Some of the best fairy tales are about self-discovery, in which identity is lost and found through displacement, rites of passage and physical transformations. Coming at the tail end of a wave of digital art made on or about the internet, the London-based artist Marianna Simnett looks to this ancient repertoire to reanimate the age-old question of what makes us who we are.
Artfully montaged, her films are rich in layers that have you leaping back and forth between oneiric sequences and hyper-real scenarios: one minute you’re on a farm in the English countryside, the next you’re in a brightly lit surgery room, and then you suddenly find yourself inside the udder of a cow. The general sense of dislocation is amplified by Simnett’s signature juxtaposition of linguistic registers and colour scales. Simnett’s stories come with a solid dose of body-horror, in the best fairy tale tradition: symbolic portals, like a gush of red textile for blood or a monumental nose whose cavities must be entered in order to transition across worlds —guide her characters through this dense imaginary.
In Simnett’s last two films, ‘The Udder’ (2014) and ‘Blood’ (2015) (winning entries of the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards) both feature as protagonist a blonde little girl called Isabel who goes down rabbit holes with impeccable cool. ‘The Udder’ centres on mastitis, an infection of the bovine mammary gland, which Simnett stages as site for confrontation between the forces of purification and corruption. Caught in the middle is Isabel, whose very beauty turns into a sort of disease. The saga continues in ‘Blood’, where, after undergoing surgery to remove the turbinate bones in her nose, Isabel enters a semi-delirious state that propels her to a remote mountain region in the north of Albania. Here she meets Lali, an old sworn virgin who took a vow of chastity in order to forego her biological sex and become a man. First benevolent guardian, then nightmarish persecutor, Lali’s volatile relationship with the little girl is the most powerful thread in the story. As Isabel’s condition worsens, their dialogue intensifies amid unresolved existential questions and miscommunications. Identity is lost, then lost a bit more.
At the time of conversation, Simnett is working on a new film, ‘Blue Roses’ (2015), a tale of varicose veins and bionic cockroaches premiered this summer at Comar on the Isle of Mull. The short film, along with earlier works, ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’ are to screen alongside a musical performance by Simnett as part of the Serpentine Park Nights 2015 program, on August 21.
What is the relation between ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’? Can you give us a sense of how you imagined the two scripts?
Marianna Simnett: I knew that at some point in my life I was going to make a film about sworn virgins. I didn’t know how or if it was going to happen, but I had it in my head before I wrote ‘The Udder’. Both films deal with a contaminated self, which might not even be human or have a brain, but is still thinking through contamination as part of identity: with the udder it’s the potential contraction of mastitis and with the sworn virgin the crossover of genders. With ‘The Udder’, I was thinking about animal ancestry—leading on from my previous film (‘Dog’, 2013)—and trying to do away with the whole animal for the functions or body parts that we consume as humans, such as milk.
The other strand that runs through both films is chastity and with it, indifference. I was trying to operate in a position of indifference in much the same way the udder is indifferent to the method of production of milk. I also saw Isabel as indifferent, and indifference as a condition of chastity, in that historically you can survive the worst kinds of violence by remaining chaste.
What do you mean by chastity and what made you think about it? Was it a literary path?
MS: No, it was personal, though I think that whatever I read and am are the same thing. There was a euphoria I felt about not doings the things that I wanted to do —and that’s surely to do with capitalism, with wanting, and wanting, and wanting everything so much that it engulfs you. But I didn’t want to stop wanting, just to stop having. I wanted to punish myself with all this desire, by turning abstinence (from sex, food, everything) into a daily activity, a habit that I could practice indoors.
At the same time, I was also interested in the etymology of chastity. In the seventeenth century, the word changed meaning according to new rules set by the Protestant Church, beginning as absolute abstinence from any sexual activity and ending up pertaining to moderate behaviour within the institution of marriage, so that complying with the idea of chastity just meant adhering to the norm. In my work, the question is not so much about practicing abstinence; I’m more interested in figuring out what cultural norms are and then disrupting them.
To me, thinking about chastity historically means centuries of repression and control of female sexuality, but when you reclaim it in your work it does seem to acquire a different potency.
MS: Yes, chastity is always seen as a loss and I suppose I’m trying to turn it on its head. It’s the same with Lali [the sworn virgin co-starring in ‘Blood’ ] having to renounce her sexuality: she doesn’t see it as a loss and as much as I kept asking her, “what about everything you are losing?”, she was like “what the fuck are you talking about?”. It’s that friction between knowing that you’ve lost the whole world and feeling utterly liberated.
