by Urvi KothariSep 24, 2022
Marianna Simnett is a British-Croatian artist with a strong focus on the grotesque. Simnett’s practice sees her embody the physicality and conceptual grounding of mythical beasts and imagined monsters, and is wholly singular, if somewhat intimidating to grapple with.
Already familiar with several mediums such as video art, film, painting and installation art, the multidisciplinary artist will soon be treating audiences to her stage debut through a flute opera titled GORGON, on from September 13-17 during Berlin Art Week. GORGON is written, composed, and directed by Simnett, and will be presented by LAS Art Foundation. The performance explores the gendered manner through which the myth of this particular monster originally appeared within Greek mythology. In the myth, the hero Perseus killed Medusa—the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters—and the deity Athena then reproduced the baleful cries of Medusa’s sisters through an instrument. Simnett’s protagonist Greta will similarly seek to harness the power of the Gorgon's cry, albeit in a more modern, capitalist setting.
Simnett discusses the beginnings of her creative journey, telling STIR, "I started thinking about and making work from a very young age and was always interested in metamorphosis and transformation.” GORGON is but the latest in her ongoing exploration of myths and fairy tales, metastasized from her earlier fascinations. However, the artist’s practice does not rest within antiquity; as is the case with LAS Art Foundation’s upcoming offering, Simnett collides these concepts and creatures with contemporary paradigms, bringing them into discussions around artificial intelligence and digital technology. She continues, saying “With my current flute opera GORGON, there is a strong emphasis on performance and theatricality. It is my first ambitious stage work.” In the past, she has undertaken large-scale video and film installation works such as The Severed Tail, which premiered at Venice Biennale 2022.
While preliminary explorations of the artist’s oeuvre appear daunting, even alienating in a way that is hard to describe, it may be of value to divide it into three key elements that interact with each other.
Costume is a very exciting topic for Simnett, and not without reason: her costume design is highly inspired, with certain assemblages hinting at an appreciation of early cinema, low-budget horror movies, and leather subcultures, sometimes all at once. She explains, telling STIR, “The way identity is formed on stage or on screen is always of prime importance to me. Costuming is a form of self-expression. It is a way of becoming other. It's a way of putting on another skin. In preparation for GORGON, I myself dressed up in many different costumes, mimicking animals from the natural world like ants, spiders, octopuses and other species, to embody these other beings.”
Simnett is a trained flutist but comes from a background in piano. In fact, it is the latter of the two that the artist considers her “musical mother tongue,” as she learned it from a very young age. Simnett would pick up the flute at the age of seven, claiming it for herself as an instrument to be approached out of choice. In her words, “I was classically trained and it was a love-hate relationship until I moved to Berlin three years ago and couldn't bring my piano. I bought myself an alto flute as a gift to myself, and as a little comfort through COVID-19 to be able to keep music with me as it was such an integral part of my life. Also, to have an antidote to art, which was occupying all of my time; to carve out a little space that was just for me to breathe into. And then lo and behold, it became subsumed into my practice.”
As of now, music and art no longer have a boundary within Simnett’s work. This, for her, is a major reconciliation of two critical aspects of her life that hitherto existed across a schism.
The artist mentions that she has recently finished workshopping the Gorgon's wail for GORGON. She tells STIR, “I am interested in these pressurised tonalities that make the flute sound much more aggressive and fiercer; more piercing and sharper than what it's traditionally known for.” She rightly points out that the flute is thought of as a “seductive, silky, mellow, mellifluous instrument, often associated with a type of girliness or prissiness.” Through GORGON, she has challenged herself to turn that perception upon its head and approaches the flute as a beast in its own right.
Simnett has already acquired some experience working with AI. For example, the project Blue Moon, produced for the artist’s show OGRESS at Société, Berlin, for which the artist created a dataset for training an AI model that was built upon images of Simnett resembling the deity Athena. The artist explains the role of AI in GORGON, telling STIR “The video footage of me dressed up as animals was fed into AI technology, to confuse the models as they were trying to classify data in the process of image making.” The result yields footage that is hypnotically garbled, wherein Simnett comes to occupy a position of liminality between several creatures, both natural and imagined.
When asked as to what the near future holds, Simnett says “GORGON has given me license to explore the space of opera, dance and choreography in a way that I have never had the courage to do before.” Up next, she will be composing a ballet performance for a film themed around football; a strange prospect to be sure, but one that is certain to pique the interest of her audience. After all, Marianna Simnett is no stranger to strangeness, and it is her work, more than most other multidisciplinary art makers practicing today, that truly combines the beautiful and the bizarre, the hallowed and the perverse, to make it her own.