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Barry Schwabsky on Daria Martin.

I HAVE TO ADMIT that the old-fashioned humanist in me was slightly shocked to realize that the "soft materials" referred to in the title of Daria Martin's 2004 film are, in fact, people. Sure, any film is a collaboration between at least one human being and one machine, a filmmaker and a camera. But Martin's title suggests that it's really the machine's point of view that dominates. Whereas most films (and not only conventional narrative features) encourage some form of identification whereby viewers can discern a human viewpoint behind the relation of the camera to its subjects--the camera becomes the eyes of the viewer for the length of the film--this one seems to look at its human protagonists with the same sort of distant yet eroticized curiosity they have for the eccentric machines that are their costars. Filmed in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich, Soft Materials shows a series of tender, tentative, strangely intimate interactions between two nude human performers (a man and a woman) and a number of robotic devices built by researchers with the aim of exploring what they call "embodied artificial intelligence"--machines that, in Martin's words, "learn to function through the experience of their physical bodies." Almost comically jerry-built--all duct tape, exposed joints, and wire--these exploratory contraptions, which have more in common with the inventions of Rebecca Horn than with the wonders of Star Wars, project vulnerability and equivocation. Their nudity exceeds that of the humans. They seem sensitive. And they elicit the same from their human partners: Machine and human mirror each other, anthropomorphism meeting mechanomorphism, and the result is a distinctive form of sensuality--perverse, vaguely disturbing, but endlessly fascinating--that literally embodies the Italian philosopher Mario Perniola's call for a new human able "to give oneself as a thing that feels and to take a thing that feels."

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The overt representation of this human/machine interaction in Soft Materials suggests a way of understanding the fascination with modernism that pervades Martin's work as something that goes beyond simple nostalgia or stylistic recapitulation. Soft Materials merely plays out before the camera the coupling of human and mechanical that the very act of filming puts into practice. In doing so, it also makes explicit something that was merely tacit in Martin's earlier work. Her first film, In the Palace (2000), served as her MFA thesis project at UCLA. "Before that," she explains, "I made video projection pieces that mimicked painting, and before that--was a painter," a background that still shows in Martin's eye for color, space, and tactile detail. In the Palace presents four performers (one male, three female) striking tableaux vivants in and around a scaled-up homemade version of the architectural structure of Alberto Giacometti's 1932 sculpture The Palace at 4 A.M. (a work that in reality is only about two feet high). Each sequence shows them in a different pose with different costumes and props, yet the shots seem to comprise a single, relentless circular motion around the performers. The postures are stagy and melodramatic, the costumes self-evidently hand-made; everything here is bathed in an atmosphere of charming unreality. It's all about playacting at being in another era--one embodied in "the theatrical gestures of the Bauhaus, George Platt Lynes's lush photographs of the American Ballet Theatre, the stylized choreography of the Ballets Russes, Martha Graham's Lamentation," as Martin enumerates some of her sources--which one simultaneously suspects of having been mostly playacting in the first place. At times the performers break their poses just before the end of a shot, as though the four were doing their best to mimic the facticity of a photographic still but running up against the limitations of their own endurance. The camera circles around them, coming in closer for a more intimate view, then pulling back to a more detached distance, while always maintaining a constant and therefore mechanistic circumambulatory pace, as if some purely scientific interest in these outlandish and comical creatures, these humans, were mixed with a more prurient fascination.

Likewise, in Martin's next film, Birds (2001), the camera methodically moves past a group of performers striking poses in a self-enclosed homemade world, this time a white studio filled with various abstract sculptural constructions: Living flesh meets Constructivist geometry. In Closeup Gallery (2003)--filmed in Los Angeles, it was completed after Martin's move to London in 2002--the human figure is no longer static like a model or a specimen but rather the active manipulator of things. A male prestidigitator performs a series of tricks using cards whose backs are blocks of primary colors--the kind of cards Mondrian might have used had he been a sleight-of-hand man--and a younger female assistant tries her hand at a few of the same. The table on which they work their feats turns out to be the top of a series of Plexiglas disks decorated with spray-painted geometric patterns that shift as the disks revolve at different speeds. The trickster's illusions segue into an homage to the anti-illusionistic aesthetic in which structure and process were meant (like Plexiglas) to be transparent.

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If the three works that preceded Soft Materials are structural in their self-reflexivity, thereby aligning themselves with the mechanistic pole of Martin's dyad, the two that she has made subsequently avail themselves of rudimentary narrative, drama, and even myth. Perhaps her work after Soft Materials is coming back around to a more conventionally human viewpoint--though not entirely. Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon (2004-2005), included in the current Tate Triennial, where it will have its UK premiere on April 2, observes a group of young men and women as they prepare for the peculiarly hybrid Olympic sporting event that involves running, swimming, shooting, horseback riding, and fencing, under the severe tutelage of an elder instructor (played by Rita Tushingham, the darling of the New British Cinema thanks to her appearances in such films as Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey [1961] and Richard Lester's The Knack ... and How to Get It [1965]). The strict movement of the camera in Martin's first two films and even its more fluid but still rigorously structured role in Closeup Gallery has been replaced by a more mercurial, meandering eye that darts around and caresses the athletes' bodies.

Wintergarden (2005) was made for and in England's first work of modernist public architecture, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex--a 1935 gem designed by emigres Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff--where it was shown last November through January. Wintergarden, which Martin describes as "loosely structured around the myth of Persephone's abduction by Hades into the underworld," begins with a seaside scene of young women being observed by an older one, but most of the action, such as it is, takes place inside the pavilion, and particularly around a sweeping spiral staircase whose structure seems to represent a sort of technological baroque. A young woman with climbing gear and bungee cords attempts to scale the skeletal metal structure without using the steps but keeps slipping until, after tremulously hanging there in a sort of Liebestod--in place of the erotic encounter between human and machine as in Soft Materials, it's an erotic encounter with machine-age architecture--she plunges from daylight into a nocturnal realm where she is tormented by sirenlike voices singing an expressionistic, operatic vocal score (mostly in German, and featuring snatches of Rilke) until she finally surrenders to their call and is helped down. What it means may be ambiguous, but what is clear is that the seduction by artifice and what Perniola has called "the sex appeal of the inorganic" remain central to Martin's vision.

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BARRY SCHWABSKY IS A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO ARTFORUM.
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Title Annotation:OPENINGS
Author:Schwabsky, Barry
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:1280
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