Helen Marten, Dust and Piranhas, 2011, still from a color video, 25 minutes 25 seconds.

Helen Marten, Dust and Piranhas, 2011, still from a color video, 25 minutes 25 seconds.

Helen Marten

Helen Marten, Dust and Piranhas, 2011, still from a color video, 25 minutes 25 seconds.

Helen Marten has been garnering a reputation for expansive sculptural installations in which she orchestrates the buzz of conversation between suggestive form and perverted function, material and finish, image and effect, glamour and illusion. What preoccupies her is the range of qualities inherent in the products that populate our environment. How is it that we can largely ignore the embedded intelligence and technical know-how in things and yet still make use of them? And if we do notice these aspects of an object, what can they tell us about the political viewpoints and cultural attitudes they at once reveal and reinforce?

Dust and Piranhas, 2011, a digital animation whose visuals and sound track combine jokiness with polemic, is her first video. It was shown one night this past August in the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion, which this year took the form of a hortus conclusus designed by Peter Zumthor. (By the time Marten’s film was screened, the planting had matured, so the higher foliage cut into the projector beam, adding its silhouette to the dance of imagery and color on the screen.) Dust and Piranhas is an essay on the languages of design and at the same time an amusing reflection on the puzzles that arise out of our encounter with the strangeness of things.

Aside from meditative voice-overs, our chief guides through the maze of this product-drenched environment are two characters in the form of roving classical columns. One, snake-hipped, fluted, Doric, has a couple of asymmetric indentations near its top, capped with rakish eyebrows; the other, wooden, its capital essentially Ionic (though with its scrolls enlarged and somewhat distended), has a pair of standard-issue Disney white-gloved hands attached by thin wires—whether Minnie’s or Mickey’s, or possibly Donald’s, is not specified, although all three are mentioned on the sound track. As their voices confirm, the columns are male and female. The Doric “boy” speaks quickly, releasing his words in a torrent that sweeps you along. Among many other things, he marvels at how someone like James Bond can go into the smallest detail about how and why a weapon is made the way it is in order to be the best of its kind, and yet never pause to wonder about where the bullets are going to end up. This observation segues into a manic discourse on refrigerators, which in turn spills out to encompass lemon squeezers, moon landings, keyboards, and the whole of human behavior. The Ionic “girl” is more laid-back, reeling off a litany of brand names, genres, decor tropes, and lifestyle accoutrements in a dry, sardonic tone, while a butterfly silhouette flutters around a couple of wooden sun loungers set not beside a pool, but next to the large disc bearing the BMW logo. After a while she starts to rap: another rhetorical style selection.

Dust and Piranhas pokes meditatively and entertainingly at the accelerating pace of production. “The faster you break it the faster we make it,” says the wooden column at one point, going on to acknowledge the bounteous economic logic of this reality with the observation that “production is sealed in gold.” Early on we see the black-and-white striped house Adolf Loos designed for Josephine Baker. It’s a cardboard model, of course; the plans were never realized. The house is an idea, an image, a virtual presence, a possibility, a provocation. Later in the film it reappears, reconfigured in different materials with a different range of qualities and surface finishes. “Why do so many things look the same, and only one of them is good?” asks a female offscreen voice. This is not the column’s voice but that of someone who sounds much like Marten herself. It is, in fact, her sister, one Marten speaking another Marten’s words. After all, in order to manufacture glamour, a little plagiarism is essential. And this process—call it borrowing, copying, paying homage, whatever—is both violent and comic.

Michael Archer