‘We in dis bitch, finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek, dafuq.’ Just four months after a Vine video of black schoolgirl Kayla Newman saying the words ‘on fleek’ and stroking her eyebrows was posted online, the phrase had been culled and spun into marketing speak on Taco Bell and IHOP’s Twitter feeds. (‘Pancakes on fleek.’) The meme-ification of this particular black female, as well as countless others (Kimberly ‘Sweet Brown’ Wilkins, who escaped from an Oklahoma fire and proclaimed on camera: ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that,’ when interviewed by a reporter, is a classic example) shadowed Martine Syms’s recent video, Notes on Gesture (2015), the centrepiece of her exhibition ‘Vertical Elevated Oblique’ at Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York.
Taking its title from a Giorgio Agamben essay written in 1992, the video is a series of short clips of an actress with braided hair, performing against a purple backdrop. She is responding to dramatic cues and title cards that appear on-screen such as ‘WHEN DEY GOT YOU FUCKED’. The actress’s range of responses, expressions, hand movements and spoken phrases (‘C’mere, I’m talking to you’), are looped fast and repeated a number of times, suggestive of GIF and Vine video formats, as well as the ‘reaction video’ genre (footage of people excessively responding to anything from a new Britney Spears video to some shocking, gross-out footage), all of which have become popular online the last decade or so. That the actress’s miniature performances are a collection of dramatic responses to hypothetical situations gives the video the feeling of being an outsourced form of public feedback, a kind of Greek chorus that responds so you don’t have to.
Syms gave particular focus to the language of the hand. A wagging ‘no-no-no’ finger, seen as often in social situations as it is in music videos, is accompanied in Notes on Gesture by the looped singsong vocal, ‘I don’t lu, I don’t lu, I don’t lu’, which finally breaks into the phrase ‘I don’t love you,’ before being replaced by a new cycle. Drawing on British physician John Bulwer’s 1644 text Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand, Syms suggests a complex vocabulary of hand movements (or, at least, a coded set of gestures), some of which may resonate across centuries, while others remain specific to an individual or time.
Martine Syms is an artist living and working in Los Angeles, USA. In 2015, she had solo exhibitions at Locust Projects, Miami, USA; Machine Project, Los Angeles; Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York, and White Flag Projects, St. Louis, USA. Later this year, she will present a solo project at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
First published in Issue 176