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Memes Mediate an Artist's Trip to the Dentist

“Laughing Gas” is on view a part of Made In L.A at the Hammer Museum.
Martine Syms, Laughing Gas Still, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

In her followup to A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere, a visual treatment shown at the 2015 New Museum Triennial, the artist Martine Syms presents Laughing Gas at the Hammer Museum’s "Made In L.A." 2016: a, the, though, only. The video work is accompanied by a sculpture and a wall-length text in the biennial exhibition that presents an array of artists, including Sterling Ruby, the fashion duo Eckhaus Latta, and Wadada Leo Smith, who loosely explore themes associated with living and working in Los Angeles.


Martine Syms, A Pilot For A Show About Nowhere Still, 2015. Courtesy of the artist

“It’s an continuation of an episodic project I started last year, that uses the framework of a sitcom to think about identity and the production of it,” explains Syms to The Creators Project. “This is the first actual episode of She Mad, the television show that was proposed [during the 2015 New Museum Triennial]." Says Syms, “It’s also a loose remake of this silent film called Laughing Gas I came across through a text written by the film scholar Jacqueline Stewart.”

“I became really obsessed with the film and thought it could operate as a structure that could hold cinematic history and my own memory of an experience that happened to me,” she adds.

Martine Syms, Laughing Gas Still, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

The four-channel video in some ways updates Edwin S. Porter’s 1907 black-and-white film of the same name, where a black female protagonist visits the dentist. In her conceptual remake, Syms plays “Martine,” a character named after the artist herself, and gets her wisdom teeth pulled like Bertha Regustus does in the original. Yet, as Syms moves through the dental appointment and heads home, the split screens glimpse into how Syms experiences her appointment and its mundanity both digitally and in real time. When Syms meets the dentist, for instance, one of the four screens shows the artist laying in front of the dental assistant, who asks, “How are you?”

“Pretty good,” Martine says, while a second screen displays a GIF of rapper Nicki Minaj, motioning as if she is spilling tea after throwing shade at rapper Iggy Azalea at the 2014 BET Awards. A third and fourth screen share different angles of Martine, in an effort to slow down and approximate for the viewer an exchange with the dental assistant that lasted but a few seconds. The scene, in some ways, signifies what it means to be a 27-year-old black woman artist traversing public space today. The four possible reactions Syms offers up each evoke the ways in which she gestures to how these moments often lead to the kinds of racial microaggressions the poet Claudia Rankine describes in her book-length lyric poem, “Citizen.”


Martine Syms, Laughing Gas Still, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

“In real life, if something happens to me, I am always comparing it to some scene in a movie,” explains Syms. “I wanted to incorporate that into the experience for the viewer. There’s a continuous thread of this media interrupting a primary narrative.”  She says, “I also shot with a lot of hidden cameras, which speak to the fact that you are always constantly on tape. I have developed this irrational thing about being caught doing something crazy on video that will end up on a Vine.”

She adds, “I wanted it to seem like I could tap into all the cameras that are recording us all the time.”

The nearly seven-minute video is also a contemporary look at how mass media culture has led to the rise of what media theorist Alison Landsberg calls “prosthetic memory.” Syms uses captured memories in the form of memes, GIFs, film clips, and text to share Martine's feelings and emotions and express a full range of complex human ideas. In each frame she assimilates as personal experience manufactured moments from television, film, and social media. The idea raised by Landsberg, acted out on screen by Syms, examines how, in the age of social media, everything, even the personal, is performance.

Made in L.A. 2016: Martine Syms from Hammer Museum on Vimeo.

Laughing Gas is on view through August 28 a part of the exhibition Made In LA: a, the, though, only at the Hammer Museum. Click here for more information.


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