LONDON — Two things are true: Martine Syms likes both purple and words. As with her website and her publishing imprint Dominica, Syms’s exhibition Fact &Trouble at the Institute of Contemporary Arts is awash in the color purple: Royal purple C-stands, royal purple television monitors, and royal purple exhibition text. The color is weighted down with too many signifiers to list here but a few come to mind in viewing Syms’s work, including Caesar, United States military honors, and Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, which explores the lives and status of African American women in the 1930s South. With purple’s historic connotations of bravery and power, Syms recuperates the color and uses it as a signifier of female empowerment.
Be warned: this is not an easy exhibition to understand and the layers cloud each other. Many works have literary undertones and without a required reading list, the material can feel opaque. Syms found the exhibition’s title in Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir (2015), though the phrase is originally from the philosopher William James. In an interview with ICA Curator Matt Williams, Syms said, “I was thinking about a documentary impulse, the construction of an identity, one’s ‘real’ life, and the fluidity between these. ‘Fact and Trouble’ encapsulates the idea of troubling the truth or a kind of reality.”
The exhibition is divided between two somewhat spare rooms with the connecting hallway papered with a photomontage, “Misdirected Kiss” (2016), one of few works not initiated from a text. Sourced mainly from the internet, this mosaic of words, photographs, screen grabs, and video stills — of stage lights, collar bones, women dancing and cooking, girls linking arms — coalesces into a scrapbook and also forms a lecture Syms performed in conjunction with the exhibition. She calls the project a collection of “prosthetic memories,” moments that could belong to her but, like an artificial limb, are foreign to her body and self.
To the left of the hallway is Syms’s ongoing video work Lessons (2014– ). Inspired by Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012), a book of cultural criticism arguing that African American culture is American culture, Syms’s piece explores the book’s five lessons, or axioms, such as “struggle.” Syms has made a series of 30-second commercials for Young’s lessons, and once she completed the first five, she realized she needed more. Ultimately she plans to make 180; currently, there are 68. The commercials flip between two back-to-back monitors, so a lot of time is spent jumping back in forth between the two. These are not regular television commercials: In one, three small children play on the beach; another simply blares the words “Video is Feminine”; a third shows a Disney-like cartoon of a woman spinning in a circle. These feel like mini-movies, without any conclusion or reconciliation. Syms’s impulse to create more commercials implies there are more than five lessons; if African American culture is American culture, then it is diverse, undefined, and cannot be reduced to only five points.
A large text surrounding the monitors reads “Lightly, Slightly, Politely,” one word per wall. Syms found the phrase in Zora Neale Hurston’s slang glossary, a collection of terms used in 1930s Harlem. In the same interview with Williams, Syms said, “It means something done perfectly. It’s one way of being. It is one of the lessons. I thought it was a good framework for thinking about the idea of tradition and cultural inheritance.” But the words “Lightly, Slightly, Politely,” placed within the exhibition’s focus of “defining” black Americans, could also be a comment on the ways in which they, black women especially, are expected to behave and be in the United States. Aesthetically, “lightness” has long been asserted as superior, allowing for the possibility of racial passing, while “slightly” and “politely” could refer to the tenuous position black women have conventionally occupied in society, one that has been shaped by invisibility and disrespect.
In the other room, photographs clamped to C-stands in the installation More Than Some, Less Than Others (2014–2016) borrow images from Lessons, as well as from Syms’s earlier works, and are conceived as movie posters for each lesson. Syms has expressed her interest in building narratives that are continuous rather than progressive, which would redefine how we think of stories. By reusing images across works, temporal boundaries collapse into malleable fictions. So often we consider time in a linear progression, one thing always producing the next; but Syms’s remixing underscores just how difficult it is to completely leave the past in the past.
In the essay “Black Vernacular: Reading New Media,” Syms wonders how “prosthetic memories” function within collective identity. How can digital media reinforce fictions until stories become accepted truths? In her works, which constantly shuffle images and use words in ambiguous, multiple ways, there is never a single truth to grasp on. While Fact & Trouble is at time impenetrable, perhaps that is part of the point: identity construction and social structures are confusing, pliable, and at times arbitrary.
Martine Syms: Fact & Trouble continues at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH) through June 19.