The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues
DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue

from The Boiled in Between

Farmyard pH

The newspaper this morning says the world is full of good news. Great News! Big News, it says. News that makes my dry brain feel a little less tethered to itself. News that makes me feel better and worse about being alive today. It always makes a sour sense:

An elderly man dropped dead from heatstroke and his head was quickly devoured by his dog; a young grocer was mauled by bulls whose intestinal system was gutted by their horns; a woman was murdered with a pitchfork by her wife; a sixteen-year-old who, after throwing her newborn into a fast-flowing river, jumped in herself with a sack of stones around her neck; the outdated car-making machinery in a Mississippi factory tore the thigh and collarbone clean off one of the company’s longest serving employees; a choir of forty teenage boys, all stabbed to death, supposedly to preserve their honour; a whole province exploded into a shrieking chasm by the extrajudicial bombing of overseas administrations.

I seem to find myself here over and again: an unhealthy shoulder slouch, back against the window. Gargling with the news and so many international people losing bits of themselves. All the publishers of the papers ensure that everybody is richer, more complex, more full, half dead because of it. Somebody half dead everywhere. Made sure of. Gone off across the sea leaving a wake of profanities and a heroic photograph.

It all reminds me that revolution is slow but technology accelerates. It reminds me that I don’t feel naturally. That we’re all basic people internally chopped up with ten perspectives and a short scenario of difference. Like blind people who can see. It reminds me that it is the newspapers who gush with the kinds of crookedly curving facts that permit me to look straight ahead, with alternating hells, breath and patience.

I catch glimpses of ankles and knees as they hurry past and I think: is my own body still so essential? Is there so much difference in the doing of feeling and the feeling of feeling? It is true that it is quite something to feel the invigoration of a singular and imminent personality, but with behaviour and feeling stored in the skin at surface level, it is equally nice to feel unencumbered, quite unidentified by any walk or stride. The newspaper spreads out across my thighs and slips crumpled to the floor.

I’ll sit a little longer, conscious now that in thinking about walking, my feet will be conspicuous. Like a visitor in a new town, looking both ways when they are crossing a big road, like they are shaking their heads in confusion. Left, then right, then left again.

My breath hits the window as I look out, hands in my armpits. A slice of breath, a slice of breathing just like the quarter hour on the clock, fifteen minutes of respiration and you can cut the breaths into pieces as well, with their tick and their tock. I am a warm machine who smiles openly with large teeth. I am a fucking human being.

Time today is making itself known. All the little cars have moved off the road for a funeral parade which passes by with its sorrows spread out black on black against the tarmac. The sun is as bloodless as the corpse, fish limp, no rays to shed and the coffin, tight-wrapped at the head of the herd, leading its way to church with tears and soon soil. I can feel the heated silence of all the brothers wrinkled in their wreathes, dark hair and neat suits and everybody making stabs at private agony with their collective thoughts on suicide and premature loss. I watch only partially obscured through the curtains, barely moving, feeling my sleeves tight about my wrists and the steady pulse of blood through the sheared skin on my finger.

Perhaps I am alert today more than usual. I notice how the same leaves roll over the same puddle. And a cat in its dark shine, new visitor, stops to lap and look. What’s in the air for us today kitty cat? It doesn’t matter, there is no matter to air, only organisms clinging to every surface that care little what we eat or in which direction we travel. There will always be someone somewhere passing by.

The day has barely started but what are the statistics for this evening? Television and a pie with American territory. A pie with dark meat, perhaps, something to do with unmatched emotion.

Animals can help. To give you a sense of scale. The ones short of breath, sort of despondent and therefore loveable. The snakes, the rabbits, the ants, the sheep, none of them pets or vermin. When the formation of local centres with all their gongs of scandal and newspaper garbage pound too heavy, the countryside offers its relief, its positive outdoor space. Consider it a pastoral tonic.

After my fretful days with the newspapers and so much misbehaviour from the neighbours, after all the deaths, the births, the marriages, I sensed the crossbones practically strewn across me. That is, I felt devoured, unwell, rumpled. And with the use of drugs and creams and pharmaceutical sprays having no effect other than prolonging the fat sizzle of my anger, I decided: I will hop the night train for pastures greener.

