Martine Syms Loot Sweets
Bridget Donahue, New York 15 July – 25 September
Cita was a woman of the new millennium: clever, stylish and self-made. As the host of the programme Cita’s World (1999–2003), she played music videos, responded to fan mail, commented on celebrity gossip and delivered blunt cultural criticism. The catch is that she wasn’t real. A brainchild of Black Entertainment Television ( ) producer Curtis A. Gadson, Cita was the first Black virtual-reality character on television. When Martine Syms was in her early teens, she watched Cita’s World religiously, and for this tour-de-force exhibition at Bridget Donahue she wrote down the advice that she wishes Cita could have given her. In a new video, kittie Kaboom, Cita’s original voice actor, resurrects the avatar – here named Kita – who speaks to us in a leather miniskirt and tube top from the rendered control room.
Materterine talk of Black hairdos and barbecues takes a turn when Kita directly addresses Syms’s fellow millennials: “On the one hand, you is the bridge, the connective tissue, that Gorilla Glue between generations. On the other hand, y’all social media crash-test dummies.” Lab rats in a corporate behavioural experiment, the young people who came of age with the internet have developed a dangerously antisocial materialism, she argues. “Y’all don’t even realise that capitalism resigned y’all to sketch out a culture of total simony,” warns Kita, adding sagely that “the world has collapsed many times”. Our only choice, she continues, is to “embrace change”.
The work initiates a relay of other new videos that play in custom frames collaged together from shopping bags, receipts, photographs and various signifiers of millennial cool. Along with a series of accompanying sculptures, these incorporate logos for hip fashion labels Telfar and Eckhaus Latta, and ephemera from hotspots around Los Angeles, where Syms lives and works: a hand towel from the local techno party Boiler Room, a business card from a Glendale acupuncturist, a hat from the photo and video store chain B&H and a receipt from a vegetarian restaurant in Highland Park, all sutured with packing tape bearing the name of Syms’s press, Dominica Publishing, or the logo for Zankou Chicken, a popular Armenian rotisserie joint. T-shirts and stickers printed with pithy statements – ‘She Mad’, ‘Boring Life Isn’t It’ – add a touch of disa¡ection familiar from Instagram accounts like @a£rmations. All this forms a composite portrait of the artist and her generation in the ironic lingua franca of the internet, their identities comprising so many slogans torn up and pasted back together like memes. Syms’s layering of the personal and commercial are in line with the current absence of any boundary between life and lifestyle.
In the exhibition’s second video, a series of Black athletes – a runner, a golfer, a gymnast – perform gracefully across the screen. Languorous shots of glowing blue jellyfish melt into a screensaver view of Stonehenge at sunset and, finally, slow pans of Artemisia Gentileschi’s
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612–13). The baroque, protofeminist masterpiece tugs on a narrative thread of emotional turmoil in the exhibition that jibes with the millennial penchant for self-analysis. Soon after, a third video plays, in which a digital avatar clearly modelled on the artist, wearing a ‘To Hell With My Su¡ering’ T-shirt, reassembles herself from a pile of bloodied limbs. “If I waited ’til I was ready, I would never do a thing,” a plaintive voice sings as Syms stumbles wearily forward. “I just want to feel something,” we hear as she vomits, falls, picks herself back up again; shoots herself in the head; and commits hara-kiri. The refrain of dull a£rmations continues: “May I be well, may I be happy” and, echoing Kita, “The only God is change”. It’s a scene redolent of Ed Atkins, but with a greater sense of existential dread.
Yet just when we feel trapped in a cycle of trauma, Kita reappears in a fourth and final video in a state of apotheosis. Floating in lotus position over drone footage of fields and forests, she leads a guided meditation, reminding us, “Sometimes we need to let go”. That’s always the hardest part in capitalism, yet the only way to create change. Living our lives largely online, defined by our patterns of consumption, we form Gorilla Glue attachments that are di£cult to break. Syms lingers in that breach, asking us to consider what’s left when the world inevitably collapses again: a pile of limbs, a renewed sense of purpose, a voice of reason from beyond the virtual grave. Evan Mott