The artistic practice of Marianna Simnett is daring, dynamic and forceful. Her imagery is bold, striking and clear. Her surfaces are serene and complex, her scenes are multilayered and intricate. She goes to extents that many would not come close to, opening up space for encounters and further discourse. Her curiosity about the way things are and inquiry into unleashing the normative informs her practice. Her quest into one’s sense of self proliferates through other selves sourced from reality and fiction, from fact and tale. Her characters are hybrid formations overridden by rational scientific inquiry, the folkloric systems of belief and instinctual motivations. She pulls audiences into her mise-en-scènes, then spurts them out of their comfort zones. The push and pull in the narratives she unfolds creates a centrifugal force with a dark side that is less comforting, regulated and agreeable. The bewilderment that she evokes goes beyond boundaries, expectations and rationale. In her works she foretells contemporary interpretations of fairy tales where victim and victimised are engaged in a twisted narrative and the barren nature of trauma is filtered through thinking and artistic ingenuity. Marianna Simnett constructs realities like ours to pull us into her worlds, where words are deeds and power is in the eye of the beholder.
Fatos Üstek: You have been based in London for many years. What made you move to Berlin?
Marianna Simnett: When lockdown hit, I was in Brisbane for my solo show CREATURE at the Institute of Modern Art. I was living nomadically with no home, just a studio. I then spent six months isolating with my dad in the countryside after which we both left in pursuit of the next chapter. I was ready for a change, and Berlin, with its visible skylines and socialist, community spirit felt like a good place to be.
Fatos: It’s a good place for nurture.
I see that many of my friends who live there definitely have a slower pace of life. You have training in musical theatre alongside art. What pulled you strongly into the creative field?
Marianna: In my childhood, art was not encouraged, but my early dependence on it was clear. Mine was a barren house, a troubled home laden with conflict. Art was a way to escape the anger and monotony. Growing up in a former Yugoslavian household, many languages were spoken. We had a series of French and Spanish au pairs, who would often be fired for inconsequential mistakes. Practising piano and flute was an imposed daily ritual. But art was mine alone. It was my tool of rebellion and resistance. Some toddlers reject food. For me, art was a way to reject my environment and invent a new one.
Fatos: It is interesting to hear this. You seem to create alternate realms as an act of resistance, protecting yourself through difference, yet your ancestral heritage often surfaces. It is not predominantly present, but it does inform your work. For instance, I am thinking about Faint with Light from 2016, which is based on a very piercing, life-defining experience of your grandfather. How do you position these personal stories? You have mentioned your urge to create an independent space for yourself, of your own for your artistic explorations, thinking and practice, as a field separate from your immediate surroundings. There must have been a kind of differentiation and distancing to the stories that impacted your family members?
Marianna: These stories are family myths. They were never told verbatim; they were cloaked in secrecy. My grandfather never spoke. My mother relayed his survival story and it got me all twisted up. She told sad stories as if she was reading a shopping list. It was almost funny.
Fatos: Trauma manifests differently in people. Some people never address what has happened, others need to alienate themselves. You bring out things that have impacted your life by revisiting them as well as openly sharing them with a wider public who are unknown to you. I’m interested in this dichotomy of intimate and personal, which becomes public in indirect ways.
Marianna: My work isn’t auto-biographical, yet it is extremely personal. Faint with Light embodies a gesture but separates it from its historical context. My grandfather missed a bullet by fainting during the Holocaust. He was caught jumping off a train in an attempt to escape while travelling between concentration camps. His story was my impetus, but not essential to the viewers’ experience. It urged me to subject myself to a potentially dangerous act. At the time it felt strangely essential. Nothing that happened to my body could ever come close to what I imagined happened to him. Empathy is not just about telling your own story and expecting others to engage. It’s about trying to find a shared common space.
Fatos: How you position empathy is really intriguing. In psychology, empathy is regarded as putting yourself in the shoes of others in order to encapsulate or embody the experiences, feelings or sensations that might be taking course. I’m thinking about how you position empathy as a common ground. It isn’t stepping into the other field, but it’s actually a third space, where sensations are negotiated. You embrace very bold gestures. Perhaps we could talk about the triangulation of shocking your audiences, exposing them to sometimes vulgar images. For instance, in The Udder (2014), I find the slicing of the cow’s teats in the film to be a piercing image. You also show goosebumps and bring forward representations that trigger multiple questions. Could we say that your artistic processes lead to that third space, even though it is not necessarily a safe space?
Marianna: By trying to escape learnt behaviours, rules and structures, I hope to invent and imagine alternatives. You need to be listening to the body in the attic, who’s telling you something else, something different. Go with the wrong feeling; go against what others expect you to do. My intention has never been to shock; what shocks people is my lack of boundaries. Sometimes, it’s necessary to show piercing images to disrupt the consensus, to upset binaries, to muddy fixed identities. It’s fascinating that men feel like their dick is being split open when they see that shot.
