Atop a collapsible plastic table near the entrance of Bridget Donahue sits a heap of cardboard boxes, displayed messily like zines at a DIY book fair—part of the artist Martine Syms’s current exhibition “Loot Sweets.” Opened just so to reveal they’ve been emptied of contents, the packages are enveloped by uncanny collages of found photos, advertisement clippings, and business cards held together by electric blue tape. Splayed across the adhesive in bold font are the words “Dominica Publishing,” the name of the imprint Syms founded in Los Angeles in 2011, which is repeatedly referenced throughout the show. Syms’s Merch Table (2021) reads like a conduit to its maker through her purchasing habits. It seems to allude to the process by which we construct identities through the things we buy, an effort that is as hollow as the shoeboxes and shopping bags inevitably left behind.
Perhaps this is the same psychology that fuels the sales of designer-branded products. Behind the table stands a textile work, Dominica Publishing Paris (2021), for which screen-printed T-shirts, baseball caps, and leather purses are stitched together into a tapestry that is pulled tightly against a wooden frame. The logo for the downtown-favorite clothing line Telfar or the shrunken shape of a popular handbag by the French label Jacquemus call to mind the casual compliment that triggers a knee-jerk brand-name declaration: "Thanks, it's Prada". These are items onto which we project—or glue, in this case, and cut into—fantasies of ourselves. Hanging against a wall nearby is The Colosseum (2021), a shoebox out of which the artist has carved a pop-up replica of the ancient Roman amphitheater, imbuing the everyday parcel with monumental associations.
Syms gives into consumerist excess while employing a familiar proxy to critique it. Situated within boxes that once carried flat-panel televisions are screens streaming videos of Kita, a digital avatar modeled after the 1990s BET show Cita’s World. The artist launches into a scathing anti-capitalist manifesto in Soliloquy (2021), at one point describing their social media-literate audience as “nerds who gaslight each other.” As each video comes to an end, another plays elsewhere in the space, before arriving at a large monitor standing at the center of the gallery. The concluding footage is a 16-minute showstopper, but the subject matter is not for the faint of heart: It spotlights a seemingly autobiographical character who inflicts increasingly gruesome acts of self-mutilation. In one scene, as the virtual being’s briefly lifeless body lies crumpled on the ground, the video pans to the back of her shirt, which reads “to hell with my suffering”. For an artist, pressed to mine personal pains for each work, agony itself is a commodity. —Coco Romack
Martine Syms, Kita Meditating, 2021. Laser cut cardboard, digital video, 35 × 60 × 7 inches. 4:19 minutes. Copyright Martine Syms, courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC. Photo by Gregory Carideo.