Capital Production Circle

Daria Martin‘Harpstrings And Lava’, 2007

Akin to Joseph Cornell’s boxed curiosities, open containers for his various obsessions, Daria Martin’s films meticulously assemble a selection of impulses, scholarly research and daydreams. Her early films were like shabby Gesamtkunstwerks, staging relationships between sculpture, performance, dance and music, to quote the idealism of Bauhaus-era attempts to combine art forms, engaging with past dialogues of aspiration and failure. Yet the exaggerated artifice of Martin’s DIY costumes draws attention to the fantasy world that her work assembles; hand-crafted sets comprise painted cardboard and Perspex (the artist has described her films as ‘magic acts that show how the trick is done’).

The reality behind the seductive illusion is always insisted upon, as is the romance of Modernism. In the Palace (2000), the first in a trilogy of short films, has a stage design derived from Alberto Giacometti’s 1932 sculpture, The Palace at 4am, slumbering forms apparently reanimating the Surrealist abstraction. Martin’s films are just as much about the creation and physical limitations of illusion as about the illusion itself. In deciding to work with film, despite having originally trained as a painter, she has chosen a medium in which the mechanics of illusion can be both teased out and concealed. Celluloid itself is, after all, only a trick of the light. The rest of the trilogy consisted of Birds (2001) and Closeup Gallery (2003).

In 2007, Outset facilitated the production of an ambitious short film, Harpstrings and Lava (2007), co-commissioned by S.M.A.K. (Ghent, Belgium) and Performa (New York, USA). The piece premiered at Performa 07, the second visual art performance biennial in New York. The source of inspiration for Martin was the recurring childhood nightmare of a friend, in which two opposing and incompatible forces – a stream of lava and the fine strings of a harp -, instead of creating resistance, coexisted with each other. In Harpstrings and Lava actress and dancer Nina Frog and experimental musician Zeena Parkins evoke the two elements, creating an intense performance. At the start of the film, the character of Parkins performs a series of unexplained rituals, rubbing firewood or whipping the sleeves of her dress, before starting to play the harp, in a De Chirico-esque setting. She is surrounded by classic, man-made architecture, a courtyard consisting of walls and archways. With her delicate play of the harp, she awakens the Frog, from a state of hibernation, in a dark cave full of objects. She curls up, grimaces, listens and groans as she tries to understand her surroundings and searches for food. The camera zooms in on the two characters alternately, highlighting the contrast between them. Gradually the two images merge together, with the moving images of the intertwined branches of a 300-year-old wisteria, as a link between the two worlds. The film ends when the two characters meet, creating a mysterious tension left for the viewer to dissect. Is the film a metaphor for the relationship between the mind and the body or does it have something to do with our own birth? It is exactly this uncertainty of Martin’s fairytale, built on the conjunction of two seemingly impossible ideas, that makes Harpstrings and Lava so powerful and a fascinating work of art.