Seventeen Gallery, Kingsland High Road, E8 4DG (15th January-20th February 2016)
Varicose veins are not an obviously fertile subject for a video artist but in Blue Roses Marianna Simnett creates a richly poetic and gripping narrative that leaves you with an enhanced sense of the emotional complexities a patient endures as they are exposed to technologically advanced medical interventions. For me she is one of the brightest young talents to emerge in video art the last few years. There is an intelligence, honesty and authenticity to her work that is totally engaging. She understands the need for making every second count so we get an intense visual and aural encounter in each of the three videos she has exhibited so far. She shares with Damien Hirst a fascination with what lies underneath the skin but tempers this with an exploration of the symbolic significance of particular body parts.
Simnett’s last film, Blood, first screened at the 2015 Jerwood/FVU Award show took a medical operation on a teenager’s nose and somehow blended it with interviews with an anomalous gender-fluid “sworn virgin” in the Albanian mountains so that the two stories illuminated each other. We got a moving insight into the physical and psychological frailty of the teenager trying to navigate the uncertainties of adapting to adulthood.
In Blue Roses Simnett again finds a productive juxtaposition with two parallel narratives – we see her seriously varicosed veins (the blue roses of the title) initially from the outside. We are witness to her helplessness. She must be suspended upside down to stop the blood pooling in her legs. She submits to an invasive procedure as a laser optical fibre needle is inserted through the vein to reach the collapsed valve. We get a dramatically staged reconstruction of the blockage being blown apart. This is a lurid masterpiece of scuzzy “old school” special effects which comments wittily on the high tech medicine she is representing. A real life surgeon exposes himself to mild self satire by giving the standard soothing but duplicitous reassurances that “this will not hurt”. As in Blood, the physical vulnerability of the patient is a metaphor for the psychological fears of invasion and helplessness. Will we eventually lose our identity to the medical processes that are needed to fix us? The unmistakable sense that medical technology is threatening to remove our autonomy is all pervasive in this film.
In the parallel narrative cyborg cockroaches (see image above) are being constructed by computer scientists. We see them like excited gamers controlling their movements remotely through microchips wired to their nervous systems. But this is no game. The scientists are real researchers acting out predetermined roles set for them by Simnett to press home her vision.
The three films she has made were re-edited for a live performance accompanied by some ethereal singers at the Serpentine last summer and can be viewed at vimeo.com/138891726. This is a stunning performance piece and I look forward to getting to see her next one.