Fatos: Right? We could call that a form of empathy perhaps. You introduce upside-down twists of what we know as the truth, supported by factual scientific elaborations.
Marianna: Art is a way of warping expectations taught via rational thought and science.
Fatos: Your choreography of the mise-en-scène in The Udder, with the film set inside the cow’s body, projects the conversations and negotiations internally. All of a sudden, the viewer finds themselves in the attic having a conversation with the dead body. Does this push at the boundaries of what people think as they watch?
Marianna: More people should have a conversation with the body in the attic. It’s always there. You can keep trying to push it away and shut that door, but eventually, it will come for you.
…It’s thrilling to give yourself over to the seduction that potential threat offers…
Fatos: There is almost an erotic pull and push, to engage with the body in the attic. You may discover something that is unknown to you or unleash something that is inherent in you, meanwhile, you may endanger the ‘normative’ flow of things. How do you see this unfolding? Where lies the erotic for you?
Marianna: It’s thrilling to give yourself over to the seduction that potential threat offers. Like in The Hunger (1983) with David Bowie trapped in the attic and Catherine Deneuve, his vampire lover, bringing him victims. That movie speaks to me in a deep way. Or Hellraiser (1987), which explores unbounded carnal pleasure. Both are attic-based movies that deal with the deep recesses of the mind and our desire as humans to transgress the limits of flesh.
Fatos: One of my favourite short stories is ‘The Forgotten’ (1975) by Oguz Atay, set in an attic where the narrator converses with the ghost of her ex-husband. He talks about the love that they once had, where the fire is still alive though no longer crackling. I feel you enjoy pushing beyond the normative especially with fairy tales. They are immediate conditionings of value systems in the world. In a recent interview, you refer to fairy tales as the rationalisation of trauma. In some scenarios, you need to avoid trauma, for example, by sleeping for 100 years and withdrawing from life. This comes with a reward: a charming prince that devotes his love to you for the sake of your uninterrupted beauty – or rather uninformed naivety.
Marianna: One of the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty, called Sun Moon and Talia (1634) by Giambattista Basile, describes the King, who, having seen Talia (Sleeping Beauty) unconscious, ‘fe[els] his blood course hotly through his veins.’ Essentially, he rapes her in her sleep and the ‘happy ending’ is their marriage!
Fatos: And it is still happening in some societies today! You approach narratives by introducing multiple layers, creating fractal settings. The Udder starts with a young girl who questions the concept of beauty that then connects to the mass production of milk where the mechanics are laid bare in parallel with the protagonist’s inner conversations. In The Bird Game (2019) the seductive crow takes the children into their own projected dreams, flirting with them in an imaginary experience while taking away their agency. In your works, the narrative starts to intermingle and the spaces of exploration get intertwined. Can you talk about how you unfold these spiralling narratives?
Marianna: Concepts, colours and sounds are treated equally. By synthesising bits of this and that I concoct a new space for all these elements to coexist, combining empirical, literary and abstract research. The first thing to do in The Udder was to cut open a real udder, to learn its anatomy and better understand bovine disease. The Udder has a self-protecting system that can prevent the spread of disease even within itself. From here, worlds appear within worlds, magic chambers like an onion or babushka doll. The story is loosely based on John Milton’s strange and eerie masque Comus, incidentally also written in 1634, the same year as Basile’s Sleeping Beauty. It explores the idea of chastity as a type of agency and tells the story of a girl lost in the forest who encounters the dangerous Comus. Diving into my own personal memories, disturbances, oppressive interiorities, warped ideas of family and domesticity, creates a playful, free associative process: the nose is the teat is the thumb is the phallus. The work is deliberately alogical, meaning opposed to or lacking in logic, existing outside of a given language.
Fatos: It is very interesting to think about the body as an intact form, yet alone it can be captured, dissected and chopped up into parts to then be sealed and healed again to assume its functions. How do you see the body? Is it a system of functions?
Marianna: In The Udder, the brothers threaten to ‘make [their sister] into a squidgy shape and cut her up and push her back together again and stamp on her head!’ The body for me is chaotic and malleable. Perhaps my biggest dream would be to make visible the functions and wear our insides on the outside
as a cloak.
Fatos: Following on from there, we can almost anatomically map your work. You focus on the neck, the voice, the nose, the legs or the breath. It’s almost like you’re shedding light on different sections of the body. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote of the body without organs, meaning a body without a structure or a zone, an imposed organisation that can be sentient or inanimate.
Marianna: In order to imagine a flourishing world in the future, we also have to find kinships and shared behaviours with others. And so, the self is already fragmented and plural.
