You’re going to flinch and you’re going to squirm. And that’s exactly what Marianna Simnett wants. She uses her art to send jolts through the viewer: in her surreal, morosely fantastical, gore-filled films, the (usually female) body is seen as a thing that can be manipulated, controlled and owned – she wants you to think about your flesh sack, how you inhabit it, how society uses it and who is the real master of it.
The central space of the gallery contains three screens, each showing a different looping movie. In ‘Blue Roses’ a woman has her varicose veins treated while a science class learns how to create cyber-cockroaches. Limbs throb and explode like that guy’s head in ‘Scanners’ while insects convulse with electricity. In ‘Blood’, a young girl has the bones in her nose removed and walks around the Albanian highlands with a woman who lives as a man. In ‘The Udder’, a cow’s teat gives its own mastitis infection life through a sweet little blonde girl – a parable for puberty, hygiene and sexuality.
These are gruesome, visceral often repulsive works of surreal art about transformation, filled with a menacingly gentle British quietness, like odd little conceptual art Hammer horror movies. They’re a little over-long, and maybe a gallery isn’t the best place for them, but they still hit you hard.
Just not as hard as ‘Faint with Light’, the final work in the show. This isn’t a video, it’s an all-out assault disguised as an installation. Simnett recorded herself hyperventilating until she fainted. A wall of white strip lights flash with every breath, growing in intensity as her breathing gets louder and more frantic. Huff, huff, huff; flash, flash, flash. It strobes epileptically, unendingly, causing total panic. It’s intimate, overpowering, horrible. It’s being inside a state of anxiety that’s not yours, but within seconds your own breath starts shuddering, your heart races. The anxiety is yours now, the panic is yours. That by itself is almost too much, but then you realise this is an enforced state, Simnett is doing this on purpose. This is control, dominance over her body and by proxy yours. This is art that fills your body, drains your lungs, tenses your muscles and strikes you over and over again. It’s breathtakingly good.