Helen Marten was awarded the Turner Prize in 2016 for her enigmatic work in sculpture. Two years later, the artist noted a disconcerting lack in critical dialogue surrounding her work. Marten usually works across sculpture, painting, print-making, film and writing, but decided to temporarily vacate her studio for a year to solely focus on writing her first novel, ‘The Boiled in Between’, published by Prototype in 2020. Looking back on Marten’s Turner Prize winning works, displaying scenes in which “some unknown human activity has been interrupted”, it’s hard not to think of the many interruptions caused by the global pandemic. Marten’s novel operates in that same space of undoing, where meaning and certainty are in flux, like an open-ended sentence.
As a way to tackle the density of Marten’s prose, you could decide to look to the book’s unique set of reference points. You might find that the book is a close relative of ‘A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings Constructions’ (1977) — an influential book for architects, city-planners and anyone interested in organising a co-habitable space. You may also discover that Marten is interested in poetic voices — Modernist writers such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot — and absorbed by the spectral layout of ran-sacked cities, towns and villages, with all their neighbours, gloomy onlookers and silent interlocutors. You could find countless other connections to comment on throughout Marten’s novel, like the author’s interest in mixing colour, texture and foodstuffs with household objects and routine habits. None of these observations, however, will help when it comes to the task of interpreting the plot of Marten’s text — I’m still not sure what actually happened — but unearthing these sources is like opening a desk drawer full of carpentry tools. Each reference is an apparatus needed to fashion a novel that speaks to an interest in life, domesticity, bodies and neighbourhood watches.
The so-called plot of Marten’s novel flits between the perspective of two middle-aged people, Ethan and Patrice, and a third, more abstract narrative guided by the ‘Messrs.’, reminiscent of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but markedly replete of category. When it comes to making her enormous sculptures, comprised of both hand-crafted and found objects, there’s rarely any linearity to Marten’s thinking. Similarly, her writing process is much like beating ideas together and building connections where there are no obvious links to make. Marten’s prose reads like a tightly formulaic, yet troublingly disorganised repository of art-logical concepts and whimsy. Much like her sculptures, Marten’s writing relies on traditions of assemblage and collage as a way to communicate an unfinished thought, or to demonstrate the constructive logic that emerges out of inconstancy and confusion. Marten roots her novel in a foundation in flux, calling into question the true meaning of words: people can exchange hyperbole and metaphor as a recognised currency in this book. ‘The Boiled in Between’ aims to uncover how “the approximate details of subjective detail become fact”, or, put another way, how the world is limited by the trappings of language.
Marten’s visual work is characterised by an impulse to create pseudo-realities, fictional histories or sites of excavation. ‘The Boiled in Between’ shares this impulse. In the prologue to Marten’s novel, the Messrs. tell us that “windows and propped doors” and “snapped twigs pointing the way back” are preserved by time, just as Marten’s sculptures allude to various interruptions, unexpected incursions and visits. ’18 Works on Paper’, Marten’s solo show at Sadie Coles in London, is an exhibition of brightly coloured watercolours and pencil drawings; luminescent, sometimes mottled by dark splurges of paint, and at other times featuring the delicate but flattened anatomy of a poppy and a miscellany of other appliqué objects. These are “complicit agents of re-sampling: children’s drawing, historical diagram, contemporary theft, and more.” In one of the drawings, Marten depicts a sewage line decorated with “cut and paste” scissors, splicing through clumps of hair. Faces of farmyard animals float around and above the clogged up pipe-line. With inconsistencies in size, shape and content, Marten’s ’18 Works on Paper’ are like fragments of ‘The Boiled in Between’ — however it is crucial to note that, though the drawings were made during the same period and some are inspired by the same narrative as the book, they are an independent body of work. Marten’s detailed drawings and charismatic watercolours contain characters who are difficult to read.
In ‘The Boiled in Between’, characters live in a strange world interspersed by short affirmative statements about lifestyles: “The house is a big body, a macro mass”. Marten’s fictional characters talk lucidly about nomadic life, too: mapping, camping and sleeping on pillows of “creamy ricotta” beneath a “blanket of little gem with aioli”, for instance. Marten’s novel consistently returns to closed-off spaces, specifically households, but sometimes tents. The Messrs. tell us that the house “is like communication”, something we are either entered into or excluded from entirely. The revelations of Marten’s Messrs. call to mind the theories of anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote, “The opposition between the upper and lower part [of the house] reproduces within the space of the house the opposition set up between the inside and the outside.” ‘The Boiled in Between’ pays homage to the liminality between interior and exterior spaces. The Messrs. are permanently on the outside: they are not ‘in’ the story, as it were. Meanwhile, Patrice and Ethan contemplate touching and looking at their internal organs. Patrice jokingly remarks that the impulse to “poke fingers into indeterminate holes” should have its own “classification” within language. Ironically we, the reader, are always technically inside or in between the book’s pages.
‘The Boiled in Between’ is a remarkably innovative piece of writing that resists easy definition. It is unfathomably exciting to read. More than just a novel, ‘The Boiled in Between’ contains a network of ideas, thronging with personality and humour. The authors of ‘The Pattern Language’, one of the sources for Marten’s novel, described their seminal text as “a needle following a tapestry”: explosive and unpredictable at times, but always on a some desired path or course. The lifeblood of Marten’s novel pumps through the same vein. Marten leaves no stone unturned, covering subjects as expansive as life, death, flowers, sex and birds. ‘The Boiled in Between’ is important reading.