‘Lightly, Slightly, Politely.’ In her ‘Glossary of Harlem Slang’, American writer Zora Neale Hurston says this expression means ‘to do something perfectly’. The three words appear on the wall of Martine Syms’s current solo ICA exhibition, in a typeface the LA-based artist also created. It’s just the tip of the show’s iceberg of cultural references. Over two rooms we are invited into Syms’s manifold universe – layer upon layer of historic and pop-culture moments and personal experiences; a sophisticated collage of digital art and analogue memories.
At the centre of this first room two TVs stand back to back. They show 30-second videos – found, personal and archive footage – which fade softly in and out and alternate between the screens. The clips, using the visual grammar of the internet – Gifs, Vines – depict everything from activist and Public Enemy affiliate Sister Souljah in front of a daytime talk show audience, to a mid-range shot of a young woman’s face placidly watching a screen (we watch her watching). Syms has titled the work ‘Lessons’ and she calls the clips ‘commercials’ for these lessons, which feature mantras like ‘what you claim, you are’.
The walls and ceilings of the exhibition entrance are covered with a teenage-bedroom-style collage of photos entitled ‘Misdirected Kiss’. Family snaps, a profesh shot of Boney M and pictures of Syms herself are wallpapered together, levelling the pop and the personal. The theme continues in the second room, where publicity shots and personal photos are held up by C-stands (used in photography studios), drawing attention to the process of image production itself. But despite this seeming K-hole of cultural meaning, the layout is deceptively economical – poised between very little and everything at once.
The 28-year-old artist, whose work is often about blackness, new media and black artistic expression, also runs independent publisher Dominica, and she brings to her visual work an almost literary sensibility: what is read/seen and understood and what is felt on a personal level converge. How to describe Syms’s show? Three words come to mind...