Both ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’ are titled after body parts. What draws you to clinical anatomy as a platform for narrative?
MS: The body is how I navigate my way through the world and how I can speak from a place that is authentic to me. It is also the best place for me to talk about violence and a sense of being violated, because the body is hit first. And I always choose body parts that for whatever reason have been written about in terms of orchestrating desire: they’re not just any body parts, they’re all related to the myth of hysteria.
You mentioned how you like working with non-professional actors, children in particular, because you can’t completely predict where their performance will take the script. How do you go about calibrating control and chance?
MS: All my work is about me relinquishing control. This began with ‘Faint’ (2012), where I made myself black out on purpose in conjunction with the story of my grandfather, who was in the French resistance during World War II and fainted at just the moment when he was being shot in a line up. He dodged the bullet and survived.
At the same time, I can’t help but map everything out. On a practical level, ‘The Udder’ was chapter headed, though when editing, I would change the sequence order each day so as to not allow myself a definitive ‘beginning’ (the work is both made and seen as a loop). In order to disrupt my model, I choose to work with people I’m not going to be able to direct, like children. I structure everything in terms of what would be fun for them, writing the script as a series of games: drink this faster than your brother, drink it as fast as possible—and then spit it in his face.
I want to set up the most difficult and unpredictable scenario possible: knives, animals, children, sworn virgins, you name it. That’s the recipe.
Does working with children mean that you have to self-censor?
MS: Working with children gives me the freedom to write without having any inhibitions at all, because they have a way of not questioning what’s around them. When I asked Isabel what she thought about Lali’s story, she just said, “mmm, I don’t know”. There is a wonder there, of course, but no sniffing or snooting, only acceptance of nearly anything you throw at them.
I think it’s because they’re disguising that in reality they are very aware of things; they don’t want to talk about it because there’s a problem there, a danger zone, something that we can’t talk about openly, which is sexuality. But those ‘wrong’ feelings are exactly what I want to talk about. I don’t want to smooth everything out and gloss over stuff. I’m allergic to that. I’d rather expose it all and have everybody feel uncomfortable in order to confront something. I don’t really see the point in making work otherwise.
In ‘The Udder’ the script pivots around an infection of the bovine mammary gland only to conjure a much more layered, allegorical vision of the work and the technologies required to the maintain the body—and by extension gender—as natural givens. Similar themes inform ‘Blood’. On the cusp of puberty, Isabel embodies the identity crisis of someone juggling conflicting self-perceptions and a changing body. Lali, on the other hand, has struck a Faustian pact to become a man. Both films get visceral about the limits of the category of Woman, yet you have made a point of saying that your work is not strictly feminist. Why?
MS: I used to talk about wanting to be a man, then I started growing facial hair and was told I had too much testosterone. I started questioning what it meant to be a woman, almost as a symptom of the work I was making (I got a lump in my breast after making ‘The Udder’). But there is a problem with language and the violence at work in naming something. My resistance to feminism stems from not wanting to be boxed: I don’t know my place in it.
Watching ‘Blood’ made me realize that my perception of footage from the ex-Yugoslav region is still filtered by the news reports of the 1990s wars. Is this something you had to deal with? If so, how?
MS: The history of Yugoslavia has been fed down to me as guilt for being privileged. I grew up in a Croatian household in England with a Bosnian au pair, but I always felt estranged from these cultures and a lot of the time I didn’t really understand what was going on. As I child, I used to go to Yugoslavian school every Saturday; then suddenly we were not allowed to go anymore because of the war. Part of my family is still there and, you know, there is a sadness to everyone on that side. A ‘making do’ tinged with defeatism. Or perhaps that’s just my way of rejecting something that perhaps I carry too.
Aside from your biography, there are instances in ‘Blood’ when it seems difficult to escape a certain imperialist imaginary. I’m thinking specifically of when Isabel arrives in Lali’s house and the local kids peer at her in amazement from behind the door, as if she’s some kind of rare-breed exotic animal. Did you struggle to control her image?
