Marilyn Arsem at Transactions, Belfast, 3 May, 2018.

Marilyn Arsem, May 3, 2018

Sitting on a bench in front of the Castle Court shopping centre in Belfast, Arsem did some hand sewing.  At her feet two bags – one with bodies and heads of  soft toys she bought whole but dismembered, the other with  multitude of legs and arms. She selected a body and  attached other parts that did not belong to it, chosen by a fleeting desire or an idea or a chance.

The incongruous  whole  she defined as a test to what her observers might accept as normal.  “What is normal?” she asked. As a part  of  19th Cathedral Quarters Arts Festival this  collaborative event  organised by Bbeyond, Belfast  with Mobius Artists Group in Boston (USA), under the name   Transactions  (May 3 – 12, 2018)  was  supported by Arts Council of NI.

It would appear that it cherished this child’s taste, she tolerates the wilful destruction of the commercial norm of perfection.   She tolerates incongruency.

Passers by – Arsem told me – were surprised that she allowed and  welcomed free debate.

This accidental input was the shift in habitual barrier between an artist and the public.  Not just polite acceptance, but both that and confrontation.  Arsem worked for 6 hours, glasses on, steady hand with the needle, during the wet – luckily not too cold -afternoon.


What kind of transaction her performance became?  She made her original question physical.  Re-assembling together what did not belong together  until the moment of “transaction”  may appear too Duchampian, too divorced from ordinary life, too protected by theories and institutions.  And correctly so. However, using the “perfect toy”  and mutilating it by cutting pieces of is much more acidic.  It feels immediately wastefull, deliquent, unnecessary and bad.

However – the process of moving from an accepted norm  carries an expectation of another norm achieved by that change.  Jan Mukarovsky (1891–1975)  pointed out that  art fulfils , as well as violates, existing norms. The violations of the  norm, which arise from the foregrounding of some components of the work of art, ultimately have the potential to become new norms.

It may seem a forced link. Until the viewer either recalls the wonders the child is effortlessly capable to activate, or, as an  adult, takes care to connect this performance to its social context. Not just to the shopping centre which  relentlessly supports and exploits the same or similar taste; rather to  the political and economical context  Belfast  represents.  For long decades, groups of its citizens killed and maimed each other, burning shops and houses and cars,  making life difficult.  Why? Because of hatred and distrust while operating their take on  what is normal.   Admittedly – dismembering of toys is  too close to being illustrative.   And hits emotional reservoir, which this society exploits in full but  not to  fully to achieve the desirable, new  “normal”.

The toy above is a visual affirmation that bits that do not belong together can work together.   If only, every divided combatant society understood that stopping violence to each other  could be and must be the new normal.

I mentioned Mukarovsky in relation to a norm.  His view on the transparency of aesthetic function allows promiscuity of principles  making them safe by anchoring them in free thought.  Like  Schiller, he admits art as kingdom of freedom, as necessary for people controlled by old norms.  Indeed, not all old forms are ripe to be replaced or need to be.  However, the destructive ones  are, be it damage to people’s livelihood or nature at large.

It is in that sense that I find Arsem’s invitation to strangers to re-think their conviction about “the normal”  as embodying Joseph Beuys’s dream about social sculpture.  Selecting toys, she created the safety gap  for conflicting responses, and also a  safety net for any sign of courage to protect freedom.  Freedom needs courage -wrote Mallory- it was written in big letters above the gate of a London comprehensive in 1960s.  Yet – that generation of its pupils still left a lot for the subsequent generations. Hence the value and significance of Arsem’s question: “What is normal?”

Selecting toys and animals  has been  satirist’s preferred choice to tell the society where it goes seriously wrong.  I am not convinced Arsem focused on the satire.   She aimes  deeper, into our ability to invent change and sustain it.

Images courtesy Bbeyond ( Jordan Hutchings ?)


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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