Curator’s Choice: Alex Farquharson on Brain Bug by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Alex Farquharson interviewed by Mark Sheerin Published: 04 February 2014

Curator’s Choice: Alex Farquharson on a monstrous, telepathic Brain Bug by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Black and white photo of a curator© Peter Anderson. Courtesy Nottingham Contemporary
“In the case of Brain Bug, presentation is quite minimal. It's a double-height space. Marvin's added a white floor which she does in that piece, with kind of red circular paintwork. It's also got a piece called Diorama. And that's it, plus some plants hanging from the ceiling, which casts a light.

All of that is to create an environment for Brain Bug that is animated in ‘low energy’ by a few performers on the inside to make it look alive. And by a full dance, with costume dancers, sometimes.

As the name suggests, at least part of the shape resembles a giant brain or possibly the end of a penis [laughs]. And it's main facial features bear quite a lot of resemblance to genitalia; it has quite an obscene orifice.

It actually looks a lot more obscene in its source, which is the film Starship Troopers. I've seen the relevant scenes on YouTube and the Brain Bug is this denizen of another planet that has telepathic powers and whose sustenance is essentially the brain of others, particularly it seems unsuspecting human visitors to this planet.

And the Brain Bug has a host of bug like warriors and is very much like the queen bee in a bee colony you know so everybody depends on but also protects this big thing.

In terms of a sculpture its framework is almost like a rudimentary tent. The original in the sci-fi film is very slimy and visceral, while this is made out of, I guess, cotton sheets and canvas and stuffing. It’s very improvised, like all of Marvin's sculptures and props and installations, and quite painterly, harking back to her training as a painter.

What the effect is, in these galleries, is to make the whole of that large gallery - which has a ceiling of eight metres - into a kind of nest, and that gallery has an equivalent of a shop storefront window. 

So really the piece is visible from outside and becomes a public artwork. Hopefully people looking in will have the impression that whole gallery is the Brain Bug's nest, its incubator, which I think is a great image.

The full performance I've not seen in person. Marvin presented it first at the New Museum [New York] as part of a show called Homemade Tasers and many of the performers are dancers. It’s what she calls the ‘high energy’ version of animating her work.

Like her performances in general, it moves between the very choreographed and the improvised-and-quite-chaotic. Which creates a movement from art to life, really, and that's characteristic of her work: that the work straddles the two, and art becomes a means of living better or in a more extraordinary manner.

Although you could draw parallels with something like the Happenings in the 60s, it draws from a popular history of performance going back to, say, Mummers plays in the medieval period or carnival from the medieval period and in that sense it's very democratic.

One can immediately get a large part of it, so you know much of our programme seeks to combine what is most innovative and perhaps even challenging with what is also speaking to the world and people’s experiences.

How serious is the work? I think there's superficial laughter, and there's a kind of laughter that's liberating. And I think with her work, one's laughing and one's very amused by something that is giving one a glimpse of a different way to live, a different society.

It’s like an eruption into normality, an eruption into the present and I think that's quite radical and serious. So in her work I would absolutely link what is fun and pleasurable and funny with what is also most radical and serious about it.”

  • Brain Bug can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary until March 23 2014. Open 10am-7pm (6pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free.

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