Five years ago, Marianna Simnett was sitting in a doctor’s office with a syringe an inch away from her throat. A surgeon was about to insert a dose of Botox into her neck to lower her voice—a painful procedure, she told me in her Berlin studio last month, that would affect her speech for about three months as part of an artwork titled The Needle and the Larynx (2016).
“I was asking for more permanent surgery, and this is what the surgeon was willing to do,” she told me.
In an art world that often cordons off offensive subject matter, Simnett’s work—which has involved masochism, surgeries to orifices, narratives of child murder, animal death, and reanimated roadkill—is a bit dangerous. And for that reason, it can strike themes that are deeply human.
Simnett, who works without a gallery by choice, has created a hybrid model to keep her studio operational: her web shop, which she launched to get through the pandemic, floating her operation while she opened a solo show at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. This year, she will be a part of group shows at the Kunstverein in Bonn and the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin, as well as a commission for Castello di Rivoli in Turin.
Simnett moved to Berlin in October after a period of nomadism between a handful of places that included London, rural England, and Australia. The move has not been uncomplicated. She breezed through a list of aggressions she’s experienced in her short time living in Berlin: she’s been shouted at and harrassed, and forced to deal with misogynist bureaucrats. But Berlin has become “softer” since she learned more German, she said—and anyway, she is happy not to live in a metropolis like London. It’s a “sinkhole,” she said. “We need to stopping seeing these monopolizing cities as a paradise or something to aspire to.”
Simnett is loathe to refer to her nationality by her British passport, especially given that she is half Croatian. In a video made during lockdown, Simnett sits against a wall of vines, painting her face. She moves back and forth between Croatian and English while applying heavy makeup to make her look like a dog; it seems harder and harder to breathe beneath the cosmetics as she speaks from the viewpoint of former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito’s canine pet. But no particular place or culture is at the core of her work. Now, living in Berlin, she told me she could begin to incorporate German culture into her practice.
“I want to dismantle this idea of Western European centrism, that English is the spoken language, and that something must be understood,” she said. “I want to accept and promote more vulnerable ways of speaking and being understood.”
Perhaps that sensibility comes from an upbringing on peripheries. Simnett grew up on London’s outskirts, partly on a houseboat that belonged to her transient father. “Every neighbor is either a clown or a pianist,” she said of her childhood home. “Everyone has chosen to be an outsider.”
Her mother immigrated to the UK from the former Yugoslavia, which suffered a violent breakup through the 1990s and into the 2000s. “My family story on that side is riddled with war,” she said. Her family’s attempt to escape Europe through France at the onset of the Second World War resulted in their capture. Their wealth was liquidated and most of them were murdered, but her Jewish-Croatian grandfather survived after he fainted while being shot at by a firing squad, waking up to find the other prisoner dead. He bit his arm to check that he was still alive, Simnett said.
The artist interpreted his survival story with Faint With Light, an installation that will be on view at Julia Stoschek in February as part of “A Fire in My Belly,” a group show focused on acts of violence. In the work, strobe lights pulsate as Simnett passes out by hyperventilating on purpose.
“My family doesn’t dwell on death and violence, not as much as I do. They say it in a whisper. They describe it like a shopping list. My grandfather wasn’t very nice, but didn’t have nice things done to him. My mom struggles with being nice, and she had some horrible things done to her.” She paused. “I also struggle to be nice.”
She wonders if it is not a result of generational trauma, given that she was born in into a world of privilege by comparison. “And yet there is something tugging on me,” she said. “There is an insistence and a residue that forces me to do what I do.”
Beyond the Pale
In Pillow, a striking and bloody stop-motion animation film Simnett made last year, an interspecies group of roadkill meet for an ceremonious orgy. Their gaping mouths are re-framed as expressions of love and pleasure, not pain caused by human interference. A gentle folk song plays in the background.
Simnett finds the work romantic, and she has a great deal of empathy for animals, which appear throughout her work. In Udder (2014), the mammary gland of a cow undergoes an operation in a comment on bio-capitalism—the extraction of resources from humans and animals is a recurring topic.
“I don’t want art to just decorate… Yet the aim has never been to shock,” she told me. “I want to create a shift internally in someone. More than the gore, what is more frightening about my work are the leaps between logic.
Constructing these skips through logic means she can create surrealistic narratives. Scenes of implied child abuse and murder occur in The Bird Game, where a malevolent crow picks kids off, one by one. That work, Simnett said, was more or less canceled by public opinion.
“I think it’s very funny, the things people pick up on and become disturbed by,” she said. “The things I made that were the most violent were self-inflicted, and included self-exploitation or self-abuse—that is fine for people. I’m less precarious now, but the work is being censored more. I am dabbling in fiction, so the work is somewhat safer. But before, the danger was real.”
One problem, she told me, is a rising tide of accelerated cancel culture and political correctness that has seeped into art discourses. “It’s part of our censoring and conservative culture. We want radical art, but we also want to make sure patrons pay for it. Artists need to stick to their guns and not be led by institutional frameworks and box-ticking.”
“Shocking art is much better after a few generations,” she added. “No one likes it at the time. We all like Hermann Nitsch now.” There are boundaries, of course. And shock for it’s own sake does not interest her.
That environment is one reason she prefers not to work with a gallery.
“Seldomly, I sell my art for ridiculous amounts of money,” she said. “I like having the extremity of a monstrous installation, and then light and dainty things that people can have if they want to be part of it.”
Works on her online shop—including a pillow with a printed still from Pillow of the protagonist squirrel—are all priced at €200 or under. “I don’t give 50 percent to a dealer, so I can keep it affordable.” While she is open to partnering with someone eventually, the situation would need to fit her multi-stranded way of working, something other than the current traditional model of dealer-artist relationships.
“I’d rather invent something new and take a leap of faith with someone who wants to do something experimental in the form of representation,” she said. “The rulebook is just the studio.”
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