Carlton is a nine-minute conversation piece about an iconic bookcase, which stands in an empty gallery space. The Carlton bookcase was created in the 1980s by Memphis, the Milanese design group founded by Ettore Sottsass, a grandee of Italian design. With brightly-coloured, print laminate shelves branching out at comical angles, it reads more like a postmodern sculpture than a piece of functional furniture and it is typical of the group’s humorous ‘New Internationalist Style’ which was a reaction against ‘black box’ Bauhaus functionalism.
The filming style is very formal: the object has been meticulously lit and Martin uses slow, steady tracking shots, switching between close-ups and mid-shots. The camera travels over the unconventional planes of the bookcase, while a female narrator describes a brief history of Memphis, in the sort of conversational tone familiar from late night, culture review shows. She speculates on the living history of the bookshelf, once a beacon of radical aesthetics, of which ‘a mutated, post-modern gene survives’, which is now a casual talking point in, ‘a generalised environment of quote, reference and approximation a place of perpetual refurbishment and all-purpose vernacular. It is no place in particular, and everywhere we go.’
The critic Michael Bracewell has written:
There is a cold, forensic feel to the first few minutes of the film; no attempt is made to guide or coerce either our reading of the images or our expectation of where they might be leading. We hear some solid, establishing facts about Memphis design – including the fact that in 1989 [the fashion designer] Karl Lagerfeld envisaged his apartment in Monte Carlo to be kitted out entirely in the Memphis style. The commentary then pursues what might be termed the ‘diffusion effect’ of Memphis design, subsequent to the dissolution of the actual group in 1988. And thus the thesis begins to broaden: ‘People could be affected [by Memphis] without having to buy or own the objects.’
(Michael Bracewell, ‘Simon Martin’, Frieze, issue104, January–February 2007, p.181.)
Carlton was exhibited at Tate Britain in Tate Triennial: New British Art in 2006 in a dark room, projected to approximately 2.5 x 3.3 metres. Another video piece by Martin, Wednesday Afternoon 2005 (T12765), also appeared in the show. Martin trained at the Slade School of Art in London during 1985–9, and worked as a sculptor during the 1990s. Carlton and Wednesday Afternoon mark a shift in his work from making objects to making films which are concerned with the philosophical question of making and consuming art.
Both Carlton and Wednesday Afternoon are about the acts of looking and interpretation. In these films, the materiality of the object is subjugated to its historical context and cultural resonances, the role of the artist or creator in relation to the socio-cultural conditions of the time and, critically, the relationship of the viewer to the object. The narrator’s closing comments in Carlton, ‘What is the story to be told? What will make a better picture?’ prompt the viewer to reappraise the work of art, just as the Memphis group wanted to jolt their public out of their comfortable assumptions about what a bookshelf is.
Carlton was shot on 16mm colour film before being transferred to standard definition DV. It is exhibited as a continuous loop, without credits. Tate’s copy is the first in an edition of three.
Gair Boase, ‘Simon Martin’, Tate Triennial: New British Art, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006. p.92.
Colin Ledwith, You Have Not Been Honest: Contemporary Film and Video from the UK, exhibition catalogue, Museo d’Arte Donnagegina, Naples 2007, pp.64–5.
Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Simon Martin, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain, London 2008.