Martin Heine’s Function # 8 (Psychological Drama)
at Melody Smith Gallery, 19 February, 2014
Martin Heine has long maintained an uneasy standoff with paint, the strange ‘coloured mud’ that can simultaneously contain endless visions and versions of the human universe, in a single bucket of liquid. In many of his performances he has worked with this potential so as to bring the immediate, existential quality of paint as close as possible to the on-going business of being an artist. In his Reverse Paintings he also attempts to engage the immediate presence, the reality of paint with an ‘emerging’ image, from which he has taken extreme pains to distance himself. It is as if the artist looks to make the paint take all the blame for his art.
Something new, challenging, happened in Function # 8 (Psychological Drama). There is no easy way round it. Heine has decided to ‘travel’ to find what it is to be an artist. The new work proposes a radically different role for paint from that in its closest predecessor Mediocre Shunga, Use Your Head (2004) where the goal was to make paint (and art history) do the existential heavy lifting.
Now paint has changed sides. In Function # 8, it was revealed as a harbinger of death and disaster, the interface where creative crack-ups happen and a far more convenient entry to the underworld, the creative hell of ‘no thing’, than Cocteau’s mirrors and mercury.
Paint can float one along on a metaphysical voyage between ‘being’ and ‘not being’ an artist. After the performance Heine indicated that his painterly odyssey was necessarily romantic, therefore struggle, death, disaster desire, eros remain at its centre.
It is important not to confuse Heine’s search for something, the ontology of creation, ‘being an artist’ perhaps even ’how to be an artist’, with the cliché ‘journey’ that so many of the local population of moronic, brain-dead zombies undertake to ‘find themselves’. Art, especially Heine’s art, exists as a reminder that there is no such thing as a pre-paid bourgeois self, waiting to be picked up like a parcel from life’s left luggage office.
Not all Heine’s earlier performances employed paint. In The Honey Pump is Kaputt (1999), he tipped a bucket of honey over his head to critique Joseph Beuys’ attempt to invoke a social metaphysic in Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz, (Kassell 1977). In Climate Change, Heine’s recent performance at Paper Mountain, he performed an assisted handstand, then struggled to stop his head from crashing down into a tub of water. Like honey, water carries a tremendous metaphysical charge. Function # 8 may be in part an attempt to return to the grounding mysteries of the relation between art, the natural and the social that Heine left behind fifteen years ago.
All travellers need suitcases, especially artists; always on their way, born travelling men. Heine has taken André Breton’s advice to set out on his road. He used one suitcase in his recent work in Belgrade but two for Function # 8. The setting in the sunlit back carpark of the Melody Smith Gallery was familiar; a large tarpaulin bordered left and right with a row of buckets of brightly coloured paint. A large red rolling suitcase waited off to the left. A single collapsible chair faced the audience, with a small green case with two large red plastic funnels to its right.
The artist appears, casually dressed, but with jacket and tie, flanked by his two assistants, Rizzy and Melody Smith, both in faded old white petticoats. They pose side by side for photographs. He explains that the performance is in three sections. First he will sing Schubert’s Die Forelle (The Trout) then a stressful section, finally a tense climax.
He warns the audience that the performance will be rhythmical, fast and slow.
It’s like the ocean, the waves come in and out;
you cannot surf all the time.
He puts the open green case over his head, wedges a red funnel into it and into his mouth and begins to sing. He becomes another creature, a singing suitcase, packed carefully with artistic desires, hopes and fears. At this moment Rizzy pushes the other funnel into the top of the case and the two assistants begin to pour yellow paint into it, as if attempting to stop him singing. When the paint is gone, the yellow faced artist removes the case, empties paint from his pockets, and announces ‘Movement no 2’.
Now is the time to ask what is going on. Who are these two assistants, plainly not two of the three graces or any other variety of muse? If they are intent on silencing the artist then they are Maenads (or Bacchantes) and he is Orpheus, waiting for them to tear him to pieces, so that his head can float, still singing, all the way to Lesbos. On the other hand they could be magician’s assistants, the glamorous, grinning kind who assist at the ceremony of sawing a volunteer from the audience in half. In any case, the artful image-making that directs the work has begun well. Eros, death and desire overflow, everywhere.
Movement 2 takes myth and music hall to ever-greater heights.
The artist tips over the chair, removes his paint soaked trousers, climbs into the red case with his arms, legs and head protruding at odd angles. The assistants tie the case around him with his trousers. They place the green case over his head. He becomes an animated grotesque, Caliban with a carapace. He bends over the chair frame, barely able to grunt out his monosyllables, bare legs pushing from behind. The assistants pour endless buckets of paint into the groaning sculpture.
Muffled sounds – ‘Artist, Artist, Artist’ – escape from the chaotic pile as it struggles for clarity, an identity with an outline. The set of stochastic poses that follow occur at the borderline between random and coherent gestures that defines existence. The images they generate are at the core of the performance. All around the voracious audience records them on iPhones, pocket cameras…. The artist invited them to do this as an experiment with the false witness always given by social media, however viral its imagery. It is impossible to engage this work with an iPhone in front of your face.
In any case, it is by no means immediately clear what is to be seen. Is this the artist in despair, at the end of his creative tether or a unique insight into the moment when it once again becomes possible to be an artist? In Function # 8 Heine gambled that he could achieve insight and he succeeded.
Finally he leaves the chair, the green case falls from his head as he crawls across the grey rainbow lake of paint that floods from the tarpaulin to the bitumen and collapses lengthwise into it.
The shift of emphasis in Function # 8 to the problem of the artist rather than art appears to parallel a similar turn towards the problem of subject rather than process in his recent reverse paintings. In both, Heine has achieved a remarkable new coherence through his ability to travel to where it matters. At a time when art is falling apart all over the place he is slowly pulling it back together.
All works unless otherwise identified:
Martin Heine (artwork) & Pippa Tandy (photo) © 2014
More images of the Function # 8 can be viewed here.