Marion Coutts

Chisenhale Gallery

In her laconic sculpture and video installations, the British artist Marion Coutts mythologizes the mundane. With the insouciance and economy of a professional magician, she makes the one-dimensional multidimensional and transforms stale habit into compelling ritual.

This is evident in her works of the last few years. Fresh Air, 1998–2000, consists of three Ping-Pong tables shaped and marked with the asymmetrical layout of three London parks; the rules of the game were completely changed, inside became outside, private became public, and the mind wandered away. In Eclipse, 1998, a small garden greenhouse is periodically filled with artificial fog, which is then allowed to disperse. Meteorological white noise was thus imbued with an ominous rhythm and density: The conservatory was redolent of a gas chamber. Assembly, 2000, featured a blue-tinted film of aerobatic flocks of migrating starlings projected precisely from overhead onto the top of a plain wooden lectern. This flickering mise-en-scène suggested a routine lecture, speech, or sermon in which the presenter suddenly ignores the script and lets instinct take over.

Coutts’s most recent (and highest-profile) London exhibition was devoted to a single new work, Cult, 2002, in which she has wryly transfigured the domestic cat. The cavernous interior of the Chisenhale Gallery was dark except for a dim light emanating from nine video monitors mounted at head height on slender gray pedestals. Those at the corners of the cluster faced inward, while the others looked out in various directions. There was just enough space for a single person to squeeze between them. The screen of each monitor was only large enough to contain a life-size close-up image of the black face and white neck of a well-groomed cat against a black background. The footage plays on a forty-five-minute loop, made up of individual sequences of between three and seven minutes. The cat remains almost completely still, occasionally blinking its eyes.

Cult evokes prehistoric standing stone circles as well as hieratic Egyptian cat sculpture—in ancient Egypt, the cat goddess Bastet was the patroness of family happiness. Here, the emphasis is on distant admiration rather than domestic bliss. Cult underscores our separation from the animal world and the animal world’s basic indifference. It keeps cuteness at arm’s length and thwarts attempts to project affectionate feelings. The cat, multiplied nine times (no doubt in accordance with its proverbial “nine lives”), seems blissfully self-sufficient. It narcissistically basks in its own image, enclosed in its own charmed circle. Its egotism pricks the bubble of our own. I didn’t even feel tempted to leave a saucer of milk.

James Hall