Review: Marnie Edmiston's A Plant is a Plant

Marnie Edmiston, A Plant is a Plant
Metro Arts Exhibition Space
17 Aug - 3 Sept
Presented by FAKE Estate

Image credits: Courtesy Llewellyn Millhouse and FAKE Estate

Words by Olivia Scott

‘Surveillance’ is a theme well trodden across many creative fields. From the classic Orwellian studies of state surveillance that have been hyper-stimulated by the advancing data technologies of the information era, to more intimate and complex reflections on the implications of the self-surveillance of social media for our identity formation, perhaps the only thing rivalling the omnipresence of surveillance in the 21st century is the omnipresence of creative reactions to it.

There’s a bit of a genre rut around these discussions. Certain tropes have become ubiquitous and tonally there’s a real lack of variety, with works too frequently dealing in an anxiety, fear and self-seriousness that actually works to give power up to forces of surveillance just as much as they problematise them. ‘Surveillance Art’ is becoming consolidated into a de-radicalised aesthetic genre where the subject is in reality so complexly constituted in and through our daily lives that the artistic responses should in ideal be conceptually open and endlessly diverse.

Marnie Edmiston’s A Plant is a Plant (2016) is a refreshingly vibrant interruption amidst this staleness and creates a playful satire of surveillance that is both tonally and aesthetically updated.

Exhibited as part of local ARI FAKE Estate’s year-long residency with Metro Arts, A Plant is a Plant takes a step back to consider the absurdity of perpetual surveillance, the ridiculousness of the premise that every action or piece of information warrants intense scrutiny. Edmiston has taken over the small room at Metro Arts and reestablished the space as the site of a stake-out, a kind of spy’s lair. A giant microphone is directed out the window to give an intimate ear into Edward Street below, the sounds through to a listening device lying ceremoniously in the centre of the room. The surrounding walls are postered with sketches of floor plans and reference photos that scope out other, unknown rooms. While quite simple, this outfitting is nonetheless very effective in constructing the room as scene, not exhibition, and precipitates an interactivity with an audience that is firmly positioned in the role of the spy.

It is through this interaction that Edmiston slips the situation in absurdity. For, to listen through the microphone requires putting one’s ear to (what appear to be) two ceramic sweet potatoes, which themselves are positioned so as to force an awkward and oddly ritualistic body contortion to listen in. The effort most likely goes unrewarded, as most of the time the sweet potato yields only a banal soundscape of car horns, footsteps, and the incessant beeping of pedestrian traffic lights. Looking closely at the posters on the walls, each photo reveals itself as taken from a comically covert position behind house plants which obscure the frame. Consistently, the situation we have walked into is denied any seriousness, denied tension and drama, and instead only deals in accents of the ridiculous. We are positioned as the spy, yes, but we are the buffooning spy, the modern Inspector Clouseau, and through the repeated invocation of this crowd-favourite trope Edmiston nimbly subverts the power dynamics between seen and seer that underpin objectification in all its manifold forms.

The satirical strength of the installation overall is again enhanced by a couple of factors. Whether or not it was intentional, exhibiting the installation at Metro Arts was an excellent decision as it allowed the work to escape the temporal limitations that often accompany an ARI show (‘one night only’ shows that are as much events as they are exhibitions) and so more closely affect the constancy of surveillance that elicits the sense of banality and absurdity conceptually underpinning the work. Additionally, across the pieces a consistent aesthetic is established that is in line with current design trends, namely a warm and playful minimalism. So, for example, the sketches on the wall, or the small enamel engravings of inanimate objects are sharp but sweet and would not look out of place on the pages of a magazine or in a design concept store. This touch has the effect of bolstering the relevancy of the work and its messages of mundanity, as the installation becomes constituted as part of the aesthetic domains in which we operate in even the most quotidian moments of our day-to-day routines. We can walk away from the installation, but not from our own daily lives, and neither can the bored soul behind the binoculars.