Daria Marin: Sensorium Tests, review by Amy Budd
Daria Martin’s current exhibition Sensorium Tests reveals a sustained enquiry into the sensorial relations produced between human and nonhuman entities in the world. From intimate encounters with robotic devices, to clinical neurological testing and the tactile materials and structures of unconscious fantasies and obscure card games, each of Martin’s short 16mm films can be characterised as psychological projections of human experience, realised through physical aspects of ‘touch’ produced between flesh, material surfaces, objects and the psyche.
Directly drawing its fecund imagery from the recollections of a dream experienced by a close friend of Martin’s, Harpstrings and Lava (2007) is the most narrative-based film in the exhibition, all of which are housed in a dynamic screening environment installed by design duo Post Works. Here, a female musician plucks at harp strings in an archetypal Greco-Roman stage setting, creating an atonal soundtrack against which a young woodland ingénue experiences a sensuous awakening in a nightmarish fantasy world. Her physical understanding of her surreal environment is sensorially produced, through caressing husks of bark, to smelling leaves or touching the papery skin of drum. Martin’s study of the physical, textural and emotional qualities of objects in this realisation of an inner world provides a visceral viewing experience, emphasising human sensorial faculties over any psychoanalytic readings of this unconscious realm.
Closeup Gallery (2003), also without dialogue, accompanies Harpstrings and Lava in the Long gallery. Similarly, the subtleties of physical human expression are depicted through the presentation of a cryptic card game played between a man and woman across a two-tiered rotating glass table. The precise rules remain obscure, as do the cards in their spray-painted backs and primary colours, and the corresponding colour-matching outfits of both players. Distanced from the action by the non-verbal communication, the viewer is subsequently produced as a voyeur, left to observe the power shifts in the game via the mutual exchange of wry smiles, extended eye contact and coy body language between players.
Martin repeatedly captures the machine-like movement of the male gambler’s dextrous fingers shuffling packs of cards in Closeup Gallery, which touches on her interest in artificial intelligence as explored in Soft Materials (2004). Here, a series of mechanic devices with no obvious purpose interact with two nude male and female performers in a neutral lab setting. The sensual interplay between man-made objects and human flesh, realised through cinematic camerawork and an inorganic soundtrack, sets Soft Materials apart as the most accomplished film in the exhibition. Martin’s film becomes increasingly erotic as human fantasy blends with tough materials, capturing a naked man trailing a flexing robotic metal hand across the length of his muscular outstretched arm, brushing the hand across his face, its metal fingers touching his eyes, nose and mouth. Later a nude woman dances with a rotating device, mimicking its repetitive motion, perhaps in irony, as these objects in question are technological creations, and ones designed to mimic our own animal physicality.
Martin’s most recent film Sensorium Tests (2012) sees the artist return to a scientific theme by revolving around the neurological condition of ‘mirror-touch synaesthesia’, in which a cast of performers explore how sensations might be created and shared between objects. The film features a young woman undergoing repetitive testing, as she is physically ‘touched’ alongside a collection of household objects. Yet the objectives of this experiment, and Martin’s film in general, remains obscure. Although told, ‘don’t respond to anything despite physical contact’, close-up camera shots follow her eyes wandering around the room, distracted and seduced by images on the wall and the presence of other people around her. In many ways Sensorium Tests perfectly illustrates the general affect of experiencing Martin’s enigmatic films, allowing any primary, or narrative, content to be deferred in order to make way for alternative sensations, and thus allow the medium of film itself to be produced as a vehicle for ‘touching’ the subjective viewer.