Fatos: I guess it comes back to that third space, of not thinking about the self as one single entity, but of being fractured, fragmented, having disjointed multiplicities and shared coexistences.
Marianna: The solidity of singularity is illusory and delusional. Paul B. Preciado goes further to say that when we absorb something into our body, such as testosterone, we are also absorbing a set of chains, signs and political signifiers. Our bodies are linked to networks of exchange, flow-chains, oceans and biospheres. My recent research has been on industrialised horse breeding, and I have made many works in medical and institutional environments – sites in which the biological, human or animal, is systematised.
Fatos: It makes me think of a word: manimal. There’s even a TV series. I don’t know if it’s worth watching. The dictionary definition is half-man half-beast. I think your inquiry in your sense of self is inherent in your work where animals become allies and the mediums of your deep instigations. And as you’ve described, the multiple attestations of one’s own being are always at play. Is this also one of the reasons you are in your works? In each work, you’re a different self as well.
Marianna: Adopting personas and role play are important performative tools. In The Needle and the Larynx (2016), I play the classic blonde, the victim patient, the damsel in distress, but rupture the conventional archetype through my performance, or more precisely, non-performance.
Fatos: Your eyes do the work.
Marianna: Someone once flatteringly compared this type of static defiance to Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The question of why I subject myself to things is a difficult one to answer. The acts themselves haven’t hurt me but I have battled for years with mental illness. Perhaps my cursed brain has also given me a superpower to prod at reality and challenge norms.
…Intimacy is about actually giving space […] generously giving someone a space to inhabit that they didn’t have before encountering you…
Fatos: I am sorry to hear this and also moved that you can talk about your hardships so openly. In a way it is very intimate, to be open and to share without filters or without projecting a strong image. I reckon prodding at reality and challenging norms necessitate embracing vulnerability. Perhaps too much of a Brené Brown rhetoric, however, I do believe that acknowledging ourselves enables us to see others. To be intimate with oneself allows intimacy to happen with others. What is intimacy for you?
Marianna: Intimacy is, paradoxically, distance. Intimacy and distance are interrelated. If you try to force someone to be close to you, you’ll end up pushing them away. Intimacy is about actually giving space. It’s not about trying to get people to see your view, but about generously giving someone a space to inhabit that they didn’t have before encountering you.
Fatos: At the end of The Needle and the Larynx you shared your feelings about the injection as it was impacting your body. Hearing your voice was a very intimate experience. Your openness and your vulnerability was very touching when you talked about how the altering of your voice changed your sense of physical strength, and emotional, psychological strength. But, as outsiders, we are distant, external to these sensations.
Marianna: Gaining a gravelly masculine voice was not my objective. That wasn’t the point; it was an experiment to play with gender and categorisations, but the aim was never to sound like a man. The ending was recorded as a confession of my experience to my good friend, the writer Alice Hattrick. It was 48 hours after I had received an injection into my larynx to lower the pitch of my voice. Alice provided an intimate space of friendship; we were sharing and I was crying. It was emotionally hard.
Fatos: I can imagine. It made me think about our voices. We talk about the voice of women as a tool for empowerment. Going through your experience in your steps was quite something. You are also ruthless to characters that are unaware of themselves, like in Blood in my Milk (2018), where you cast a spell on a guard with a macho attitude. In the trajectory of your work, I think your voice as an artist is getting stronger, and you’re getting bolder, and more fearless in addressing issues while, at the same time, challenging the status quo. The image from Worst Gift (2017), where you have a worm in your mouth is so strong, not only because it is shocking or challenging or gross, it was a kind of a symptom of you embracing nature and being in nature. And it reminded me of witchcraft or magic: a relationship with nature that is much more connected.
Marianna: This was also the case for The Bird Game (2019). There has been a definite shift and an embrace of a continuity between the self and the world. The space I inhabit no longer requires me to stab needles into my throat or make myself pass out. Now, ironically, my work feels wilder than ever, because there has been an even deeper transgression into a fiction that feels more real than reality.
Fatos: Recalling Donna J. Haraway, the self doesn’t have to always embody itself in a human form – you could also embody a crow. The Bird Game is different from former works. It breaks the stylistic continuity of your first four works. I think this began when you started working with installations.
Marianna: The Bird Game took a ‘mythological turn’ following a long series of work centred on the medical. My isolation in the countryside became the greatest remedy. Away from the city, there were no humans, so my new playmates became the surrounding roadkill! Birds have always fascinated me, and my recent research includes looking at their sleep behaviour, how they migrate over long periods with little to no sleep. After spending a lot of time on a stud farm I produced a series of lenticular animations called Covering (2020). These document the process of horse breeding, and one mare’s resistance to being covered by a stallion, so much so that she kicks him in the dick! Aliens, monsters and animals have always been my obsession.
