I once witnessed an artwork that went horribly wrong—to its benefit—and from that moment I’ve trained myself to think that every element of an exhibition or an artwork is a calculated decision. Calculated in the sense that it is meant to be there. It doesn’t make sense to me to wonder if a performer slipping in a performance was an accident or not, whether a chipped sculpture was just unknowingly mishandled or how things came to be as they are where they are. I must treat everything as a given. As such, it seems necessary to accept that Marianna Simnett’s exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum feels like two distinct shows packaged into one on purpose. In taking this rupture seriously, the question would then be, why? What does the two-in-one form do here? With the first body comprised of two works from 2016 and the second of four from 2019, a separation along the lines of the chronological is a start.
In the earlier works, which are unquestionably stronger, breathing takes a central role. ‘The Needle and the Larynx’ (2016) collages singing, scientific explanation, fable, recounted personal experience and dialogue from a minor medical procedure into one narration track that sits atop the visual of Simnett herself having Botox injected into her larynx by a voice surgeon. The aim of the procedure—which mirrors the fable within the narration, whereby a surgeon tells a girl who wants to lower her voice that ‘Girls must be high, and boys must be low’—is for Simnett to have her voice deepened. Questions of speech and gender come to the fore within the sterile cosmetic surrounds, Simnett herself pictured in slow motion―glassy-eyed and serene. ‘Faint with Light’ (2016) provides an immediate tonal shift. Through an audio track of increasingly laboured breathing and a plane of flashing fluorescent lights, the installation makes Simnett’s self-induced unconsciousness through hyperventilation intense and exceedingly dramatic.
This manipulation of the body is carried throughout the exhibition. While in the case of the earlier works it is a manipulation of the self, the latter works explore the influence of external control, with a sadistic crow who taunts a group of children in ‘The Bird Game’ (2019) and a feather-plucking swan in ‘Plucker’ (2019), who uncontrollably submits to the urge to remove its own feathers—a behavioural disorder often observed in depressed birds. Here, I’m reminded of an essay by CJ Hauser, which recounts the fable of the crane wife, a bird who tricks the man she loves into thinking she is a woman by plucking her own feathers every night, self-erasing in the process. With this interlocutor of the featherless swan (which, perhaps due to the awkward exhibition design, is quite literally a hinge between the works: you have to pass it three times to see the whole show), the two bodies of work begin to come together. In contrast to the image of a silenced woman in the earlier works, the sinisterly fantastical plot of ‘The Bird Game’ does the opposite. By having a bewitching female crow at the centre, Simnett references Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but goes behind the slumbering eyelids of the once sedate woman to put her squawking manifestation forward as the unbridled protagonist of the story. In doing so, Simnett weaves this narrative of renewed female agency across her two bodies of work; leaving any mention of the silent woman now caught, as it were, in the throat.