The goat I encountered was grey. I encountered him with sadness, with a certain geological curiosity, wondering in my clean trousers how skin could grow such a crust. Out back of a shed, with the rats and mice and carrion crow. The goat was happy, I thought. There on the floor, scrabbling amidst beetles and earth, sucking calcium bars and sculpting his own pillar of salt.

Warm air hugged the ceiling. A lick today, a few more tomorrow for the rest of his life and all the ample solvency was there – straw, sugar, water– to judge pleasure distinctly attendant.

I was jealous in a way. The goat a graceful cod, trafficked in his own happy language. King of his own garden, attended only by the ills of goat variety: bloating, cystitis, foot rot and pox; or a chewing on everything around until lymphatic problems or abscesses wiped him out. The sensitivity of the modern man is synthetic, I decided.

I sat on a bank to eat, wagging my own tail as I unwrapped a tin-foiled lunch of bread rolls spanked with sauce. Some boiled sausage. Cheese, mostly Cheddar. Birds around cheeped their sweet dumb song, flew down to nibble near my feet. Beholders of pine and pride. The good smell of nature filled me. The gorgeous slushy sound of it, delicious, was a froth on my ear, my lips.

What had I been expecting to witness alone in an unmarked field? Had I hoped to catch onto the half-hidden parts of my metropolitan self and midway between a gentle breeze or some wild flowers go about the futile pretension of explaining my place in the world? It smacked of nostalgia, of déjà vu, yet I seemed there without explicit point or purpose, without even a raincoat to keep me dry when the laughter sky opened up its mirth against me. Outdoors there are few built structures to back against. But was I afraid of rain, of a little water? I was never afraid of thunder or rough headlands, but rather social drinkers and garden parties, of those who heard all I said and remembered.

Café calling

A dog walks into a café. It is late afternoon, some-
thing like June or August, and the sunlight coils
snugly over everything it touches. Sugar looks like
value. The waiter bounces between tables asking
who owns the dog. Nobody owns the dog. We are
the dog. A colloquial equation of fur and legs and
heat that sticks us together in a form to be stroked.
We might bark excessively or buckle our legs to
sneak a sausage dangling from fingers. Our heart is
torn. Between sentiment and satisfaction. Because
nobody owns us and we are the dog. We whimper
and walk outside.


My television area is something of a building site. Piled high with designs of humiliation and cheer. A masterpiece in the medium of juice boxes and pasta sauce. There are dirty cushions and drink stains that seen from above might appear triumphant, like my own Olympic rings. All of it is a very British broadcasting.

My two favourite characters both perform nightly every day of the week. The newsreader for one, with his recalcitrant manhood, looks unnatural enough to assure me that his predicament is as unsteady as the rest of us. His face! God his face looks like a dead crab. And mine mirroring it: two dead crabs!

And then the deodorant boy, who advertises a cheap brand with an all-round liveliness that makes me wonder if he were not solely built to churn such innocent emotions. I feel just watching him pass through my screen would be to sully something fine and good. Do they rub ice over his nipples to erect them to that height? He was no crab! With eyes the kind of watery blue that mothers adore, that turn girls and boys wet through their knickers, eyes that incite curses such as twiglet and faggot on the street. Eternal eyes. Eyes that, one way or another, will keep their happy blue through cruel lust and hardship alike.

My personal grownup fantasies are pictured in dreams of other things. All those prickled thoughts considered too risky are trashed by the wayside only to come back, of course, as all difficult things do, pushing up from the soil. The hedgerows on the edges of towns are fertile hotbeds of deranged matter, cruelly clear like old fridges and radio sets. An empty fucking washing up bottle: what new and modern gems! The towns from afar look thick and silent.

When winter blows in, it sneezes all over. The ground freezes and the gorgeous plump thighs of summer are shoved into wool trousers so legs can go about stamping all over the paraphernalia we just pulled up to inspect. Hardly one season has arrived than another swoops in to muddle it all up again. Modern relationships are just as hard and soft as weather, changing with every locale.

I’ve lost the knack of intuition. My green fingers have turned brown. Brown as in buggered and evacuated, probably because I am stuck digging subjective black holes with one hand, gin crackling in the glass of my other, conversing with the neighbours, the daughters, the pope and his friends, everyone, busy staggering around out on the lawn being merry and looking appropriate and moral with conviction.

I could be roasting a pig on coals in my garden: let’s just call that a summer afternoon. It’s not that I’m out every day literally barbecuing myself to death, but the idea of it is there, all laid out on the lawn.

Instead on television are the Seven Most Frightening Things Discovered Under Beds and there is space again, all shuttered, cut up and carved into irregular pieces. I’ve watched over a hundred episodes amidst my cushions on the sofa. Sloshing away the frozen bits of me with some warm wine, with a salad and oven-roasted nostalgia. It feels something like time travel, an endless state of buffering. Of reloading.

That is the great magic of television, a magic not brewed in a laboratory, a magic without molecular structure. It enables us. Electrical light, like the pure vision of souls, can be seen escaping from the tops of houses. And that’s television. When the room goes shadowy and the light outdoors has sort of sifted down to the bottom of the sky I know it’s time to turn on. The light that pours from its screen is soft-blue enough to fuzz outlines and merge my own self with the bodies of those on screen. We move together. Nothing is hard edged. The navy outside licks against the windows so thick it would knock you over. And yet as soon as the indoor lights go out and heads hit their pillows, everything is orange and pink and green.

Together we know that I am the passive spectator; television and I, we agree that neither one of us need do anything other than exist. If I leave to make a coffee or slap something on a plate, our particular thrilling brand of agreement firmly ensures my TV will continue to puddle out its image language, business hours or not.

So I am building up my own homestead fortress to provide a comfy place for my TV guests. We’re hosting each other. Through the cartoons and soap runs I’m amassing quite a cast of itinerant bodies. As if we are communicating! But I am quite happy to form a personal response to trash, to melodrama, crime, news or skinny commercial glamour. I’m happy with or without my organic food exploits and the telly protagonists with their general joie de vivre for just about everything. I’m happy with cold toast.

As I eat my snacks and watch my television I picture the food stacking up in my stomach just as the commercials are stacking up in my brain. Pulling up new behaviours through the crust of very old behaviours as easy as switching on a television.

Great is wickedness

Sometimes a huge car pulls up; its occupants get out and the doors slam. The disturbance shakes my walls. There is much animation around my coffee table as I scramble to see, to restore circulation in my legs, but I rarely know the people. They haven’t come to see me.

In school they warned us about strangers in maroon cars. Always the Mondeo wagons or Land Rovers with modified car boot horrors. Cars with no regard for the binary ends of the spectrum, but rather the sludgy leaf colours you’d never choose for yourself and would be wary

to kick through anyway – as piled leaves in these actual colours – even in rubber boots. Teachers said these cars would be out when the sun set but we needn’t worry as the spectrum of our young days would be near finished and off into bed by then. Plus anyway, they said, you can always tell a villain a few hundred metres off, their sleeves and trouser legs are either a little too short or a little too long.

That you could turn many of life’s big questions into easy hemispherical splits was of great curiosity to me. To think that the classically understood right and wrong was as simple as not driving a maroon car or being around when the sun set was as radical as to suggest a kind of ceremonial rigour. It was a crazy simplicity of thinking that instilled in me a deep apprehension of the colour crimson. I’d see a colour tone on just the wrong side of itself and would always be seeking to add some yellow, to brighten it up a bit or make it darker and dirty. I would press my fist into my palm and imagine somewhere on the other side of the world where I could drink my milk in the bright stream of noon.


Helen Marten

Helen Marten is an artist based in London. She studied at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, University of Oxford and Central St. Martins, London. In recent years she has presented solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London; Fridericianum, Kassel; CCS Bard, Hessel Museum, New York; Kunsthalle Zuürich and Palais de Tokyo, Paris, among others. She was included in the 55th and 56th International Venice Biennales and in 2016 won both the Turner Prize and the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture. Marten’s work can be found in public collections including the Tate Collection, London; Guggenheim Museum, New York and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She has forthcoming solo exhibitions at Castello di Rivoli, Turin and Kunsthaus Bregenz. Marten’s artwork is collected in three recent monographs and she works with Sadie Coles HQ, London, Greene Naftali, NYC, and Koönig Galerie, Berlin.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues