Critic's Choice

Martine Syms's Master Class in Micro-Acting for the YouTube Age

Martine Syms's Master Class in Micro-Acting for the YouTube Age
A still from Martine Syms's Notes on Gesture (video, 2015, 10:33 minutes). Copyright Martine Syms, courtesy of Bridget Donahue, New York.

Martine Syms is among the younger creatives who are eschewing the label “artist” in favor of broader, shrewdly commercial designations. (On her website, she calls herself a “conceptual entrepreneur.”) She lectures, makes video and net art, and runs a publishing imprint, Dominica, which is devoted to blackness in visual culture; she also does branding and web design. Syms appeared in last spring’s New Museum Triennial, alongside similarly multifaceted collectives like K-Hole and DIS, with a video installation about the history and future of television called S1: E1; it included a video about the representation of African-Americans in sitcoms called A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere.

Her first New York solo show, at Bridget Donahue gallery through November 1, includes a little bit of everything, from video, sculpture, and photography to a bookstore in the back room where one can purchase publications and editions from Dominica. But it also has one big something: the performative video Notes on Gesture.

In this 10-minute piece a mysterious woman (identified by the artist and the gallery as Diamond Stingily) cycles through a series of small actions and expressions as if she’s in an acting class, with multiple do-overs. (Title cards appear on the screen before each sequence.) The percussive and repetitive soundtrack, which includes snippets of dialogue, reinforce the work’s visual stutter. Sometimes we see the actor's face, and at other times just her hand—extended in a parrying motion, for instance, as she utters the line “You need to check yourself.” Some of those hand gestures are drawn from the 17th-century text Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand; a copy sits in the back room next to the guestbook.

In addition to being instantly engaging, Notes on Gesture hits a nerve. The gestures of cultural and political figures are being chopped up into GIFs and further dissected on various social platforms, and women’s gestures, in particular, are being scrutinized with special intensity. (Just follow along with any awards show or major-party political debate to see this process in action.) If Syms’s New Museum installation was about the television program in its traditional form, Notes on Gesture is about the new micro-television and its strange synecdoches: its replacement of whole bodies and characters (which, often, aren't really fully-drawn to begin with) with little moments and movements.

Installation shots: Martine Syms, Vertical Elevated Oblique, September 17 - November 1, 2015, photograph by Marc Brems Tatti, copyright Martine Syms, courtesy of Bridget Donahue, New York.

Video stills: Martine Syms,Notes on Gesture, video, 2015, 10:33 minutes, copyright Martine Syms, courtesy of Bridget Donahue, New York.

general installation shot

purple wall

still hand

still making a face


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