File Note 73: Simon Martin - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Isobel Harbison



 UR Feeling Images References Quote Biography Credits

 UR Feeling

Speaking of a photograph of a painting of a photograph of a young girl, Simon Martin once mused, ‘its physicality as a reproduction drew me in… as if it would somehow give up more the longer you stared at it.’1 The allure of a reproduction, what it might preserve or conceal beneath its surface lies at the heart of Martin’s investigations. At Camden Arts Centre this allure holds force across his diverse selection of exhibits. And when each one prompts our footsteps for a closer inspection, Martin seems to ask, what kind of physical or social encounter is this? How does it feel?

Martin’s exhibition represents the final part of a trilogy of works. The first two were videos, Carlton (2007) and Louis Ghost Chair (2011). Carlton explored how an illusive object might be caught in an image. It’s named after a peculiar looking postmodern bookshelf designed by iconic Italian collective Memphis in 1981. In Martin’s video a professional female voice-over ponders the unorthodox appeal of this unusual object, its glossy polychrome partitions all at odd angles to its shelves. Her monologue is accompanied by the low, slinky panning shots of an expensive advertisement so that we are not only seduced by the surface of this flashy object, but also the slickness of its image. ‘[Carlton] started from looking at a photo of it in a book’, Martin says, ‘a desire in some way to cross over into this image.’ 2 By contrast, Louis Ghost Chair scrutinises how an image might be reproduced within an object, historical aura as something congealing around a commodity over time. It’s evident in the transparent plastic version of the Louis XV chair recently redesigned by Philippe Starck and mass-produced by Kartell. The original’s silhouette retains its historical aura, a graceful posture that overpowers its new plastic frame. Later on, the bare wood of the original appears like an apparition. Other image-objects feature too, including a kitsch plastic gnome stool and a Donald Judd sculpture painted red because, in the minimalist’s words, ‘it’s the only colour that makes an object sharp.’3 Judd’s wooden box cradles an iron pipe so snugly it appears to be made from plastic. In contrast, the plastic stool is painted like a tree stump, as if jovially acknowledging its own faux-rigidity. These objects are affectations of other things, obscure furnishings that ward off our touch. So what do we see of them, when they‘re photographed once again? 

Here, in the gallery, Martin focuses on the magnetism of the canny reproduction and the space in which it exerts its pull. He has arranged for us a collection of items whose exterior we might somehow want to penetrate or otherwise get inside. The collection poses fewer questions about the material truth of individual pieces, but rather how we perceive their protean surfaces. Can a bookshelf show off? Can a colour point? Can a chair haunt? What is the impact of an object’s surface as opposed to the impression of its image? Do they affect us differently? Might they ever let you in?

Architect and critic, Charles Jencks speaks of ‘enigmatic signification’ in architecture, as an important counterpoint to the explicit, showy symbolism of ‘iconic buildings’ (the enormous fishy shape of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, for example).4 Jencks prefers architectural designs where the signification is implicit, where some patina is so deeply implanted that it requires cosmic intuition rather than formal recognition from those who pass through it. In conversation with the architect Peter Eisenman, Jencks discusses the latter’s urban scheme in the Spanish town Santiago de Compostela. The scheme was composed around the ley lines of the pilgrims’ historic pathways. These directives were left purposefully unsigned, Eisenman intending to muster or evoke some deeper ‘UR-feeling’, a description that Martin borrows for this exhibition title. ‘UR’ in Old High German means ‘thoroughly’, and it was also the name of a city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, at the mouth of the river Euphrates that was buried in silt around 2500 years ago. The UR-feeling then, must be an instinct that there is something interesting lying beneath the exterior of another. Martin suggests that walking around St Paul’s in London might evoke the UR-feeling. It’s an area that has been buried several times; burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and razed once again in World War II. Sir Christopher’s Wren’s cathedral is one of the longest standing landmarks in an area, and some of the medieval pathways of the old City have been tastefully maintained with good views of its famous dome. Over the years, numerous architectural masterplans to unify the area have been pitched and ditched largely because commercial demands for the City’s quick re-erection have overruled the space needed for its schematisation. In 1993, William Whitfield’s Paternoster Square was completed. On the north flank of  St Paul’s the Guardian newspaper’s architectural correspondent observed, ‘the odd bit of classical paste and some bizarre 1930s Italian fascist-style posturing help complete the look of this architectural fancy dress party.’5 But aside from its stylistic medley, the area presents a new social configuration. Its large piazza is now privately owned by Mitsubishi Estates who can legally prevent public entry at any time, recently enforced during Occupy London’s protests. Walking around this hotchpotch scheme is now done under the wary eye of security guards, so that one might justifiably UR-feel it’s a site of both historic entry and Orwellian alienation. 

