ll colonize another planet and ruin it, and pressures to conform to gender stereotypes, among other matters. The actual differences in scale, or importance, of these various tensions and travails collapse; i.e., they are not necessarily true to size at all, despite the installation’s advertising-derived title.

“We’re deep in the mediation of ever more subtly inserted technologies of cocreated desire, enacting the latest phase of designed living through algorithms,” Phillipson deadpans, while a fire emoji alternates with a woman’s ass. (One could interpret this critique of digital eros in light of a comment in Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s recent book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future [2016] that touches on the same anatomical signifier as COMMISERATIONS!: “We must admit that one aspect of the ceaseless upgrades and eternal becoming of the technium is to make holes in our heart.”) The primary effect of all of this, as of Phillipson’s work in general, is what, in conversation, she calls “exuberant unease.” Fears run together, as in the mind; talk of landscape in the context of a changing planet spills rapidly into the landscape of the body. Such structural interconnectedness and superimpositions are leit-motifs of Phillipson’s art, often generated by language’s productive slippages. For example, an early video, A Is to D What E Is to H, 2011, presents itself as an odyssey across France triggered by homophones, a study of “French cuisine” that turns into one of “French kissing.” Both of these items, pointedly, are keyed to the mouth, the flexible orifice for eating, consuming, making out, speaking out. More broadly, cuisine and kissing evoke corporeality per se—that is they recall that which screen life encourages us to forget.

A Is to D, Phillipson’s first work to merge with sculpture, was shown at the end of a bespoke wooden recliner at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 2012 and later projected on the windshield of a canary-yellow car as part of the artist’s 2013 installation yes, surprising is existence in the post-vegetal cosmorama at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Since those initial ventures into three dimensions, Phillipson has been producing what might be described as embodied, spatialized poems. In these works, the constructed experience of both video and sculpture—the way elements are orchestrated to produce montage-like constellations and unexpected encounters among moving images, objects, words, and icons—feels surprisingly analogous to reading poetry: hopscotching through line breaks, enjambments, the ambushing placement of verbs and nouns. Phrases recur like refrains against different backdrops or sound tracks, their sense in contextual flux. One leaves TRUE TO SIZE, for instance, with the repeated, warped advertising slogan “Good news for people who like death” ringing in one’s ears, mentally fused with skull emojis and blossoming trees.

Phillipson’s art asks, accordingly, what a poem can be today—how it might be retrofitted for an increasingly postbook era in which words are rarely divisible from pictures, language and images circulate continuously, and people navigate fluently between screens and physical space. It also asks: What can a poem—better than anything else—do? In his book Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (1998), the New York School poet Kenneth Koch writes (paraphrasing Paul Valéry) that poetry is a “language within a language,” that there is “the ordinary language . . . and, somehow existing inside its boundaries, another.” Phillipson is hardly the only artist to have also written poetry—think of Carl Andre, Yvonne Rainer, Marlene Dumas—though she’s rare in being rated in both fields and rarer still in successfully leveraging poetic devices in visual art. In her video-sculptural fusions, a poet’s techniques (repetition, rhythm, bold and often explicit turns of phrase, sprightly non sequiturs) carry one forward in lieu of “understanding.” But the fact that she reimports poetry back into the artwork itself, as a not even merely integral but central element—a deceptively simple gesture—has surprisingly novel repercussions in the context of her post-post-internet idiom.

Poetry arguably solicits negative capability, that ever-elusive capacity, more directly than any other art form: Precisely because language is the medium of reason and sense, when it loosens the tethers of ordinary intelligibility, we must grapple with the challenge of what Keats called “being in uncertainties.” In Phillipson’s art, poetry models a way of being in uncertainties in a world that is uncertain indeed: the radically precarious, crumbling structure and wildly overstimulated sensorium of late-late capitalism, the world that is inevitably represented, as microcosm, in work like Phillipson’s—for she is of course far from the only artist bringing together sublimely syntagmatic arrays of twenty-first-century junk. In her case, it’s never sublimity for its own overwhelming (or underwhelming, as the case may be) sake. For the viewer-listener, much apprehension comes via receptive avenues arguably faster and more finely gradated than those used for rational cognition: our responses to the haptic, music, rhythm, color.

View of “Heather Phillipson: TRUE TO SIZE,” 2016, Plymouth Arts Centre, Devon, UK. Photos: Steve Tanner.

IN 2015, given a disused department store to work with by Sheffield Doc/Fest (in a commission with Serpentine Galleries), Phillipson produced FINAL DAYS, a work with a typically double-dealing, apocalyptic-consumerist title. From deck chairs that brought the Titanic to mind, viewers gazed at monitors perched atop cardboard boxes blazoned with body parts—organs, fingers, legs. On-screen, in pop-song-length videos with pulsing sound tracks, Phillipson could be seen browsing racks of men’s briefs and tights and verbally associating outward from the objectification that such displays embody. In one segment, against a vivacious collage of cavorting mannequin parts and with neo-disco music syncopating her soliloquy, she veers from gussets (“there to stop fluid gushing from orifices”) to the urinary tract (cue twirling diagram) to the female orgasm. Our bodies are more permeable than we think, avers Phillipson, and everything is rubbing up against everything else, even if we don’t see it.

If consumption here involves commodities in general and points to an accelerationist eschatology, Phillipson elsewhere places other, related subsets of contemporary distractedness in play. For instance, she takes up food ethics directly, if eccentrically: Her stand-alone video Torso Portions, 2012—a cascading collage of extruded meat, sliced beef flanks, and Harold Edgerton–style milk splashes, with a musique concrète sound track—plays like a rhythmic abstraction of awareness-raising documentaries such as Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. (2008). Factory farming and our dominion over nature more generally are at issue in put the goat in the goat boat, 2014, where Phillipson trains her camera on querulous cows and munching giraffes, and, cutting to human kinkiness (namely, a man getting his buttocks slapped while a bunch of flowers protrudes from his cheeks), considers the fact that there’s “no nudity in nature.” Here’s an exercise in not permeating the very different, parallel subjectivities of other animals, and an exhortation, perhaps, to acknowledge their existence, respect their foreignness.

Mostly, we do the opposite. After a 2015 stint as writer-in-residence at the Whitechapel Gallery, Phillipson in early 2016 installed more flinching—multiple stacks of a giveaway booklet containing a lengthy eponymous poem, flanking a sculpture of a German shepherd. This text starts with the personal and scales up, touching on (among other things) sex, Chopin, CNN, and airports, as it moves from the death of a beloved canine to the tale of a police dog that was killed after being sent ahead of human responders to investigate apartments in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. “REMEMBER / you treated her like a cheap safety vest,” writes Phillipson.

The artist had heard a report of a female suicide bomber’s spine being blown out of an apartment building’s window and had been struck by the contrast between the woman’s voluntary death and the Paris dog’s lack of choice. The suicide-bomber anecdote is mentioned only in passing in the poem, but shortly after more flinching closed, Phillipson mounted 100% OTHER FIBRES, 2016, a project for the Frieze art fair in New York, in which she imagined the snaky architecture of the expo’s tent as a giant column of vertebrae. On monitors connected to dangling, Bruce Nauman–esque sculptures of bisected dogs, her four videos looped back to terrorism, the global reality outside the fair’s soft, enveloping walls, via the motif of the spine—a body part that, in this work, was as laden with significance as any representation of a heart has ever been. The bony apparition appeared, animated, in a video alongside dog food in a bowl (“formed of the most tender chunks of other species, in pouches with the same freshness and quality you’d expect in the field”) and bombs dropping, and lines from more flinching. Around these video-sculptural assemblies, the leashed canines that New Yorkers enjoy bringing to the fair happily noshed on dog biscuits. Here, in a culture of consumption in extremis, Phillipson brought the buzzkill. Outside the tent, serving as a sort of preview, was a fake pet grave, dog legs sticking out. The headstone read THROW ME IN THERE WITH HIM. 100% OTHER FIBRES, its “verses” split by acres of art-filled space, characteristically communicated through thwarted communication, its language and imagery propulsive yet fluid. This approach pays dividends—“the struggle to understand to some extent produces in oneself the violent intensity of what’s being said,” Koch writes elsewhere in Making Your Own Days—and it also has political purpose. In the catalogue for her Schirn show, in an interview with curator Matthias Ulrich, Phillipson quotes American poet Lyn Hejinian’s 1985 essay “The Rejection of Closure,” which champions work that “challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive” and resists “the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.” How, though, to accomplish that in art—how to speak with strength but not from a position of authority, without closure, without defeatism?

This, Phillipson’s art suggests, might involve your pieces bleeding together just as your subjects do; words, images, and objects interfering with one another so the whole can’t be processed; a textured, visual-verbal tumble like our everyday space, but conceived by an artist both self-aware and alert to what bypasses our conscious minds, and with what upshots. Poetry, in getting this across, might serve as a leveler, a less despotic mode—since the audience does some of the making—than the usual paradigms of knowing. And if a poem can be limitless in receptive terms, so can what it anatomizes, as can the daily work, Phillipson suggests, of being human, being humane. (Commiserations on that.) For the final lines of the final poem in her collection Instant-flex 718, “Goodbye. You can take this as my notice,” Phillipson—immediately after paraphrasing that famous, diversely attributed quip on wet clothes and dry martinis—offers what might be considered a mission statement, right down to its self-reversal into beckoning incompletion:

Let’s prefer these pointless days while we can.
Everything is linked.
Everything and nothing, to be accurate.

“Screen Series: Heather Phillipson” is on view at the New Museum, New York, through Feb. 12.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

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