30 Under 35 2019

Martine Syms Resets the Traditional Bounds of Identity

William J. Simmons

Photography by Aubrey Mayer

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Martine Syms photographed in 2018 near her Los Angeles home.

Martine Syms is perhaps best known for her interventions into new media that have profoundly changed the nature of the art-historical landscape. What is equally important is Syms’ role as a researcher and writer, as someone who brings the past, with all its complexities and paradoxes, into the present. Her Incense Sweaters & Ice, from 2017, for instance, is a simultaneously epic and intimate story that explores the contemporary resonances of the Great Migration. Syms takes this historical framework and adds complex layers of desire that show the impossibility of any unidirectional interpretation of the past. Syms says of the film, “In this case, I was curious about the relationship between cinema, Black women and movement. History bleeds out of everything.”

Installation view of “Martine Syms: Big Surprise,” September 16 – October 28, 2018 at Bridget Donahue.

In insisting on the multiple resonances of the past, Syms necessitates an expanded understanding of identity: “I’m often asked, required or demanded to take on multiple positions in life. These are the conditions, and given that, what do you do? How do you live? This is one of my animating questions.” These demands we might make of the art object itself—to speak to us plainly, to give up its meaning unequivocally to us. However, as Syms has explored throughout her work, art owes us no easy answers. Art and artists deserve to be as multifaceted as history itself, to ebb and flow without a predictable trajectory.