Fatos: Can we talk about the construction of empowerment here? On one hand, you are bringing ‘uncommon’ representations of animals where they also embody desire rather than mere urge to copulate. On the other, there is you, who channels these portraits from the point of exerting your projections. Is that correct?
Marianna: In the case of the mare, she is unaware of her retaliation’s effect within a profit-driven economy. It is dangerous to project my human desire for empowerment onto the horse. Nevertheless, the mare demonstrates a type of agency possible within biocapitalism – the exploitation of or extraction of goods from bodies to accumulate capital. By refusing to mate, she immediately devalues herself and corrupts the system she has been placed in. Many of my animals are enmeshed with others or copulating with different species, such as Hyena and Swan in the Midst of Sexual Congress (2019) or Pillow (2020). With Hyena and Swan gender and power expectations are subverted. The dominatrix swan is given a phallus and mounts a hyena, who one might think has male genitalia, but study the female spotted hyena and you’ll discover she has a remarkable pseudo-penis! Then there’s the myth of Leda and the Swan, which is turned on its head, to give prowess to non-male protagonists.
Fatos: A thread in your works is a kind of oscillation between ethics and nature. I imagine the erotic is that in-between space, where you shouldn’t be thinking too much, that contains what you shouldn’t be desiring. In this space, there isn’t copulation; the reproduction happens on a steady basis. After all, we don’t talk about the erotics of, you know, lions copulating or horses copulating, but we do when it comes to human gaze. Can we perhaps unpack
this a bit?
Marianna: Audre Lorde reclaims the erotic as a source of feminine power, a lifestyle and a profound feeling of knowing that goes against the patriarchal structure of the pornographic. The erotic is always present in my work though it is closely aligned with death and the unconscious. I’m more interested in death, but it comes out as sex. The horse breeding, the teat, the worm in my mouth. There is a creepy, phallic energy, a sensuality and foreplay. Inevitably there is unresolved trauma, which brings images to the surface again and again.
In The Udder, the little girl plays her own psycho double wearing red lipstick. She is a sweet Lolita and her own corrupter. The abused corrupted in accepted ways. I didn’t want to repeat the classic bogeyman narrative. What’s worse than your own evil twin coming to get you? I didn’t want a horror slasher, of a man on a farm chasing after the girl. The nightmare is in her own head. That’s way worse. Even the gesture of smudging the lipstick to blend the self. In the trippy scene where she is talking to her double, one keeps reapplying the lipstick and the other wipes it off. By the end of the conversation, they are smudged together, infused. The seducer is the victim, the victim turned seducer.
Fatos: It definitely comes across.
I want to come back to the idea that it’s also about judgment. When in The Bird Game, the boy gets this beautiful bird and cracks it open, that kind of vulgarity is almost too instinctual. But then he becomes self-aware. And then when he behaves as he does, there’s a kind of relationship to pleasure. If you push it too much, then it becomes porn, or it becomes a vulgar act. And I feel that there’s that same thing with the horses when we see their penises.
Marianna: Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Pleasure and terror can appear to be the same feeling, which can be very destabilising. It reminds me of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) when Lennie strokes the mouse too hard and kills it. And then he accidentally shakes a woman so hard her neck breaks. All because he wanted to touch her soft hair, to be closer. His love is so strong but he doesn’t know his own physical strength. And he ends up having to be killed because he keeps putting himself in danger. Because he loves too much. Tha’s fascinating. That childlike pleasure of holding a living thing, loving to death; crushing it between their hands. Once at the Slade School of Art, University College London I joined a class of medical students who were studying cadavers. We were handling dead human bodies and the anatomist asked, ‘Do you feel hungry?’ We did. He said it was normal. When you’re around dead bodies, you feel hungry. The combination of the flesh mixed with the chemicals makes you want to consume. There must be an innate fucked up phenomenon around death and devourment.
Fatos: That is very interesting. I wanted to discuss your fascination with medicine, and the processes. Rather than undermining them, do you perhaps show their deficiencies or malfunctions?
Marianna: Surgery, medicine and pill production comes with ultra-precise measurements. We accept dosages with the belief they’ve been safety-tested. But there are always cracks and discrepancies. Our bodies are malleable and varied. We’re not the same unit from each person to the next. Western medicine does not allow for fluidity, for a multiplicity of genders and beings. It wants to categorise everyone into neat boxes. It doesn’t properly acknowledge non-conforming, non-binary, trans or queer bodies.
Fatos: My last question is about the musical section. How do music and prose come into your works? What does this symbolise for you?
Marianna: Music is a powerful, affectual medium because it is ephemeral. It can rupture language. It can resonate very deep within you. It democratises,
it lingers, it leaves a residue, and you don’t think about how you’re responding. It’s just happening to you, invisibly.
Like a drug.