MS: Yes, that was probably the most troublesome issue. The first script, which we couldn’t afford in the end, had Lali coming to stay in Isabel’s house in England as well as the other way around. For me, this exchange would have addressed the question, though I’m not sure it would have answered it. The final script put me in a position of self-awareness and doubt about the fact that I just plonked this pretty, blond, Aryan girl in the middle of nowhere and then watched people look at her.
At the end of ‘The Udder’, Isabel cuts off her nose. Then in ‘Blood’ she has to have surgery to remove her turbinate bones (nasal concha, or ‘nose bones’) to alleviate her headaches. How did you come up with the idea for this seemingly absurd operation?
MS: It’s based on the story of Emma Eckstein, a patient of Sigmund Freud on which he consulted with the otorlaryngologist Wilhelm Fleiss. I was reading their correspondence, all these gushy letters from Freud to Fleiss, saying, basically, “I adore your theories”. So Freud referred Eckstein to Fleiss, who treated her for symptoms that at the time were thought to derive from excessive masturbation: headaches, stomach cramps, dysmenorrhea—essentially period pains. Freud and Fleiss believed that removing the turbinate bones would alleviate these symptoms, but the operation went horrendously wrong: Fleiss left surgical gauze in Eckstein’s nose and her cavities got infected. Eventually a nurse pulled out the gauze, provoking a severe haemorrhage that left one side of Eckstein’s face disfigured. Yet, she maintained a friendship with Freud in spite of all and later became a psychoanalyst herself.
‘Blood’ revisits the culpability and blame at stake in this anecdote. [Isabel’s surgery goes wrong and she develops an infection, her face begins to disfigure and her fevered mind undergoes a nightmarish journey to Albania]. Whose fault is it? “I don’t blame you for the blood”, she says at the end of the film, but everybody has a responsibility in the trauma. There is a web over all of them; you cannot pick anyone out as the one true culprit. The fabric gush of blood became a really powerful thing to work with in this sense.
How difficult was it to liaise with the sworn virgins?
MS: It was really difficult and it took a long time, even though the translator facilitated the process. Lali was the first we met and she really wanted to talk. She was excited. She said, “of course I want to be in a movie, I’m going to make you into a fucking star”. But the others didn’t want to talk; a lot of them refused my interviews.
How did you explain the project to them?
MS: I said I was making a film about blood, because blood is what they all talk about, it’s a subject everyone knows. Nearly everyone has had a family member or some connection to a blood feud in Albania. Taking the oath to become a sworn virgin is a traditional practice that conforms to the same code of morals, called the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini. It’s a book of laws that regulates all aspects of life: it’s about how many bloods equal how many, who can kill who, why you can become a sworn virgin or escape your marriage and all the rest of it.
Is Lali another character you chose because you knew you couldn’t control her?
MS: The difficulty with Lali was that she would say the same thing again and again, forcefully. She’s sixty: she’s rehearsed it and doesn’t care what you ask her. I would say, “are you a he or a she?” and she would just answer, “shut up”. She has this defiance about her that I really wanted to provoke and unpack. I thought that having a young child asking her the questions might elicit a different response: the aim of the game was trying to force them both out of their habitual speech routines.
The translator played a key role in ‘Blood’ then.
MS: He is the ghost in the film: all-seeing, but never seen. Like Simon, the herdsman and overseer in ‘The Udder’, who is omnipotent because he can see and predict things before others (either through his own eyes or through the CCTV cameras). Simon is deaf and this gives him an extra sense, which is the ability to oversee the whole situation like a floating eye. The translator in ‘Blood’ is never seen, but he is the only way people can understand each other.
Sound and language seem at least as important to you as images. You composed and played the score for ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’ and in both there are plenty of litanies being sang. ‘Blood’ starts with your disembodied voice teaching an English nursery rhyme to a class of Albanian children and then zooms in on the difficult dialogue between Lali, who delivers crude nuggets of wisdom in her native tongue, and Isabel, a genteel ten-year-old whose polite English can occasionally get whiney. And the herdsman in ‘The Udder’ is deaf, which affects his voice. What do you look for in the breakdowns of speech and communication?
MS: I think they make you listen. They create a feeling of estrangement, so that you are not able to swallow everything and digest it straightaway. Interpretation happens on a more haptic level. You could say that you’re touching speech instead of just listening—there is a texture to it. For example, I might want to play a scientific-medical language off against a kind of fraternal language, or a childlike register against the voice of the mother. In my next film, there will be a talking leg, a varicose vein expert and a cyborg cockroach.**