B. Ingrid Olson on Martine Syms

Martine Syms: Incense Sweaters & Ice, 2017, video, 1 hour, 9 minutes.

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As part of the Annual Guide to Galleries, Museums and Artists (A.i.A.’s August issue), we preview the 2018-19 season of museum exhibitions worldwide. In addition to offering their own top picks, our editors asked select artists, curators, and other experts to identify the shows they are looking forward to. Here, B. Ingrid Olson talks about Martine Syms.

“I saw Martine Syms’s feature-length video Incense Sweaters & Ice when it was first shown as part of an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in 2017. The work consists of interwoven footage: text messages interrupt naturalistic scenes featuring a young black woman named Girl as she departs from Los Angeles on a journey to Missouri and Mississippi; selections of Her 37th Year, an Index, a semiautobiographical novella by Suzanne Scanlon, are read out loud; the young woman’s great-aunt uses cue cards to perform a histrionic monologue about etiquette; and Girl, along with her friends, sings at a karaoke bar. Each segment explores the use of language as a command. In the installation, Syms encouraged viewers to move by having the video migrate across three screens positioned in a triangular column. As one screen went dark, another just out of sight came on. Viewers had to get up, if sitting, and walk partway around the space in order to see the next segment.

“In the MoMA installation, Syms employed an augmented reality app to further direct the viewing experience of photographic prints hanging on the walls around the monitors. Like Duchamp, who suggested providing flashlights to viewers at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition so they could illuminate artworks in a darkened room, Syms has created a system for individualized, highly orchestrated viewing. The app used facial recognition technology to identify faces on the prints and add another layer of images to them as they were seen on the viewer’s phone screen—images taken from personal archives, social media, and reality TV. Syms’s precisely designed exhibition implicated viewers, empowering them to make decisions, to move and be moved within a controlled and limited system.

“Syms has her first solo institutional show in Chicago this fall at the Graham Foundation, whose programming centers on the relationship between art and the built environment. The exhibition will feature Incense Sweaters & Ice, embedding it in a new installation spanning multiple floors of the foundation’s 1902 Prairie-style mansion. I’m looking forward to watching the piece again, and to seeing how Syms negotiates, reconstructs, and controls the experience of her work in this multifaceted, formerly domestic building.”


“Martine Syms: Incense Sweaters & Ice,” Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago, Sept. 26, 2018–Jan. 12, 2018.

B. INGRID OLSON is a Chicago-based artist. Her work is included in “Being: New Photography,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Aug. 19, 2018, and “Lost Without Your Rhythm,” at the Aspen Art Museum, Nov. 16, 2018–Feb. 24, 2019.