A photograph by Stephen Shore, the renowned photographer whose compositions capture the clutter and asymmetry of daily life, allows a different kind of access. His intimate domestic portraits and uneventful street scenes became famous in his American road trip sequence, Uncommon Places from the mid-1970s. Martin includes one such work here, picturing the corner of a brownstone suburban street in Philadelphia. A tall tree grows from the concrete sidewalk at the composition’s centre, crooked and leafy and commanding our attention before the buildings’ density weighs in. Both this ‘fleeting moment and its concrete objectification’ are present here, and Martin includes it, because ‘you can turn inside his work, there is room for manoeuvre.’6 This image invites us in such a cool, airy way as to seem practically solicitous. 

In contrast to a photograph we might imagine climbing into, sits the sculpture of a chair we might once have climbed upon. ‘Chair’ (1965–2000) is by American artist Richard Artschwager who once said ‘I wanted to make a sculpture for the eye, and a painting for the touch.’ A furniture designer in the 1950s, he later immersed himself in abstract painting and then combined the two disciplines in his ‘sculptural objects’ from the early 1960s on, adopting the forms of domestic furniture and rendering their surface with the pared down symbolism of architectural motifs. ‘Chair’ is a blocky chair-sized structure laminated with the black and white photograph of a rustic wooden chair in corresponding aspects. We see the intricate wicker weave of its seat and back and its carefully hand-painted frame. The work challenges how we look at objects, how our perception is altered by their display. Its image pasted on Artschwager’s cubic prism, the original chair is no longer a mute support on which to sit. Its contours and craftsmanship come into full view. Similarly, the piece raises self-reflective questions about the complicity of museum display and sculptural impact. 

Martin will also include his own work. His photographs present the engine of a Toyota Prius Hybrid alongside bomb damage still evident on the paw of one of the bronze sphinxes at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle on Victoria Embankment in London. This engine is a curious hybrid of old mechanics and new technology. It is weirdly clean and suspiciously quiet when it runs; what is its secret? Like the shrapnel marks and holes in the sphinx, there is something dubious to its fabric. Its tempered form is smooth and far from that of its original — oily, noisy and lethal — so as to seem duplicitous. And what happens now, when Martin further reduces these discords, flattening and halting their progress in print? 

The exhibition is what Martin calls a ‘thinking through’ of what will eventually be a video work, the third part to his video trilogy. Moving from the allure of an object’s image, to the anomalies of an image-object, the third part questions how these two phenomena exert their pull, and in what kind of social space they might do so. Here in the gallery Martin’s think-through is our walk-through. Over ley lines old and new, footsteps tentatively following UR-feeling.


1 Dan Fox, ‘Simon Martin’, Frieze, Issue 113, March 2008; speaking on the subject of Gerhard Richter’s Betty (1988)

2 Artist in conversation with the author, summer 2012

3 Donald Judd, ‘Specific Objects’, originally published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965; quoted by Martin in Louis Ghost Chair (2011)

4 Charles Jencks, Iconic Building, Frances Lincoln; London, 2008

5 Jonathan Glancey, ‘It’s a Jumble Out There’, The Guardian, Monday 3 November 2003

6 Artist in conversation with the author, summer 2012

Ian Bogost Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to Be a Thing University of Minnesota Press (2012)

Vilém Flusser Towards a Philosophy of Photography Reaktion Books (2000)

Martin Heidegger ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ essay from Poetry Language Thought Harper Perennial Modern Classics (1975)

Mike Kelley Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism The MIT Press (2002)

Claus Oldenburg Notes in Hand Petersburg Press (1971)

David Robbins ‘Warm Science Fiction’ essay from The Velvet Grind JRP|Ringier (2006)

Peter York Modern Times Futura (1985)

 ‘They will feel in the alley-ways something, but it’s not quite medieval and it’s not quite modern. It’s something else. In other words, my whole idea of affect is that you experience some-thing, you feel something, you see something but you can’t quite explain it. It has an Ur-dimension to it.’ Peter Eisenman


Simon Martin (b. 1965, Cheshire, UK) studied at the Slade School of Fine Art (BA, 1989). Solo exhibitions include: Collective Gallery Edinburgh 2012; Kunstverein, Amsterdam (2010); Chisenhale Gallery, London (2008); Carl Freedman Gallery, London (2006); The Power Plant, Toronto (2006); and White Columns, New York (2005). Group exhibitions include: The Imaginary Museum (with Ed Atkins), Kunstverein Munich (2012); HOW TO LOOK AT EVERYTHING, The Common Guild, Glasgow (2012); Priority Moments, Herald Street, London (2011); and Tate Triennial, Tate, London (2006). The second film in Martin’s trilogy — Louis Ghost Chair (2012) — was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella. In 2008 he received a Paul Hamlyn Award and the following year was nominated for the Jarman Award. Martin’s work is in the Tate and Arts Council England collections. His films are distributed by LUX.


Isobel Harbison is a writer and curator and currently AHRC doctoral research scholar in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths, London.

Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation.